It's been a tough year. The only animal who hasn't needed a vet visit in the last nine months is the cat, Shoyu. Infected wounds, lameness, and preventive care has been the majority of it, but there have been more than one visit for euthanasia. In February we put down my 14 year old dog and in May I put down my mighty mare, Stella Dora. I'm finally ready to talk about it- not just what happened, but all of the complicated choices. Regret, shame and selfishness permeate my decisions even as I'm certain that they were the right ones. I know that others in similar positions feel the same, but we rarely talk about the meaning behind our choices and only then in quiet corners of our network. I wonder what stories others tell themselves and how they deal with all the woulda/coulda/shouldas. Here's how I think about mine. At least the story that I want the world to know.
I knew in early April- April 4th to be exact- that I might never see the world through her ears ever again. All of the therapies and months of warm box stall weren't working. She kept getting worse. That day was the epicenter of my 2023 life-quake. The tsunami of grief spread out from there gaining momentum and power until it crashed upon the shore of my farm on May 2nd, just 24 hours after bringing her home from 3.5 months of rehab. It was the day before her 14th birthday. I texted the vet, pleading with her to drop everything, and come as soon as she could. She did. We had spent six months trying to figure out and fix whatever Stella did out on pasture in October 2022, but our efforts were for naught. She was laid to rest on a gorgeous Montana spring day full of green grass, carrots, apples and my deepest gratitude for making eventing fun. My mighty mare and shining star deserved another 14 years.
I wish that I could tell you exactly what happened, but I don't really know. In October 2022, just two weeks after our first 2* and a week after a wild 13 mile foxhunt, I left for holiday in Canada. When I got home, she was lame. Not the "oh my GOD, call the vet on a Sunday night lame, but like "let's wait and see" lame. The best I can figure is that some acute trauma happened out in pasture over the top of chronic arthritis in her front foot. We had been dealing with an arthritic front right since she was 7 (she wasn't even started under saddle until she was almost 6 years old) and more recently some minor hock arthritis. I thought she'd have all winter to recover and then start her new role as Momma in spring of 2023. I had even picked out and paid for her baby daddy. She was supposed to retire to lessons and teaching the youngsters. In the end, none of the exams- ultrasounds, x-rays, blocking- could tell us exactly what happened. Progressively over 6 months, her tendons and ligaments destabilized, and we all know that horses can't exist 3 legged. It's the strangest thing, because up to that point, one of my greatest life beliefs was in the body's ability to heal. It was unimaginable that she wouldn't eventually recover, even if it wasn't to the upper levels we had recently achieved.
Should I have braved the Montana winter passes and taken her 5 hours to WSU Veterinary School for a $5,000 MRI? Yea, maybe an exact diagnosis early on would have saved her life, but maybe not too. There in lies the number one regret, and regret is at the heart of what I want to talk about alongside shame and selfishness. How are you supposed to feel when your back is against the wall and you have to make the most impossible of impossible decisions? Who do you tell? Who do you not tell? What are the private considerations that nobody talks about? The reaction of my equestrian community has gifted me the security to tell Stella's Story, so here it is. May it aid you in your quest for the "right decision" that doesn't exist. May it grant you the permission to do what is right for you and your family and your future, and not only what is right for the horse.
THE PROBLEMS THAT EUTHANASIA BRING UP
I've always been a pretty conservative horse owner when it came to lamenesses. In college and early in my career it was because I couldn't afford an unexpected, superfluous vet bill, but there was also an inherent distrust in veterinary practice. Too many times I had spent hundreds of dollars to find nothing and do nothing differently. Today I ask every vet with a recommendation, "how will the diagnosis change our course of treatments." A surprising number of times, the answer is "it won't". We'll do the same thing whether we know exactly what it is or we don't. This is the core belief that I was operating under when I first found Stella's lameness in the fall of 2022, but after what transpired this belief has been challenged. Would she still be alive today if I had rushed to find an exact diagnosis? I could have scheduled an MRI before the mountain passes were impassable, gotten her into rehab before the mounds of ice manure made it worse, and maybe she would be expecting a foal next spring. But then again...the lameness wasn't that bad at first, and it was on legs with known problems.
Here in lies a first world, modern problem. There are more and more diagnostic procedures available to more horse owners around the country, but they aren't perfect and the expenses add up fast if you have to do more than one. The ultimate question is "where do you start and where do you stop?" I have many clients who have searched years and spent tens of thousands to find an exacting diagnosis and I REALLY admire that, but those diagnoses often come with ambiguity. And let's face it, most of us are not made of money. We barely get by doing a few clinics and shows a year. We shop smart and cut a few corners where we feel comfortable. We ALL do this. Even the client that starts her consult with "I'll do anything to help this horse" has a boundary somewhere for time and money.
