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When is the When?

Published: 8/4/2009
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By Maddy Butcher

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Phoenix, my lovely paint, is 30. I adopted her five years ago.

Over the past year, it’s been an increasing challenge to keep weight on her and take care of her within my means. Giving her every supplement on the planet and swaddling her with constant care are not feasible options.
I write this piece knowing there will be plenty of critics with suggestions for better feed and better care. There will be people who will tell me I’m cruel.
Then, there’ll be others who will call for the immediate “gift” of euthanasia.
There will be plenty of critics with suggestions for better feed and better care. There will be people who will tell me I’m cruel.
Then, there’ll be others who will call for the immediate “gift” of euthanasia.

It runs the gamut.

Mine, like any other, is a personal journey and dilemma. But the other night, as I came in teary-eyed from the barn, I realized writing about it and putting it out there for discussion was something I should do. We’re a community, right?
So, with a box of Kleenex and a cooling cup of coffee, here goes:

Phoenix quids most of her hay and grass. Three times a day, she gets a ton of soaked beet pulp and alfalfa pellets added to her complete senior feed and Cocosoya oil. She gets forage, too.
Most days, she will stand in her stall while the others are out grazing.
This past month, I’ve noticed her hanging her head low for long periods of time. When we pony across the street, she’s slower and slower. Sometimes I leave her home because I think she’d rather not make the effort.

Give her more grain.
Give her more forage.
Give her more supplements.
Give her something for her elderly aches and pains.
I could do all that and quadruple my costs.
But to what end?
I don’t think she’s having much fun anymore. And it’s not because she’s starving.
I think about winter. Do I want to put her through it?

When is the When?

Sometimes the quality of life question is an easy call – suffering is obvious, with no good end in sight.

But what about Phoenix?

If it weren’t for my care, she wouldn’t have lived this long. Do I re-up my efforts? How long is too long?

If I choose euthanasia am I doing her a favor or snuffing out an unfulfilled life?

If I choose euthanasia, am I doing her a favor or snuffing out an unfulfilled life?I remember going to a funeral recently and the son of the deceased praised his mother for the very clear wishes she put down on paper before her terrible stroke. When it came time to disconnect life support systems, there was no question of what she would have wanted.
“It’s never easy,” he said. “But with those documents in front of us, it took our self-doubt away. In essence, it had been her decision, not ours. We knew we were doing the right thing.”

If only I could sit down with Phoenix and plan for the end.If only I could sit down with Phoenix and plan for the end.

So maybe you bring in outside voices and ask for opinions. But who are they to have the answer? If they agree, are they right?

In the end, it’s still a personal call. We do the best we can. We try to be good leaders.

In the wild, of course, there would be no mercy. The herd would have dealt with it one way or another – by leaving her behind, by bullying her further into starvation, etc.
I see these behaviors in microscale at my barn:
I used to feed Phoenix out in the open with her barn mates. She had a curled lip for anyone who dared come close when she ate.
Not anymore.
Her status has dropped from Number 1 to Number 3 out of 4.
So I close Phoenix in her stall so she can eat in peace.

Dave Matthews Band sings:
“Funny the way it is, if you think about it
One kids walks 10 miles to school, another’s dropping out
Funny the way it is, no right or wrong…”

A horse’s life depends on chance and circumstance, too.
How well a horse does, how healthy she stays, how long she lives aren’t things she can control.
We make the difference between happy, productive lives or sedentary, unhealthy ones. We can make the difference between life and death for a horse.
That’s the heavy blessing of horse ownership.

The End of October, The End of a Life

A few months ago, I told myself that it'd be best to put down Phoenix when she came off grass for the season.
She'd been doing much better on grass than hay. When I gave her hay at night, she looked at it and looked at me.
"What am I supposed to do with this?" she seemed to ask me.
And so this last week, when my horses were back from the pasture for good (until next May), I made the dreaded call to my longtime friend and veterinarian, Dr. Linda Barton.

These thoughts, as I wrote about earlier, bubbled to the surface as I dealt with the reckoning:
I could, with more time and money, keep her alive for a few more years.
Or, in contrast: She would have been euthanized already at someone else's farm. Hers was not a sudden injury. Some days, as I watched her and groomed her thin coat, I changed my mind a dozen times. Some days, I was mired in the mud of indecision.

