Rehabbing senior horses have some glorious moments and some challenging moments. Witnessing another being in pain or not feeling well, can be incredibly challenging for a human caretaker. It’s easy to want to try and control it or run and hide from it. Finding the path down the middle, of embracing the present moment and all that it has to offer is the silver lining of connection for me. It is one of the most real experiences of life I’ve ever been a part of.
Thanks to the senior horses I have cared for in some challenging times, here are:
The Top 10 Things I Learned from a Sick Horse:
1. I am not a horse. I am a human. I have human capabilities and limitations.
2. Horses are masters at holding space for sick herd members. They don’t just do this for a few minutes. They do it every moment of every day. This is where it helps to remember that I am not a horse. I need to sleep at night. They can sleep standing up and still hold space.
3. Horses are much bigger than I am. Their expression of pain can exceed my capability to witness it. It is ok to excuse myself if it gets too big for me to witness.
4. My first job is to take care of myself. It is only then that I can even begin to offer support to the horse.
5. A sick horse does not need me to crowd them. They do not need me to spend every moment with them. It’s ok to let the horse be.
6. Keep horses in a herd in wide open space, preferably with as few human constructs as possible. What are human constructs? Anything man-made: fences, posts, barns, feeders, etc. It is easy for a sick horse to injure themselves in tight quarters or with human constructs. Wide open space is the safest place for a horse to be able to take care of themselves when they don’t feel well.
7. Provide food, water, shelter and horse friends. Let them decide if they want to eat, drink or take shelter. They know better than we do what they need to heal.
8. Not eating very much or stopping eating is not the end of the world. It is simply information. Losing weight is not necessarily painful. Not eating very much is the body putting all of its energy toward healing and not toward digesting a lot of food. If the eating stops completely for a few days, the body is simply preparing to die.
9. Sometimes standing in the rain is a comforting place to be. Tucking themselves into a grove a trees can also provide comfort. Resist the temptation to control them. Allow them to make their own choices.
10. Observe. Observe. Observe. Horses are masters at taking care of themselves. Allow a sick horse do what they need to do to take care of themselves. If they are preparing to die, let them do that too.
It was a year ago at this time that this lovely lady, Maya, started her dying process. It alarmed me and took me to the edge of my capabilities at that time of witnessing pain and death in another being, so I euthanized her, not because she asked me to, but because I didn’t know what else to do. She has taught me so much since her death, and when I asked her today what she wanted me to say, here’s what came to me.
“We all live. We all die. Allow us to live. Allow us to die. You do not need to expedite our death. Our body already knows how to die. Let us have those dying moments. So much happens there that you cannot see, but only feel.
If we want something from you, we will let you know, but first you need to know what dying looks like and the natural shut-down process the body goes through. If we stop eating or drinking or start losing weight, we are preparing to go. If this is new to you, it can be alarming. It is easy for fear to take over. That is why it’s important to be educated on what dying looks like. Then you can distinguish between what is normal when dying, and what is us asking something of you.
When in doubt, observe, relax, breathe, feel and embrace what is happening. I know this is a tall order, but it’s where you can connect more deeply to us in our moment of passing from this world to the next. You do not need to fix it, nor make it go faster. It takes as long as it takes.
Some deaths are quiet and peaceful, others are dramatic with a lot of energy. A lot of energy does not automatically equate to being painful, but it can be disconcerting to the observer. If pain is involved, ask us how you can help. Do not assume we want you to euthanize us to get rid of the pain. All living beings are capable of feeling many emotions at the same time. Do not let pain blind you to all of who we are in that moment. We are multi-faceted and complex. We are more than just the experience of pain.
The biggest gift you can give us is to hold the space for our last moments on earth and listen to us. What we have to say may surprise you. You do not need to “figure anything out”, but rather, breathe, relax, feel and let nature take its course. It is called dying. It is normal. It is ok to witness it and allow it to happen. If we need something from you, we will tell you. Every being on earth will take this journey at the end of their life. Let us too.”
I had the most amazing experience with a dog owner taking his dogs on an hour-long walk through the neighborhood and countryside, completely off leash. He never called or yelled their names. If there was ever danger, it was simply a quiet whistle and the dogs were back. Once the danger was passed, the dogs were back to exploring and being dogs. To my delight, the dogs didn’t care about me. There were busy exploring their environment.
This experience got me thinking about “off leash” walks with horses. Why not?
For the past several years, I’ve experimented with finding place on the walks with my horses where I felt comfortable putting the lead rope over their back, or letting them graze a particular spot, or letting them initiate on when to turn around and walk back home. Over time I began to see their patterns: where they liked to go, where they liked to stop, what neighboring horses they wanted to visit.
