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.”
“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.
Thank you to Jenny Pearce for posting this on her blog to reach even more people. Jenny has added some commentary and resources for help in dealing with death and dying. My favorite sentence she added is: “It’s my experience that death can be beautiful.” Thank you, Jenny.
Read on for more incredible insights.
Thank you everyone to the tremendous response to my last post, The Top 10 Things I Learned about Death and Dying from Maya. What prompted my 6 month research project on death and dying in horses is that when Maya was dying, she did not at any time indicate to me that she wanted to die. In fact, it was the opposite. Her desire to live was so strong I had never witnessed anything like it. It completely contradicted everything I had ever heard about pain and horses, which was: If they were in pain then it was time to euthanize them. Maya clearly did not get that memo.
What I’ve realized is that we all, both humans and animals, have our own relationship with pain and how we handle it. Many times our own experience of pain gets projected onto the animal. Knowing ourselves, how we experience pain, and how we handle witnessing pain in others is so important. It allows us to separate ourselves from our animals. It let’s them be their own unique being with their own unique experience. When those boundaries are clear, we have a chance at beginning to understand what the animal has to say.
In the over 10 years I’ve spent rehabbing senior horses, the longer I do it, the more I realize that animals really do have their own thing going on in their own experience of the world. Discovering that world is what keeps me coming back for more.
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.