My friend, Kim, happened to email from Idaho where she is working with Martin and Jen Black on their ranch: "...the cow boss lost his horse today. The horse broke its leg and it had to be shot in the field...we will have to ride by the dead horse for the next several days."
The cow boss's decision was quick and correct. In comparison, I felt like I was waffling and second-guessing every day, every hour.
In the end, I stuck to my decision. And as the grass goes brown and the days get colder, I'm relieved - for her sake.
The actual process -- from administering the shots to burying her - was dreadful. All the credit due to vets like Linda who must be there time after time.

We don't think about death when we acquire our animals. On that decided, dreadful day, all the joys and routines of her life seem crushed by the weight of that cruel moment.

And now that she's gone, I am trying to overlook those ugly minutes and focus on happy, richer times. That's what Phoenix did -- she enriched my life. I tried to tell her Thank You.
Rest In Peace, Phoenix, with as much grass and sun as you can manage!

Click here for Memorial Pages

Phoenix, in 1990, with one of her four foals:

Here is one of my favorite poems by Henry Taylor. It may be about the passing of a human friend, but I think of it fondly when I lose an animal, too.

Someone we love, old friend, has telephoned
to let me know you're gone - and so you are.
I touch the steady books: my mind casts back,
then forth, and says, as you said once, "so long -
I look forward to seeing you everywhere."

View Reader Comments:

