It is extremely painful to lose a pet and especially hard to watch them struggle through their last days. This is arguably the most difficult thing to experience as a pet owner and it is usually a heartbreaking time for everyone involved.
As an owner, it is sometimes hard to know what to do to help your horse feel the most comfortable and cared for during this difficult time. The following suggestions are here to help you make your horse feel peaceful and loved during their last days.
1. Spend Time with Them
Your horse is used to hearing your voice and being around you. Spending time with it and speaking to it will bring it comfort and help it feel peaceful and safe. If your horse is too sick or tired to go out in the pasture, spend time with it in its stall. Singing, even if you are a terrible singer, can give the horse a sense of comfort and safety.
2. Maintain a Routine
Horses are animals of habit. They like to be fed at the same time every day with the same food so if they have an appetite, keep them on the same schedule. Try and maintain a simple exercise routine to keep them feeling good, but be careful to not push them too hard. Even a simple walk at the same time every day will help.
3. Consult a Vet
Consulting a vet in order to determine what course of action is best for your horse is crucial if you suspect that they may be on their last leg. The vet can often prescribe pain medication that will help your horse be more comfortable, and they can also help you decide whether or not it is best to euthanize the horse or let it pass on its own.
4. Surround it with Familiar Things
A dying horse will often feel anxiety and can feel confused if taken places they are not familiar with. Surrounding them with familiar people and taking them on walks to places they have been to before will help ease this anxiety and help give them a sense of security.
It can also be helpful to maintain their stall in whatever way they are accustomed. Adding new things to make it more comfortable may cause some anxiety.
5. Do Something Special
Little treats, extra hugs, or something to make their stall more comfortable will make your horse feel safe and loved. Just be there for them and try to make them feel extra loved during this time of transition. Horses can sense when they are going and it can be hard for them to let go or cope with that feeling, so being there during this time is important.
6. Take Your Horse for Walks
If they are not limited in their movement and still have the energy to get up and move around, take your horse on walks. This goes along with keeping a routine but will also help the joints from going stiff. Movement or any kind of exercise for the horse will help the blood flow and can help anxiety as well.
7. Remain Calm
This is a time of transition for your horse. They might be confused and in pain, but if you freak out and are constantly hovering over them it may make things worse. Animals are also able to sense emotion and if you are upset, this can cause your horse to become distressed. Try to be patient and loving in order to keep them calm.
8. Horse Hospice
If there are no geriatric or special needs, hospice care is a good option that can help your horse have a happy and peaceful ending to its physical life. Special needs in a horse would be something like arthritis, where it would need help standing or moving. However, for a horse that is old and just needs some extra care, hospice can help extend its life and quality of life.
The difficult part of hospice is redirecting the goal of treatment to the goal of comfort, which can be hard for some owners. Hospice can be provided by the owner or by another caregiver. However, generally, the horse will be more comfortable if provided by the owner. Even if you don’t have time to be with your horse 24/7, finding someone that can be with them for the majority of the time is important in helping the horse feel comfortable and loved during their last days.
9. Pain Medication
Pain medication prescribed by a vet can help your horse live its last days in peace. Pain medication is something that most older horses will need if they have stiff joints or other old-age symptoms and rather than euthanizing your horse because they have slight pain, pain medication will help prolong their life and make their last days happier.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are one of the most common over-the-counter medications for horses. These include bute, flunixin, and meloxicam. These drugs, if not used properly, can cause toxicity issues and lead to more pain and even colic in severe cases.
Other medications can be given by an injection from a vet, but these are generally worst-case scenarios. Even if you don’t need to resort to this form of medication, it is still important to contact your vet when your horse seems to be in pain.
10. Chiropractor Appointments
Horses can benefit a lot from chiropractor appointments, especially as they get older and frailer. The chiropractor can find places that have less range of motion or joints that are sore due to something being out of place and can help with mobility and quality of life for an aging horse.
Adjustments can help reduce inflammation and help with spinal joint neuromuscular motion but should not be expected to be a cure-all. After surgery, chiropractor appointments can be useful in helping to rehabilitate the horse, but will not reverse any damage that the horse may be dealing with.
