I just had a realization from talking to people who have euthanized their pets at the end of their lives that the way they knew it was time was the pet stopped eating, or there was a change in their eyes or demeanor, for example. Then when I talk to people whose elderly parents had died, they described similar signs that their parent was slowing down in the last year of their life, or two weeks before they died something changed in their demeanor or in their eyes, or they don’t eat very much, and when death is days away eating can stop all together since the body no longer needs sustenance for living.
What’s interesting to me about all these signs is that they are signs of their life on this earth coming to a close. Death is approaching, and this is what the dying process can look like. It doesn’t necessarily mean that death needs to be expedited and done right now, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to die right now. Rather, it is a natural process every living body, whether animal or human, will take at the end of their life.
Then I realized, no wonder I’ve never had an animal tell me it was “time” because when I see these signs I see them as information that the natural process of death is approaching, not a sign for me to need to expedite the death and dying process.
The act of horses holding space for one of their own when in pain or dying has become a familiar scene for me thanks to Maya and the educational journey she sent me on regarding how horses handle death, dying and pain. While as humans we want to fix it, myself included, we can not underestimate the power of just being with someone, human or animal, when there is nothing that can be done except just be there. It is the most helpless feeling I’ve ever felt while loving them at the same time.
Maya has been sending me on all sorts of tangents on the death, dying, euthanasia and grief topics, from holistic medicine, to traditional western medicine, to wild horses, to horses in domestication, to pain, pain management in people, in animals, hospice, palliative care, etc. Have I left anything out? My biggest curiosity is what do people or animals do to handle the situation when there is no fix and pain is involved.
It has been a fascinating exploration, and what I’ve come to realize is that there is no one answer, and everyone is different. When I really delve into these topics I come to the core of who I am and what I believe about God, life and death. When I go there, I realize that I don’t need to make euthanasia part of my value system.
My whole goal in rehabbing senior horses is to discover who they are, and to support them in being fully alive. And when their death comes, to support them in that natural process as well. I do not need to fix “death”, nor do I need to expedite it. But what is possible is to hold that sacred space for the transition all beings will take all on their own at the end of their life on earth, both animal and human.
To let go of judgment of what death should look like and how fast it should be, and how much pain should or shouldn’t be there, and instead embrace what is before me, no matter how difficult. I do not need to force that last breath in the name of pain management, but rather, breathe with them holding that space as they take their last breath when their body determines. I also have many more holistic tools to assist in witnessing the dying process than I did when I chose to euthanize Maya. Do I ever want to be in that situation again? Absolutely not. However, when it arrives for each senior horse in my care, I will be there holding that space and listening for as long as needed.
Thank you, Maya, for giving me an education I never wanted to have on death, dying and euthanasia. It would have been much easier to never have horses and avoid this topic all together. But you keep asking me to expand my boundaries of what is possible, and how much love and listening is humanly possible even in the most dire of circumstances. It hurts like hell, but it most definitely makes me a more compassionate and understanding human being.
In the words of Temple Grandin, “animals make us human”. Love to you Maya.
More wonderful information on what the process of dying in people and animals looks like. This part particularly stood out to me:
“Fear of making our beloved horse friend suffer in pain is the number one concern haunting us and causing us to euthanize. What is overlooked when we are so preoccupied with this noble concern is that many animals would rather be in pain than no longer be alive. We probably all know humans who are in considerable pain, yet that does not automatically mean they want to die right away. Indeed, it is often the witnessing observer who is suffering the most.
If we can let go of our preconceived notions of what a life still worth living ought to look like, of how quickly dying ought to be happening … if we can let go of all of that and more, it brings us closer to perceiving what the animal’s preference is.”
Here’s the full article.
Maya continues to peak my curiosity. In my research on death and dying in horses, I have found very little information on palliative care. It seems the only palliative care is euthanasia. (Only in alternative/holistic medicine have I found any sort of palliative care that I could adapt for pain management in a horse). Unless the dying process is quick and immediate, or not witnessed by humans, then euthanasia very often enters in, especially if there is pain involved.
All of this is understandable, however, what I’ve learned from rehabbing senior horses for the past 10 years is that they have their own experience of the world, and I’m sure they have their own experience of death and dying, which is a normal process everyone, people and animals will go through at the end of their life. Since our western culture has an aversion to pain and the process of dying, it is uncommon for horses to go through their own process of dying and there is very little literature on it.
So I turned to the human world and found the article below. What I find fascinating is the different points in the dying process that can be hard on the people witnessing the death. I can definitely relate to that from my experience with Maya. Just being aware of these things before being in the moment of witnessing a dying process is hugely beneficial.
