Top 10 Things I Learned from a Sick Horse

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.

Off Leash Horses?

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.

The beginning of our “off leash” walk for the bay.
Holding the halter for me on his back – just in case I need it.

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.”

Straddling a ditch sans halter and enjoying the plants.

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.

They navigated this obstacle all on their own, picking the tree branch up with their heads and letting it slide down their backs.  Definitely sans halter for this so it wouldn’t get caught on the branch.

“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?

The Body Language of Dying


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.

Reflections on Death, Dying and Euthanasia

Chaco and Maya


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.

Death, Dying and Fear


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


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


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!

Death and Dying in Wild Horses

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.”

The Rest State and Dying




One of the things that bothered me about euthanizing Maya, was that she did not want to go. If I let her make the call, she would have died on her own. I’ve known many people who have euthanized their animals when the animal “told” them it was time. I had never heard of the opposite happening, until it happened with Maya.

In my research so far, what I’ve learned is that when she was in pain and no veterinary medication could help it, she was in the sympathetic nervous system state. That is the fight or flight.

Then I read about someone’s experience massaging above the eyes of a horse in a similar situation. She was able to slow the horse’s respiratory rate; the horse stopped thrashing around and closed his eyes. What I find fascinating about this is that she was able to help the horse move from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system (which is the rest state).

Thank you, Donna, for the tips about the acupressure points, and thank you Ellen for the suggestion of Lavender essential oil for a calming effect. What’s coming into focus for me is that while veterinary medicine could provide euthanasia, it could not provide the transition to the rest state in the dying process for Maya. What gives me hope is that through natural remedies that transition is possible.

Every death is unique and has its own set of circumstances, and there are no guarantees. Would I have still euthanized Maya? Perhaps. But I now have more tools to even try helping a horse to come to a rest state before they take their last breath.

From my martial arts training, it is in the rest state that there are a myriad of options that are not known to the rational brain. There is great hope there. Thank you, Maya, for allowing me to discover that.