A few years ago I noticed for the first time that my horse would position himself so I was on the wrong side of his head to put on his halter before we would go for a walk. Rather than correct him, I stopped and observed. It was in that observation one day when it hit me, “You want to go out without a halter!”
My gosh, how long had he been trying to get through to me? Lucky for him, he did. Then I thought to myself, “What can I do to let him know that I heard him?” Rather than put the halter on, I decided to let him out into the yard without one, and we’d take a walk at another time.
Fast forward a few years, now we regularly take walks down a quiet road and trail “off leash”. I put a halter on the lower ranking herd member and take her for a walk and leave the gate open so my horse can follow if he wishes. Being a herd animal, he always wants to come. Sometimes, he’ll delay and get a few more bites of grass and then come trotting or cantering to catch up to us. He’s even straddled a ditch for several minutes while eating the woodland buffet of plants before him before heading further down the trail.
Recently a car came down our quiet road, and he was completely free, no halter or lead rope of any kind. He was grazing on the shoulder, and I walked down the road toward him with a low, calm voice, letting him know everything is fine, and he could stay just where he was. He turned his head and looked at me with relaxation right as the car was approaching and about to pass. Every fiber in my body was completely relaxed and trusting of him, and every fiber in his body was the same. Just after the car past, he resumed eating. His energy never came up, but rather it was just a question from a calm place: “Anything you need me to do?” “Nope, just stay right where you are.”
It’s these interactions where he is completely free to do as he wishes that inspire me. How much more is there to learn about being a horse from a horse if I can find more ways to stop doing what I’ve been taught and allow him to show me what he is capable of? I never tire of this exploration of the wonders of how God made the horse.
It’s been 11 years since I took in my first senior horse, Chaco, who cribbed 24/7. At the time, I didn’t know if it was possible to “cure” cribbing. Yet, instinctively I knew that his living environment and diet had something to do with why he cribbed.
In the past few years, his cribbing has ceased completely. I don’t remember the last time he cribbed. I also have never fed him treats of any kind, not even apples or carrots because they could trigger him to crib instantaneously.
Recently, one afternoon I let him out loose on the property, and when I went to bring him in, I found him hanging out under a tree. It was a little out of the ordinary, so I went to see what he was up to. To my surprise, he was helping himself to crab apples that had fallen on the ground. They were quite small and bite size, and he could easily pick one up, and it would disappear into his mouth effortlessly.
I was so thrilled that he was healthy enough to handle eating an apple he found, and it didn’t cause him to crib.
Yes, it is possible to “cure” a cribbing horse. Adjust the diet and living environment to more closely mimic the wild and the cribbing will disappear. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it is a special moment, years later when the one thing that could get him to crib instantly no longer has any power.
While I have no intention of feeding him apples, I’m thrilled that he has found his own treats on occasion, and he can simply enjoy them. It’s a wonderful day!
This is the most comprehensive article I’ve ever read on the subject on why some horses crib and what can be done. The Horse Journal ceased publications in 2014, so I’ve posted the article here in hopes that it can help others who have horses that crib.
This is my favorite quote from the article, “If you want the recipe to produce a cribber, it’s: early weaning, a high concentrate/low forage diet, infrequent feedings, social isolation, and a stall environment.”
“In selfless service three horses give
Each day the price they pay to live
Until one day a woman came
And offered to take away their pain
In pastures green they recover awhile
While their hearts remember to smile
Until they are called to heaven on high
Where their soul remembers how to fly” –Kim McElroy
I have a lovely celebration to share. I commissioned equine artist, Kim McElroy to paint a portrait of the 3 senior horses I have rehabbed, Maya being the third. She just finished it, and it is beyond my wildest expectations. I love how she captured the relationship between Chaco and Maya, and then Thunder, the palomino “in the clouds” watching over, as he died 3 years ago. Working with her to create the portrait was a wonderful experience. Here it is, some words from Kim, and a few photos of her studio where she created it. Thank you, Kim. It is stunning!
From the artist:
“Mary contacted me to have me create a portrait of an angel horse named Thunder whom she had rescued a few years before. He had spent 27 years as a 4-H lesson horse and a therapy horse, but had become unhappy in his work. As he recovered in Mary’s pasture with another horse named Chaco, he taught her many valuable lessons, including the joy of just being in nature. The co-facilitators of this lesson were two special moths which you will find hidden in the painting.
