Archive for Emotions

“Quality of Life” – Fact or Fiction?

“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?

Present Moment, Boundaries and Dying

I recently heard an interview with an animal communicator on the topic of “Peaceful Transition for Pets and Families”. She made such a clear and truthful statement about euthanasia to the effect of: people find it very hard to determine when to end their pet’s life.
 
When I heard that, I thought to myself, no wonder there is such a struggle. I can’t imagine contemplating that question. It is completely opposed to everything I believe as a human.
 
For me, in rehabbing senior horses that question never enters my mind. My entire focus is “How can I help you, the horse, to be fully alive today?”
 
Horses live in the present moment. They are masters. My goal is to be more like them. They don’t fret about the future and what might happen or not happen. When it actually arrives, then they deal with. Not before. That is how I kept my sanity during Maya’s 3 months of rehab.
 
Of all the senior horses I had rehabbed I knew there was a real possibility that her life would end with euthanasia simply because of all the medical intervention and management going on. However, I did not focus on trying to determine when I should end her life, but rather, I focused on the many holistic treatment options we had. Physically there were big challenges going on, and yet, emotionally she had such a bond with my other horse, no way was I ever going to cut that short by ending her life.
 
For three months on a daily basis we approached the present moment together. I’m not going lie. It became incredibly difficult. I cried often. At one point I handed it all over to God, I couldn’t do it on my own. Ironically the day after I did that the tide turned for the positive for about 2 weeks. Through all of this she was so content with her herd.
 
Then the day came that dying was now in the present moment. I didn’t need to go looking for it. It approached all on its own. Since it was now in the present moment, I would deal with it. At the time, I had no more tools that I was aware of to help Maya and her pain level was very high. The only tool the vet had was euthanasia. I had always thought there would be a way to make the animal comfortable, or at least take the edge off, and then they could die on their own, but that was not the case here. That was my line, and we reached it. In that present moment, I had clarity that it was ok to euthanize her.
 
Taking another being’s life still went against my values, so I began my research project on death, dying and pain management so my line for euthanasia could be even further away.
 
I share all of this because we all have our own boundaries based on our own values and beliefs. There is clarity at the boundary, and as we learn more that boundary can move.
 
One more time, I’d like to thank Maya. It was never my plan to be discussing this topic at such length, but that is where she has led me. For all of you with animals, let them lead the way. It is one incredible journey.

What’s Your Relationship With Pain?

Maya and her herd.

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.

Top 10 Things I Learned about Death and Dying

It’s been six months to the day since Maya died. She has given me the most thorough education on death and dying in horses. I had no idea what I was in for.
 
Here are the Top 10 Things she taught me about death and dying in horses:
 
1. I can be in pain and still be happy to be alive.
 
2. Just because I’m in pain does not mean I want to die.
 
3. No need to fix. After a horse has died, leave the body on the property for a couple days and allow access for the other herd members to do whatever they need to do. This will hugely benefit the natural grieving process for both the people and the animals.
 
4. Allow dying to happen on its own time frame. If a horse has not died yet, but is dying, support the dying process, but you do not need to expedite it. Why has an animal not died yet? You’ll have to ask them. They likely have unfinished business we are unaware of.
 
5. Just show up and be.
 
6. Educate yourself about what dying looks like. Then when you witness it, you’ll understand what is happening. When you understand, you can then be of service to the horse.
 
7. Massage, acupuncture points and Ttouch ear slides can be helpful. Massaging above the eyes can be helpful for managing pain holistically, even debilitating pain.
 
8. Aromatherapy with essential oils can be helpful. Lavender can have a calming effect. Frankincense can help with the transition process of dying. Flower essences on the tips of the ears is another helpful option.
 
9. Practice breathing, relaxing and feeling the ground. Practice allowing what is happening. If you believe in God, ask God to help you. You are holding space for a natural process. There is no need to fix it. This is the transition every being on earth will take at the end of their life. It is sacred, and every being’s process will be unique. By honoring their unique process, you are honoring them.
 
10. Find support ahead of time of people who share your views on death and dying, so when dying begins to take place, you will know who to call to support you in witnessing the dying process. You do not need to do this alone. Trust your instincts and your relationship with your horse, even if it differs from other people’s opinions. Give the best that you have. Nothing more and nothing less. This is love in action.
 
Thank you, Maya!