Those woulda/coulda/shouldas get louder as time passes. You go over, and over, and then back over what would have happened if you had done that at x time. You could have done this differently to have y result, or maybe you should have spent z amount of money to win the war you didn't know that you were waging. All of this repetition lays tracks in your brain that eventually convince you that x, y, or z would have saved her life. There's no good answer to this, because we don't know the true outcomes of an alternative choice. Will my experience with Stella change what I do next time? Yes. But I'm never going to change into a "all diagnostic options at any cost" horse owner either.
First off, making the decision to euthanize an animal is a completely dramatic role reversal. For however many years, you've been exerting a titanic amount of energy to keep your horse as happy and comfortable as possible. And then what? You just stop? It's so unnatural! Even when you know in the most rational part of your brain that it's right and everyone tells you so, making that switch from devoted care giver to life-releaser is like that feeling at 3am when your body is screaming at the strangeness of it. Actually, it's that 3am feeling times 10.
Another really disgusting thing about equine euthanasia is what to do with the body! My God, why aren't there more options? In Stella's situation, I was extremely lucky to have my own place in the country where it was legal to bury her. If nothing else, I feel that the rehab money was worth it, just so that I could bury her at home after the ground had thawed. But, I've been in less than ideal positions before. When my 34 year old Morgan cross pony passed I was living in a rental in Central Washington. My options were 1) rendering (which to be honest, I'm not 100% sure what that means and I just don't want to know), 2) pay the vet clinic to trailer him to the dump, or 3) send him on a meat truck. Are you kidding me!?!?! These were the first options for my golden pony who took me to my C3, started my eventing career, and taught dozens of kids how to ride confidently!?! What a horrible ending for a noble companion. Luckily, I was able to find and pay a modest fee for him to be put down and buried on a farm about 2 hours away. Bless the people and the farms that take on this task.
I reread my last paragraph and realize that I'm laying judgement on a part of euthanasia after the horse is gone. What I'm honestly trying to do is give myself and others the space to make whatever decision is best for you. Maybe time, money, and other responsibilities makes rendering or the dump the better option. Alright, I reverse my judgement, but can we all collectively get pissed off that these are our options?
Our equestrian pursuits do not exist in a vacuum. Our brains do not transition from barn life to home life as we ride the proverbial elevator between them like the characters of Apple TV's "Severance" (It won 2 Emmy Awards in 2022). I make this statement, because I'm aware of a cultural pressure that ignores this overlap. The overriding message from our equestrian culture is "spend all of your time and money considering the horse first and only then are you a good and proper horse owner". It's an "everything at all cost" mindset message that I do not subscribe to. My horses live in balance with my marriage, work, family, friends, and other ambitions.
Here in lies the crux of what I want to say. Sometimes euthanasia comes as a relief. Putting Stella down was the best decision for my family, my future, my farm and my finances. Caring for a lame horse for the rest of her life wasn't in the cards for me. I realize that some people can do it mentally and financially, but I can't. It's not fair to my marriage or my life goals. You can unfriend me for being selfish, but it's the truth, and I think that it's the truth for many of us as hard as it is to admit. There is a stage of life that we all prefer. Some owners love nurturing the broodmares and raising the babies. Some love the thrill of mature horses in their prime. Still others love to devote their time and energy to the retirees. I am certainly the adrenaline junkie who hungers to meet a horses potential.
I know amateurs who board one horse with all of their resources, and they can't board two. What do you do when your identity and life goals revolve around the goals of riding (doesn't even have to be competition). One has to go for another to exist. Or what about the professional with limited number of stalls. Do they keep that unridable horse around paying for all of its expenses for another 10-15 years? Do they send it down the road to a retirement situation to be someone else's problem? Or do they euthanize it? It's a personal decision, and I do NOT pass judgement on the final outcome.
Sometimes an animal's passing feels like a gift. My family talks about my brother's dog, Piper, in this way. My brother was going through a very tough stretch in his life where he was changing jobs, moving across the country, and expecting a baby! Piper had been his companion through his entire career through many ups and downs. Unexpectedly she developed a heart condition and went downhill quickly. She was laid to rest the day that he started his drive to his new life. It was agonizing, but in retrospect, we talk about how she "gifted" him the space to focus and prioritize his new life and family. I've heard multiple stories from others that parallel Piper's story.
Out of all the memories that I have of her, the one I keep thinking about the most is the weight of her foot in my hand. Maybe because it’s the part that fell apart or maybe because picking up a horses foot consumes all of your senses. The smell of soil and shavings, the feel of familiar bumps, the visual scan for irregularities and the awareness of each other. When I think about her today I feel the surge of power as she left the startbox and the cadence of her walk when riding bareback. I miss her steady trudge as the babies throw fits behind her at our local trailhead. Stella Doro gifted me the world when she was alive and in her death. I will forever be grateful to her.
Again, I tell my story so that others in all the infinite number of scenarios can have greater freedom in their own choices. The loss of a beloved pet is excruciating, and we need permission to talk about it with our communities to facilitate healing. At first I was afraid of backlash about my decisions, but all that I want to say on this topic is that I've been blown away by the emotional support I've gotten from my horse community. So, don't be afraid to talk about all of it. It's cathartic.