For a dying horse, the chiropractor can help with stiff joints, severe neck and back pain, and help stimulate the nerves. These can all help your horse be comfortable in its last days.
11. Give it Time
Many horses are euthanized prematurely, potentially cutting years off of their life. Your veterinarian will be able to give insight into this, but unless the horse is in constant pain, euthanization is not necessarily the best option. Sometimes they just need time to let go and pass on their own, and supporting this, and not becoming overly concerned when they start to drop weight and isolate themselves will help them pass more peacefully.
12. Understand the Signs
This suggestion goes along with the previous one because, in order to let your horse pass on its own, it is important to understand the signs that they are letting go. In a way similar to humans, horses will lose their appetite even though they may still be bright-eyed and social. The body stops feeling the need to eat and drink as it prepares for death and because of this, the horse will lose weight and their withers and ribs may be very prominent.
Lack of movement, bloody or abnormal urine, difficulty standing up, and dropping food from their mouth are all signs of an aged horse that is getting closer to passing on. There are different signs if a horse is ill and sickness will need different treatment, but these are general signs of old age in a horse.
13. Essential Oil Use
This may be a surprising suggestion on this list, but essential oils can help relieve pain and calm the nerves of both you and your horse. It can be used simply as a smell but it can also be used topically to help relieve joint pain or surface wounds or bruising.
Some of the best essential oils for aging horses include chamomile, peppermint, fennel, lemongrass, and bergamot. Chamomile can help calm aggressive behavior in a horse that is in pain, and peppermint and fennel can help with gas and digestive issues. Bergamot can help with anxiety, and keeping the horse calm with lemongrass stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system.
If you suspect something is wrong, do not substitute essential oils for a vet. (Source)
14. Don’t Pressure Them to Eat
Horses will often lose the desire to eat when they are reaching their last few days and weeks, so in order to not stress them out, it is crucial that you do not force them to eat. They will definitely lose weight and may even look like they are starving so it is okay to see if their favorite treats will help them eat a bit, but don’t stress if they simply don’t eat.
15. Figure Out Post-Mortem Details
This suggestion is more for your benefit, but navigating this while you are not dealing with the loss of your horse will make the process go much more smoothly. There are lots of laws surrounding whether or not you can bury your horse so it is important to check those out if you are wanting to go that route. If the horse is euthanized, it is illegal to bury it anywhere because it can contaminate groundwater.
Cremation is also an option, with prices being determined by the weight of the horse. Some businesses will come to your property and cremate the horse there, so it is just important to weigh all your options and have everything figured out before your horse passes.
16. Create Photo Memories
Again, this is a suggestion geared more towards you and helping you cope with your loss after your horse passes on. More than likely you already have lots of pictures and photo memories with your horse but in case you don’t, try to capture a few good ones so you can have something to remember your pal by.
17. Be Present
Sometimes being present and there for your horse when they are dying can be difficult. However, a horse has a powerful bond with its owner and there is a lot of trust and love there. Being there as a rock for your horse is super important in order to help your horse feel comfortable and loved.
Don’t just abandon your horse during their time of need because it is hard to watch, make sure you are spending time with them.
18. Surround Them With Friends
This suggestion depends on your horse, as some will like to be social during their last days and some will prefer to be alone. Generally, since horses are pack animals, the other ones will be protective and supportive of a dying horse during its last days. Once the horse passes, it can be difficult for them to cope with that loss.
Looking into ways to help the other animals after your horse has passed can be a good use of your time since horses experience grief in a similar way to humans. If a sick or dying horse is taken out of the pasture to be put down, the other horses can often sense this and may start to freak out.
After the horse has passed, the other horses may be anti-social for a few days and may linger at the gate that their buddy was taken out of. It can help them to see the body, and massaging their kidney can help relieve the stress of seeing the body and help them cope with the death. (Source)
19. Preventative Care
For a horse dying of old age, this suggestion is not applicable. For horses who are sick and in a great amount of pain, it is important to consult a vet and see whether or not their condition can be treated or if the horse is in too much pain and needs to be put down.
Preventative care can look like vaccinations and good hygiene in cases of EHV, EPM, and many other diseases. Ensuring the pasture is clean and well maintained is also important for the health of the horses.