Horses are part of an ever growing industry, with over 600,000 horses in the UK, 1.4 million riders and 5 million people with an active interest in the equine industry*. Most people acquire a horse out of choice, so if you make this decision you should think carefully before going ahead. A horse needs lots of love and care, including regular worming, vaccinations and dental care. Owning a horse is time consuming and can be costly; not only will you will need to consider where you will keep your horse, you must also consider the ongoing costs of owning a horse which include accommodation, bedding, feed and healthcare.
In the unlikely event that your horse goes missing it is going to be very difficult for anyone to know who it belongs to, unless your horse carries some form of permanent identification. It is wise to get your horse microchipped or freezemarked, this will avoid heartache in the long run, should your horse go missing or is stolen.
Horses are herd animals, and thrive on being together with other horses. Don’t forget that your horse will need somewhere to graze, a stable for warmth in the winter time, a constant supply of water, feeding daily and regular exercise. It can cost hundreds of pounds a month to care for a horse, including accommodation, food, veterinary care and insurance; there will be other costs, including buying tack and rugs and extra livery charges when you go on holiday.
Horses can live into their thirties, over this time your horse will need lots of care and attention. Being able to provide all of this will ensure you and your horse make the most of your time together.
* Research conducted in 2004 by the Henley Centre for DEFRA and the British Horse Industry Confederation.
Euthanasia - saying goodbye
This is a very sensitive subject, but it is important for you to be aware of the reasons for euthanasia, the options available and the possible arrangements for disposal of the body. Learning about euthanasia now will enable you, should it become necessary, to say goodbye to your horse in a dignified and peaceful way.
What is euthanasia?
The word euthanasia has Greek origins: eu means 'good' and thanatos means 'death'. The aim of euthanasia is to provide a swift, painless death for our animals in order to end any unnecessary suffering. Euthanasia can be referred to in many ways, for example 'put down', 'put to sleep' and 'destroy'. It is essential that you understand that your horse will die as a result of euthanasia.
When is euthanasia necessary?
The quality of your horse's life will always have been of your highest priority. When horses become very old or ill, their quality of life deteriorates, and it is understandable to want to protect your horse from pain or suffering. Euthanasia should be considered if your horse:
- Is suffering from untreatable pain.
- Has such severe heart and/or lung disease that it is unable to breathe properly.
- Is no longer able to eat or drink normally.
- Cannot empty its bowels or bladder without pain, or is incontinent.
- Is unable to stand or move normally.
- Has become blind and is at risk of injuring itself.
- Is ill, and the emotional or financial demands of caring for it are more than you can manage.
How is euthanasia performed?
There are two methods of euthanasia: injection of an overdose of drugs and use of a gun.
The horse may first be given a sedative injection to calm it. A drug is injected via a catheter inserted into a vein and induces a rapid and pain-free death. Your horse will fall down and very quickly lose all consciousness and the ability to feel pain or fear. Another injection may be required to stop its heart.
Your horse may make some gasps during the procedure and this can be distressing for you to see. But be reassured - these are only natural reflexes and your horse will already be dead when they occur.
This method is not appropriate for all horses, especially those that do not like injections ('needle shy'). The body of a horse euthanased in this way cannot be disposed of by processing (eg through a slaughterhouse or hunt kennels) and this will substantially increases the costs of disposal.
Use of a gun
Your horse may be given a sedative to calm it. Then, the muzzle of the gun is placed below the forelock. The bullet passes into the brain, resulting in instantaneous death. There is a loud noise as the gun goes off, and your horse will fall very suddenly to the ground, possibly with some bleeding from the nose. The horse will not hear or feel anything. Occasionally, your horse's limbs will continue to move when it is on the ground but these are normal reflexes after death.
The body of a horse euthanased in this way can be disposed of by processing.
Should I be there at the end?
You should discuss with your vet in advance whether you wish to be with your horse at the end. Your horse may be less nervous if familiar people are with it when the vet arrives. However, if you are frightened or anxious, your horse may sense this and become nervous. Do not feel embarrassed or guilty if you do not wish to be present. Euthanasia of a horse, particularly when a gun is used, can be distressing to observers.
Who decides that the time is right for euthanasia?
Your vet will be able to advise you on the options for euthanasia and will answer any questions you may have, but he/she will not make the decision to choose euthanasia for you. It is usually possible to have some time to make the decision and it may be helpful to discuss the situation with your family or other horse owners who perhaps have already experienced this situation. If your horse is insured and its death will lead to a claim, it is very important to inform the insurance company that euthanasia is being considered and get their agreement beforehand.
What happens to the body?
There are several options for disposal of your horse's body but these depend on the method of euthanasia used. Whichever option for disposal you choose, it is usually better to have all the arrangements made in advance (or, perhaps better still, to ask someone to make them for you) as it is normal to feel unable to make such decisions while you are grieving for your horse.
The body can only be sent for processing by a slaughterhouse or hunt kennels if the method of euthanasia was by shooting. When lethal injection is used, the drug levels in the horse's body remain very high and it is not safe to be processed in this way. Your vet will have all the appropriate details and will probably make all the arrangements on your behalf. There is still a cost involved with this method of disposal but it is considerably less than for cremation.
This is an increasingly popular option although is it very expensive. Your vet will be able to provide you with details, and will probably be able to make all the necessary arrangements for you.
Unfortunately, this is not a very realistic option because burial is limited to specific sites by law and is controlled by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food. The Environment Agency also should be consulted with regard to appropriate sites.