Witnessing Maya’s death was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and yet I would do it again in a second. Thank you, Maya for continuing my education.
Thanks to Maya, I continue to research death and dying in horses, wild horses in particular. From my experience with domestic horses, I know horses have their own rituals when it comes to death and dying if they are allowed the time and space for it. I was thrilled to find this article on one person’s experience of death and dying in wild horses.
When I look back on Maya’s short time with me, I want to take a moment and acknowledge Chaco, my first rehab case who came to me 10 years ago. He was on his last legs and on the verge of being put down by his previous owner. When he came to me, we changed everything from diet/nutrition, living environment, exercise, etc. Today at 36 he is healthy, doing well, and still the leader of his herd.
When Maya came last summer they instantly hit it off. When her health took a significant dive in August, it was Chaco who was with her every moment of every day and night. I made daily trips to take care of her, and that soon became twice a day, and the last week she was alive it was three times per day. What strikes me is that Chaco was never not with her in some way. I know what a toll it took on me. I wonder what effect it had on him. It gave me great comfort that he was with her when I was not there.
The week she died I offered her free choice herbs that were anti-inflammatory and pain relieving. She did one sniff and a tiny lick, but it was Chaco who ate them like candy. Those same herbs today in the dead of winter, when I would think Chaco might want some for himself (being a senior horse that might get a little stiff in the dead of winter), he isn’t interested. It gets me thinking, did he have a symbiotic relationship with Maya, and took them on her behalf? Just something I keep in the back of my mind. Maybe one day I will know the answer.
After I euthanized Maya, her body remained on the property for 3 days due to logistics. Today, I am so grateful for that because it was three days of Chaco still choosing to be by her side even in death. Whenever I arrived on the property, I always found him in proximity of her, even when there was a stench. The morning Maya’s body was picked up just before daybreak, Chaco stood at attention, facing what was happening. Within moments her body was gone. He resumed eating. I never heard him call for her, like I have seen happen with other surviving horses after the death of a horse. My guess is that he knew she was dead, and he knew she was gone, and I didn’t hide anything from him – even her body being picked up.
Here’s to Chaco and the amazing gift of himself to Maya and being there for her every moment of every day. A calm, steady rock who created a level of security and companionship for Maya. What more could one want. Thank you, Chaco!
Maya is ever the teacher. When I began rehabbing senior horses over 10 years ago it began with addressing physical needs, which in turn helped the emotional needs of the horse. I wasn’t as aware of the emotional needs of a horse when I first started, but each horse that came to me opened my eyes a little further to the emotional lives of horses. Soon the emotional well-being had equal value to their physical well-being when I went about rehabbing a senior horse.
With Maya, it strikes me, this juxtaposition: she was sick and she was happy. Those two things can co-exist. On a physical level, she deteriorated over the long-term. On an emotional level, she hit the jackpot when she became instant friends with my other senior horse.
I understand why people euthanize animals when they do, and why the previous owner was going to euthanize her. Taking care of a sick horse is no easy task, and that’s an understatement. I would never do it, unless I was called by God to do it. Then it’s all hands on deck, which was my experience with Maya. I couldn’t solve her physical health issues before she died, but I could give her an environment where she was happy.
In my ideal world I would be able to give her both emotional and physical well-being. But we don’t live in an ideal world. In fact, it can be rather messy at times. It’s in those moments of mess where I ask myself, what do I have to offer? All I had was myself and the little oasis for retired senior horses free to come and go as they pleased. For Maya, that is what she wanted. Her instant bond with my other horse, Chaco carried her right through to the end. On an emotional level for her, I couldn’t have planned it better myself.
I find the behavior of wild horses regarding the death of their horse friends fascinating. There’s a wonderful facebook page called “Chasing Horses” that follows a herd of wild horses in the Dakotas. Here’s an excerpt from a post about one of the wild horses (named Wind Canyon) that had injured himself, unable to stand. Death was inevitable. The park that manages the herd decided to euthanize him. His body was removed from the park simply because if it became part of the food chain, the euthanasia drugs in his body could kill other animals. While it’s understandable why this was done, there are also ramifications for the surviving wild horses, especially the one named Trooper, who was Wind Canyon’s friend. Here’s an excerpt from the post below.
“We did find the area where Wind Canyon last laid filled with piles of horse poop everywhere. My opinion, and again, just my opinion, this is Troopers way of letting Wind Canyon know, should he return to this area, that he has been there and is looking for him. Understand that Trooper doesn’t understand that Wind Canyon has been removed from the park. He just knows his buddy is missing. I did see a photo that someone took of Trooper today and you can clearly see that he is looking for his old buddy.”