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.

2 thoughts on “Top 10 Things I Learned from a Sick Horse”

  1. I have not had a relationship with a horse, but I have had many deep, satisfying relationships with cats and dogs, and been with them at their deaths. I have also been at the bedside of beloved humans as they died. Many years ago, after speaking with a friend who was persuaded that animals should be allowed to die naturally, I waited and waited for our little cat to die. I did everything I could to be present and supportive of her. She had kidney disease, and the upshot of that is that in the end, everything smells like poison: all food, all water. My beloved friend was dying of thirst, and that is a cruel death. Her eyes were drying out. Her mouth was so dry she could not cry. In nature, all my elderly animals–including this little cat, who was 17–would have died long since by being killed by predators–a cruel death, maybe, but quick. Or frozen to death, maybe a kinder way out. After all my experiences, I have come to a place of peace with euthanasia as one right way out of life. By domesticating animals, I believe, we have taken them out of the cycle of nature, which has its own cruelties and kindnesses. When humans are dying, old and in pain, we provide pain relief as best we can. That option is rarely available for our companion animals. I feel clear about the rightness of opening the doorway out of a cruel, lingering death which I put them in the position of experiencing by keeping them alive long past their natural lifespan. If I am fully present with my animal friend, I know when they are just waiting. Waiting to die, or feel better. When I already know the answer, and they don’t, it seems the last act of love to help them go sooner. Because of my human capacity to NOT be in the present moment always, but to see what’s coming up, I feel I may owe it to the animals who’ve given me so much, to reduce and shorten their pain. All that said, while I have mostly have found it feels right when the time comes, there may come a day where it does not feel right, and I will have to make another choice. I don’t think, either way, it’s likely ever to be easy.

    • Thank you, Virginia, for your thoughtful reply. Death, dying, suffering, pain, none of it is easy to witness and allow. Every animal and every human handles it differently. And how those experiences come to each of us and our animals is different as well. I have the upmost respect for anyone willing to traverse this area with their pets, no matter what they do.

      The one thing I refrain from is judging it. For me, the moment I judge something as “cruel”, I’ve disconnected from what is happening before me and what I am witnessing. There is a large continuum on how much pain, suffering and death I can handle witnessing and stay connected. My goal is not to get rid of it, but rather to embrace it to the best of my ability because it is a part of being alive.

      My focus with each of these horses is staying out of judgment and in connection with them. What I discovered is that what was worrying to me, was not to them. Thank God, literally, I didn’t go with my fears, nor the fears of the vet, for if I had, I would have euthanized, when in fact this horse wasn’t dying, but rather going through his own healing process. I had more people judge his appearance, saying he looked “terrible”, or “pathetic”, when the reality was he didn’t feel well, and he was taking care of himself. How horses take care of themselves is in contrast to how humans take care of themselves. We simply don’t fully understand what it means to be a horse from a horse’s point of view. All of these judgments say more about our human perspective than it does about the animal’s. Even when I wanted to turn away from his appearance, he was putting his bony hips in my hands wanting a massage. He didn’t care that he had dropped a lot of weight. I soon got over my fear of his appearance and started connecting with him, which was just as magical as when he was at a full weight.

      Regarding dying sooner in the wild, when it comes to wild horses, there are cases of horses not dying by a predator, and death taking days.
      I don’t see this as cruel especially when I read about the surrounding herd members holding space and saying their goodbyes until death actually occurs. I’m in awe that they too have the capability to do what humans do in hospice care. They neither prolong death nor speed it up. They allow it to take as long as it takes, and that will be unique to each being, human or animal. I want to be more like them in that ability.

      I also realize that I rehab senior horses in domestication, yet my purpose is to create an environment as close to what they would have out in nature. This includes living and dying, and letting them dictate their own lives as much a possible. What’s become clear to me is that I think about euthanizing when I reach my limit on what I can handle witnessing with the skills that I have. As my skills increase, euthanasia moves further away. The further away it moves, the more I am able to allow a horse’s own voice to be heard. So far, not one has asked to be euthanized, yet euthanasia still enters my mind because I reach the end of my skills and knowledge. That is my issue, not the horse’s. So I surround myself with people who have a lot of experience with death and hospice. Death is a normal process every being on earth will take at the end of their lives. With the horses, I want to support them in it.

      What’s interesting is that I may have a moment of “waiting for them to die,” when they are living and wondering why am I not engaged with them. When I realize this, I get back in the present moment and accept the gift that it is. I have no idea how long that gift will still be here, but I am determined to honor it as long as it is.

      In the human world, there is a lot of support for the family and the person dying in hospice. When it comes to our animals, many times, it’s just the owner, and that can be a difficult, lonely road to travel. The good news is that hospice for animals is growing and more options are becoming available.

      Thank you for the discussion. My hope is that more people will discuss these topics. There is much to learn from everyone’s experience and points of view, and death is a journey we will all take one day. Here’s to the animals that challenge us each in their own way.


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