When It's Time to Euthanize a Horse

Horse getting injection

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Many people have had the unfortunate experience of "putting their horse down" or euthanized. Deciding to put a horse down is heart-rending, and you will no doubt go through some very intense emotions before, during, and after the event.

Along with the sadness of losing a friend comes a lot of guilt. Even if the horse is very elderly, has internal damage, a foal is born with serious defects, has a chronic and incurable condition causing continuous pain 1 or has had a devastating accident and there was no alternative decision to make, you'll still wonder if you're doing the right thing. But this is the price you pay for loving these animals, and you must ensure you don't prolong their pain or discomfort because you can't bear to part with them.

Sometimes, the decision has to be made instantaneously—like in the case of a leg fracture. Although a broken leg isn't necessarily a death sentence for a horse anymore, this type of injury can be fatal, and to spare the animal pain and suffering, there is nothing else that can be done.

Ways and Means

The most common way to euthanize a horse is a lethal injection. You'll need to move the horse, if possible without causing it undue pain, to a place where it will be easy to remove the body. The veterinarian will inject a sedative, followed by a large dose of barbiturates. Most horses just collapse slowly and go to sleep. Occasionally, they will lurch backward and fall, which is quite distressing for the handlers. Your vet will guide you as to how you should safely handle your horse during the procedure.

A faster, but perhaps more distressing and dramatic way to euthanize a horse is with a gun. Some people feel this is a more humane method than injection because done properly, death is instantaneous, and the horse is not distressed by the presence of a veterinarian. This method should be carried out by someone familiar with the use of high-powered firearms and knowledge of where to shoot to kill, not just stun the animal. A significant amount of bleeding may occur as well. In some areas, it is possible to call the "dead stock" service who will do the euthanization this way and remove the body immediately.

The captive bolt is another method that may be available.

In very rare, extreme emergencies—such as when a horse gets injured out on a remote trail where it's impossible to get a veterinarian in an acceptable timeframe, it's possible to use the exsanguination (bleeding out) method. Large amounts of blood will be lost. This is not acceptable as the sole method of euthanasia unless the horse is already unconscious. Otherwise, it would be too traumatic for both horse and handler. Talk to your veterinarian to learn more about exsanguination.

After any method of euthanization, there will be a few moments of muscle twitching and perhaps the legs may move a bit. The body then relaxes and stills. If a vet is present, he or she will check for the heartbeat with a stethoscope, look for the pupils of the eyes to be dilated, and see if the blink reflex is absent. If the vet feels the brain is still active, more drugs may be administered or more steps will be taken to make sure the job is complete.

After the Euthanasia

After euthanasia, the body will have to be removed or buried. Some places have time limits for removing dead livestock. In most areas, the dead stock truck will come within a short time, and for a small price, take away the body. If you chose to have the body buried, you need to know the rules and regulations in your area and arrange a backhoe to dig the grave. It is possible to compost a small body, such as a foal or small pony, again abiding by the regulations in your county, state, or province. In some areas, animal cremation is available. This is perhaps the most costly option. Zoos and wildlife sanctuaries may welcome the body as food unless barbiturates were used for the euthanasia. For this reason, also, it's important to prevent the body from scavenging by animals such as stray dogs or coyotes.

The decision to euthanize a horse is never easy. But knowing what to expect and you are doing the best you can for your horse should bring you some small comfort in an otherwise distressing process.