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!

The Grief Recovery Handbook

Chaco and Maya


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).

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.

Pain Management and Euthanasia

Chaco and Maya


There’s a lot of information about the care and management of horses, however, when it comes to death and senior horses the primary word I stumble upon is euthanasia. I have always loved horses, but never wanted my own because I don’t kill things. I would enjoy other people’s horses, and as long as I never owned one, I’d never have to deal with euthanasia.

Then the first senior horse came needing help, and I knew I could help him. So for him, I decided I would deal with¬†euthanasia if I had to. It’s been 10 years now, and he’s still thriving.

Then the next senior horse came a handful of years later. With him too, I knew I could help him. So I decided that for just him, I would deal with euthanasia if I had to. Just shy of his fourth anniversary in retirement, he just laid down one day and died an instant, painless death from a ruptured aortic aneurysm.

Then Maya came. Of all the horses I have ever helped, she had the most internal problems that would most likely take her life if we couldn’t solve them in time. Euthanasia was a real possibility, however, I had hope and there were treatments to try. So I decided to take her on, and deal with euthanasia if and when the time came.

When Maya became septic and was in respiratory failure the last morning she was alive, my hope was that there would be a way to make her comfortable in the dying process, like they do with people. I soon found out that there is no palliative care for horses in this situation. I’d have to be giving hard core drugs possibly every thirty minutes possibly through the night just to manage the pain. And then the pain meds could stop working, and I’d have to find other ones. I’m not opposed to being up all night with a horse in the process of dying if I can make them comfortable. However, since that was not possible, and she was in severe pain, I decided to euthanize her.

When I look back on this, I really wanted the last decision to be her decision, to let her determine when her last breath would be. Yes, she was in pain, and yet, she did not want to go. And up until this point, I let her make most of the decisions.

Given the information I had at the time, I’m ok with the decision to euthanize her. However, I wonder if there are alternative treatments to euthanasia to make an animal more comfortable in the dying process. Is there any kind of bodywork that could take the edge off? I know there is with lower levels of pain, however, this was debilitating pain. And as I write this I recall the plant “bleeding heart” that is used for debilitating pain. Are there herbal options for pain management when dying? In addition, I know how people view this kind of pain, but I wonder how animals do.

At this point there are more questions than answers, but I have Maya to thank for putting the death/dying/euthanasia topic on the table.