Death, Dying and Fear

2/18/19

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.

Dying Rituals In Wild Horses

2/12/19

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.

How wild horses deal with death and grief: A rare insight

Caretaking in horses

Chaco and Maya

2/3/19

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!

Illness and Happiness: They can co-exist

Maya and 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.

The Grief Recovery Handbook

Chaco and Maya

11/17/18

It has been a fascinating journey these past six weeks since Maya died, having many discussions about death and dying. What I found is that while I want to explore the topic and every nuance to it and think outside the box, people have different capacities to handle that conversation. I don’t force it, but rather look for who can engage with me in the conversation.

Years ago, when I experienced my first significant loss I was introduced to The Grief Recovery Handbook by John James and Russell Friedman. It has been instrumental for me in learning how to process grief whether it’s from losing a family member, a pet, or even the loss of a job or relationship. It has allowed me space to even want to take on the next senior horse, and not end up with a pile of unresolved grief from horse after horse dying.

What I realized about my other senior horse, Chaco, is that he is emotionally stable. He could handle being with Maya 24/7 in the weeks leading up to her death, and be fully aware that she was not well. He could handle her being in the dying process, just grazing in proximity to her but not hovering over her. When we moved Maya’s body the day after she died, he went out to her body and grazed close by. The next day when there was a significant stench, he still grazed in proximity to her body.

When I look at all of this, this is why I rehab senior horses, to see them fully alive, engaged with life and whatever comes their way, no matter how difficult. When I see what is possible in horses, it makes me want the same for myself. Thank you, Maya and Chaco. (Maya is on the right).

Do Horses Have Emotional Lives?

When I got back into horses as an adult, I volunteered for several years at an equine therapy program for at-risk youth and teens in drug and alcohol recovery.  The horses did a great job helping these kids learn how to make positive, healthy choices in their lives.

The horses were so good at it that I didn’t realize they had emotional needs themselves.  Yes, they had their basic physical needs met, like shelter, food and water, and they had some emotional needs met in that they lived in a herd and were not confined to a stall.  But I had no idea they had an emotional life of just being a horse that had nothing to do with the people they were helping.

When I took in Chaco, my first senior horse retiring from therapy work, he was burned out.  How did I know he was burned out?  He had always been a hard keeper, but it started to get even more difficult for him to maintain his weight.  But even more than that, he was also a docile horse that never bit or kicked.  When he started a pattern of biting people, that is when we knew he was burned out.

Knowing that physical and emotional needs are intertwined, I began with revamping his diet to optimize his nutrition on the physical side.  To attend to his emotional needs, I put him on acreage with space to move day and night in a herd.

As he became healthy and his curiosity returned, I realized that there was much more to his emotional life.  In his state of new health, I now had something to compare to when he had an off day.  If his demeanor was different on a particular day, I could look around and consider what changed in his environment that might affect him.

When one of his pasture mates died a few years later, his demeanor was visibly different for 2 weeks.  It was then that I realized this was an emotional issue, and it was on a scale I had never witnessed before in a horse.

This experience introduced me to flower essences  While his demeanor over the first week improved with the help of flower essences, he still wasn’t quite his usual self.

I tried to think of who might be able to lift his spirits.  My sister came to mind.  The first time they had met, they instantly hit it off.

When she came and spent the day with him, his eyes brightened and his curiosity returned.  It was a positive turning point for him in processing the loss of his horse friend.

The emotional lives of horses.  If it still seems outside your experience, spend time watching them and being around them where they are free to be themselves and you are not asking anything of them.

After years of observing and comparing different experiences, I can say that I have seen JOY in Chaco.  I have seen GRIEF in Chaco.  I have seen SADNESS in Chaco.  I have seen EXCITEMENT in Chaco.  I have seen FEAR in Chaco.  I have seen PANIC in Chaco.  I have seen ASTONISHMENT in Chaco.  I have seen APPRECIATION in Chaco.  I have seen CONTENTMENT in Chaco.

Today, if someone asked me if horses have emotional lives, I would say “Yes, absolutely, and it has much more depth than we realize.”

I’m sure there is still more to Chaco’s life as a horse that I will come to understand over time.  It’s like a great mystery novel.  I can’t put this book down.  It keeps getting better with every page turn.

100_1650

Contentment

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Appreciation

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Curiosity

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Excitement