Months ago, I was with a horsey* friend that received a call that one of the horses (I’ll call him Elliott) at a local barn was having difficulty. His owner was in Maine for a big horse show and was unable to get home. Naturally, we immediately went over there to see what we could do. When we arrived, it didn’t take long to spot which horse was in need.
Secluded in a paddock at the outer edges of the property, Elliott was so malnourished that every rib was visible and he barely had the strength to keep his head up. If you’ve ever been around horses you know that their eyes hold all the information you could ever need.
Elliott’s eyes were empty.
His eyes were blank, like a foreclosed home that had been left long ago. Elliott’s breathing was labored and I can only imagine how long he had been standing in that spot – ankle deep in mud. The noise he made as he sucked in air is something I will never forget. Each pause breaths lasted longer than the last and I found myself wondering if I just witnessed Elliott’s last gasp.
While my friend made frantic phone calls to the vet and the owner, I stroked his mane and spoke to him quietly. His body seemed to relax, most likely finding more comfort in company than anything I was doing.
The phone snapped shut and it was confirmed – the vet had said she advised the owner to put the horse down well before this point and the owner completely disregarded it. I’m not sure if it was financial (clearly not, if the owner was able to take a trip to Maine), if she felt horses should die “naturally,” or if she just didn’t have the balls to deal with a dying horse and loved one.
Here’s the problem with thinking horses should die “naturally”….
In the wild, when a horse becomes sick or weak, that animal ends up on the outskirts of the herd. They become prey to other animals and eventually get picked off. No, it’s not pretty. But they don’t suffer. They face starvation and neglect for months on end before their body gives out. It is impossible for a domesticated horse to die naturally.
I continued to massage Elliott lightly, giving him undivided attention and much needed compassion. While his breathing was noisy, there was virtually no guttural sounds and time stood still.
I’ll confess: I gave him permission to go.
I told him quietly, we were here and it was OK to go if he needed to…. that was all it took. Within 10 minutes Elliott’s body systems shut down one by one and he choked out one last breath. He fell and I was stunned at how fast the flies moved in. My friend’s voice echoed, like in a hollow room, calling to him and telling him to “Run! Run free!” And I will never forget his face, eyes open, tongue touching the ground. Elliott was lifeless but that image had so much movement. Like he was frozen in time.
Miraculously, I didn’t cry.**
Elliott was alone and his owner clearly missed the mark on providing her horse a comfortable death. She owed it to him, no, she was obligated to make sure he died with dignity. No animal (humans included) should have to suffer like that. Something should have been done. In the end, we found out that the owner didn’t want to deal with it… so she left my friend (and in turn, myself) holding the bag. She let us deal with it because she was too spineless and self centered to support her faithful horse.
It was infuriating.
Sure, as a kid, I use to feel that horses and animals should die naturally. But I realize that there’s nothing natural about it. The natural world operates differently. This horse owner should have known that. The bond we have with our horses is like no other. She should have given him the respect he deserved. Keeping him excluded and alone to suffer is just as bad as the horrible people who physically abuse their animals. No excuses.
This experience gave me a whole new appreciation for life and how we treat others. Hold your loved ones close. Hang on when hanging on is needed. And let go when it’s time.
“Run! Run free!”
*I’m an equine sports massage therapist. It’s one of the many hats I wear.
**I will say that I balled my eyes out later. And in this moment recalling the memory.
Photo credit: freedigitalphotos.net