As Mary waited for her turn on my portrait waiting list, my husband became ill with cancer so her portrait was delayed. In the intervening years, she rescued another mare named Maya. Maya and Chaco instantly bonded, and for the short time that Maya lived she and Chaco created an earthly paradise together.
When Mary told me this story, I knew that all three horses had to be in the portrait, and when she showed me the photo of Maya and Chaco with the shadow on Chaco’s shoulder, I knew why. To me, the shadow is like the spirit of Thunder, present with his herd mates. Now Maya has joined him in spirit. Mary’s loving dedication has made this possible. Please support Mary’s non-profit www.SeniorHorseRehab.com.”
If you would like your own copy of the artwork, click here.
If you would like to commission artist, Kim McElroy to paint a portrait, click here.
“Quality of life” is another common phrase we all hear regarding end of life decisions for our animals. The idea is that when quality of life changes and is deemed poor then it is time to euthanize.
Here’s where this idea does not resonate with me. Determining “quality of life” is a judgment by the human about another being. When I judge I am operating from my personal experience, education, beliefs as a human. I close the door to any input that might give a different perspective, including the horse’s. Yet, when I rehab senior horses I’m always looking for ways to stop judging them and start listening to what they have to say.
Here’s another problem. Many times I hear of people deciding to euthanize their animal when they stop eating. Who said the animal is unhappy? Stopping eating is simply the body in the process of shutting down. There’s no need to eat anymore to live if you are preparing to die.
What about the animal whose demeanor changes? Many times people decide to euthanize right there because the animal just doesn’t seem to be as happy. Is that the case, or perhaps the animal knows their death is approaching and they are allowing it and preparing for it? Sometimes in humans a few weeks before death their demeanor changes too. Their life force is simply getting ready to leave this world. That’s not a crisis that needs to be expedited. It’s simply a reality that animals know how to allow, and we can too.
Animals are so connected to the natural world, and death is the final chapter of life on earth for everyone, people and animals. What would happen if we allowed it when it approaches, when there’s nothing further we can do? It is in allowing death to occur that we are supporting the natural life of the animal to its very end. What a gift we can give them.
It is not easy, and takes tremendous courage as the caretaker to allow an animal autonomy in this very last chapter called death and dying.
I’m always looking for ways to give the senior horses in my care more autonomy. Maya really challenged me on how far I could go in allowing her autonomy. I went as far as I could at the time, and that is all we are ever asked to do. My question now becomes, how much more autonomy can I give the next horse now that I’ve learned even more?
In the flurry of activity of the past few days, I was asked the following question: “How do you respond when someone believes that as caretakers of animals we are responsible to ensure that the animal doesn’t suffer pain any longer than is absolutely necessary when death is inevitable?”
Here are my thoughts, and I share this not to make everyone think like me, but to simply offer the perspective I have come to through experience. I encourage everyone to search inside themselves for what resonates with them, even if it differs from me.
And here is the lovely lady who has given me the courage to speak my truth. Thank you, Maya!
1. I don’t ever try to convince someone otherwise of their own beliefs. Instead, I educate myself on why something does not resonate with me.
It does not resonate with me that death is the solution to pain. Here are two of my favorite articles that speak to this: https://spiritsintransition.org/leaving-life-rhythm-nature/
https://guardianangelhospice.com/medical/the-last-few-days/. There are also additional resources on our resource page.
It is in the human world and hospice care that I found the most information about managing pain and dying. Hospice workers deal with it all the time and do not have the adverse reaction society typically does when it comes to animals, pain and death.
2. I can also say that my experience with Maya really was the worst of the worst pain experience while dying. There was no gray area. It was intense, and at the time, I did reach the limit of what I could handle, so I did euthanize her.
However, if I really listened to her she knew all hell was breaking loose, but she did not want to die. She just wanted me to show up and be. In fact, all of her surrounding herd members were simply holding space for her. No one was freaking out.
For humans, it’s the fear of pain, and the fear of witnessing pain that is a huge trigger. To actually have the courage to go into this area and not hold it away, and not make it go away by euthanizing immediately will reap a huge reward–the ability to truly listen and be present with another being in their moment of transition from this world to the next.
3. When it comes to rehabbing senior horses my only goal is to listen to them. What they say goes. My goal is not to “get rid of pain at all costs”. For some people their goal is “no pain”, and if that’s the primary goal, then I understand why they euthanize so quickly.
We are both operating from different value systems. In the end, we all do the best we can. My only purpose in sharing my experience is so that people know there are many ways to handle death and dying, and this is the way that resonates with me.