The Many Faces of Equine Euthanasia

By Kim Hallin

Did you know that “euthanasia” is a Greek term meaning “good death”?  Unfortunately, in today’s world the subject has grown into one that is generally considered to be very unpleasant.

The truth of the matter is this: euthanasia is a responsibility that every horse owner should take seriously. It is also a task we all must be prepared to do… but only when the time is right.

In keeping with the original meaning of the term, the ultimate deciding factor should be whether euthanasia is the only option that can provide prompt relief from otherwise unnecessary and/or extended suffering.  As the custodians of precious equine lives we have the responsibility to take compassionate action when it’s warranted, but we also have the responsibility to know that euthanasia should never be viewed as the “easy out”.


Over the years I’ve had ample opportunity to witness the many faces of equine euthanasia.  Sadly, many of them aren’t friendly and I believe this is why the subject is so frequently avoided. Although it is never easy, when euthanasia is done in the right way and for the right reasons, everyone ends up at peace in the end. However, when it’s done in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons, our horses are not the only victims. In such instances, the humans involved are often left feeling guilty and/or carrying regrets.

I think the best way to ensure that more horse owners make the right choices about euthanasia is to be honest about our motivations.  In other words, which face is behind our decision?

  1. Compassion – when the horse’s quality of life is unrecoverable or the pain and discomfort of treatment would require undue suffering, it is our responsibility to usher our equine partner humanely onward to his/her eternal rest.  Compassion is the most pleasant and righteous face of euthanasia, and when we step forth courageously with this face, it can be a beautiful final gift.
  2. Desperation – when an owner feels he/she has no other choice, this less pleasant face can sometimes step forward.  For example, an owner may fear that his/her horse’s injury or illness is beyond repair, or that the horse is sure to end up in a worse situation if sold, donated, given away, etc. – even when this is not necessarily true.  Fear can lead to a premature decision about euthanasia, especially when an owner feels overwhelmed and wears the face of desperation.
  3. Self-Interest – when an owner chooses to sell a horse for slaughter ($$) or to have it euthanized simply as a way to avoid the responsibilities and costs of general upkeep and daily care, the unpleasant face of self-interest has stepped forward.  This type of motivation for euthanasia is most likely to emerge with horses that have chronic (but not debilitating) illnesses or injuries and require extra care or money to manage.
  4. Denial – when an owner puts off humane euthanasia longer then he/she should due to an unhealthy emotional attachment/dependence, this ugly face has stepped forward.  When an owner actively chooses NOT to euthanize (and instead to keep his/her horse alive even after all quality of life is gone), it means the human’s self-interest is at the forefront rather than the wellbeing of the horse.
  5. Ignorance – when an owner chooses not to even consider humane euthanasia because of a lack of personal knowledge and/or awareness, this face is driving the decision.  If we don’t take the time to prepare and educate ourselves in advance about the options for humane euthanasia and disposal, the outcome can be devastating, especially for our horses.
  6. Avoidance – when an owner chooses not to euthanize (even when the time comes) simply because he/she can’t afford it, this nasty face is the culprit.

So what can we do to ensure that compassion is the face we wear even when faced with complicated factors and difficult decisions for our horses?  Here are some suggestions:

Start putting your action plan and resources together now – before the time comes.  And don’t be afraid to ask yourself some hard questions, including:

  1. How will I know when the time has come to put my horse down?  What signs will I be looking for?
  2. What if there is no opportunity or time to call the vet?  What are my other options and who might be available to help me?
  3. If the vet is able to administer the drugs, do I want to be present and, if not, who can be there with/for my horse?
  4. What are my legal options for disposal?
  5. How much money do I need to set aside to cover both the euthanasia and the burial/cremation/disposal?

Do some research and make a list of re-homing options (in case of emergency) for any of your horses that still have a good quality of life.

Remember that many injured or older horses can still make great pasture buddies or babysitters, might be great additions for equine therapy programs, can become animals-in-residence at nursing homes/farms, or can be placed in equine retirement programs/facilities, etc.  Just because a horse is not “rideable” does not mean his life has no value or that he has no further way to be of service in the world.

Make a list of friends or family members who might take responsibility and could provide good care for some or all of your horses if something happens to you.  Talk to them about their willingness to help in an emergency.

Consider designating funds for the ongoing care of your horses in your will or estate plans.  Having funding available to offset the costs might make it possible for someone you trust to take on your horse(s) without over burdening themselves financially.

With a little planning, it’s not hard to ensure that we all wear the face of compassion when making decisions about euthanasia, thus upholding the true meaning of the word.  Below are some additional resources to make this responsibility easier:

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