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8/5/2009 Barbara
A powerful, thought provoking piece on Phoenix and aging. If I had to be critical, it is only because you made me cry. Thank you for sharing a personal journey that many of us will face, as our own personal battle. Having two horses over 25, I feel, for me, it is quality not quantity. A dear friend sent me a lovely message after hearing that we had to put our 14 year old dog to rest. It gave us great comfort. He said, "It takes all the bravery a human heart can raise to let go and send the warrior on her way. She will be missed, but the love you shared will not leave." Only you will know when the time will be right, because Phoenix will let you know.....
8/5/2009 Nora
Maddy, There will be a time, when you go to the barn and you will just know it's time.She'll let you know - she won't eat as much, she'll pick. When she lays down and starts having a hard time getting up. As in tuned with your horses as you are, you're just gonna know. Hugs, Nora
8/5/2009 Dorothy
Dear Maddy, An old vet once told me that if my animal was not enjoying life any longer, then what kind of life was it? We eat for sustenance, but we need happiness & a sense of purpose to fill our soul. What good is one without the other? You know in your heart your intentions are pure. That is the only measure you can use; do not second guess yourself. May you find peace in this difficult decision. My heart goes out to you - Namaste, Dorothy
8/5/2009 Julie
I'm so, so sorry that you even have to think about this....but as responsible horse owners, we know that we will all make this decision at one time or another. If you already see the signs during the warm, mild months of the year, you already know that during the harsher months it will become so much more difficult for Phoenix. No matter your decision, I'll stand by you and lift you up...because at these times, that is all that friends can do.
8/5/2009 Frannie Burridge
I have had many a horse in my life and what they have taught me about themselves and what is most important to them is quaility of life. I have a horse now that I too am having to make a decision about before Winter sets in. I see her losing weight and not having the spark she used to have. She is not depressed yet, but when that happens, I will put her down, thank her for all she has taught me and the joy she has brought to my life. Frannie Burridge
8/5/2009 Tammy
I think the comment, "If I choose euthanasia am I doing her a favor or snuffing out an unfulfilled life?" is a wonderful question. I applaud people's courage to make decisions for our horses (and other animals) to euthanize rather than to string out an animal's suffering. Our decisions need to be what's for their physical and emotional good, not just ours. As a horse's guardian, putting them to sleep when it is time, is compassionate and allows them to die with dignity.
8/5/2009 NancyLee
When you look into their eyes and they just aren't there anymore - then you'll know, because they've already let go - so now it' our hard job to let go of them.
8/6/2009 Joanne
So sorry to hear about your situation with Phoenix. It's a tough thing to do. It's one thing to have to make the decision when you know they suffer from an injury or they are ill, but age is a tougher choice. I haven't lost a horse to age yet, but we've lost one of our cats last year, and towards the end, she sat in my lap night after night and just stared at me, like she was telling me she was tired, and I could see it in her eyes. That's when I knew it was time. My thought for you would be to do the same with Phoenix....spend some one on one time with her, sit around and watch her if you can. I feel the eyes express a lot of inner feelings and I think when it's time, you'll know because she'll find a way to relay that to you. My thoughts and prayers are with you and Phoenix.
8/6/2009 Jo Anne
I use the "sore no more" products. It was recommended by a cutting horse trainer for hocks and sore backs. I spray my horses back with the liquid before I ride, under the saddle pad, and on the hocks. I saw Dr. David Lamb yesterday, vet/chiropractor in Vt, and he uses it too. Even on himself for sore muscles. All natural, with arnica, rosemary, lavender.....
8/6/2009 Kathy
Here's a little poem that helped me the last time I had to make this decision and I hope it helps you too. It's titled "Don't Cry for the Horses" and was written by Susan Humphrey. They were ours as a gift, but never to keep. As they close their eyes forever to sleep. Their spirit's unbound, On silver wings they fly. A million white horses, Against the blue sky. Look up into heaven, You'll see them above. The horses we lost, The horses we loved. Maines and tails flowing, As they gallop through time. They were never yours-they were never mine. Don't cry for the horses, They'll be back someday. When our time is gone, They will show us the way. Do you hear that soft nicker? Close to your ear? Don't cry for the horses, Love the ones that are here.
8/25/2009 Gena McGrath
Maddy, there is no easy answer and no time is ever going to be the right time (in my mind anyway...) I have to deal with this as well this fall. A grand old mare who has been my best friend for so many years is slowing down due to age and arthritis. If I had unlimited finances I would not choose to do this this year. I feel that she is not really ready; that she has not signaled to me or her herd, that she is tired or had enough. In the past I have waited for the horse to decide. One was in her 40's, one in her late 20's, another was suffering with cancer, each one was ready to move on. When it becomes intermingled with economic influences it leaves a bitter taste. I have several other young horses that I need to be responsible for. So what will I do? I am considering re-homing one young horse, looking at possible medical reasons for another's issue, and telling myself daily that this is my old Matriarch's Last Summer and working through the process of letting go. It has been hard, painful and sad agonizing over this. I know many folks who would agree that an old horse who is no longer serviceably sound should be euthanized or 'shipped'. I have not been able to reconcile the guilt on this one. I know it is for the best. I pray that she suddenly takes a bad turn health-wise and I fall back into guilt for thinking that way.... I have noted that I am telling more and more people about my plan perhaps so I won't back out of the decision. It has been a great gift spending so many years with this mare - I pray her passing is easy. This is the last, best gift I can give her and it will be a blessing being with her when she goes and know that she has been safely and humanely moved on to a better place.
11/4/2009 Michelle
Hey Maddy, Been thinking of you and Phoenix and hoping you are doing OK. It's the hardest decision, but I admire you for doing what I'm sure you promised her on the day you brought her provide her with the love and care that are in her best interest. You did exactly that for her with this heavy hearted decision...despite the pain it causes you...because it was best for her. Hugs, Michelle & Maggie
11/4/2009 Meris
Hello Maddy, Thank you for sharing with us your emotional journey with Phoenix in her final months. Perhaps the following closing from "Black Beauty" best captures how horses feel about the whole deal. I may be wishful thinking, but I like to think my own "Big Mac" would have agreed with Black Beauty that a loving, caring, and kind family is the best one can hope for in the end. I feel certain that Phoenix is somewhere standing under the apple trees with her old friends. MJB "I have now lived in this happy place a whole year. Joe is the best and kindest of grooms. My work is easy and pleasant, and I feel my strength and spirits all coming back again. Mr. Thoroughgood said to Joe the other day: "In your place he will last till he is twenty years old - perhaps more." Willie always speaks to me when he can, and treats me as his special friend. My ladies have promised that I shall never be sold, and so I have nothing to fear; and here my story ends. My troubles are all over, and I am at home; and often before I am quite awake, I fancy I am still in the orchard at Birtwick, standing with my old friends under the apple-trees. The End."
11/5/2009 Dotti
I just put my best friend and partner down - a week ago last Friday. ( and a half years is not old enough, I said. She is too young to be lame all the time - she is too wonderful, loving and sweet natured to put down, I said. Then I realized that I was keeping her on Bute twice a day, and allowing her to have all the supplements and farrier care, and vet care....for ME.... I was keeping her here, for ME, not for her. I couldn't even take her for long walks anymore - she would be so lame as we walked down to the power lines, me leading her, not riding her, that I would turn around and take her home, and put her in her stall to rest. Milli Girl was the best - the best of all the horses, for me. She taught me everything I needed to know in order to be her partner. She gave me her all, as I gave to her. She loved me and nickered for me every day we had together - 9 and a half years - since she was a month old. I cry every day - I weep for the time we could have had...if only...... but I recall a dream the other night - Milli running through green pastures towards me - my hair braided into her mane so she can find me, her tail braided into my hair, so I can keep her smell around me and find her - we come together and she is warm and loving, like she never left....I will await that day with much anticipation. I will never love a horse again, like I love my Milli Girl. I let her go, so she would be in peace and out of pain. I urge any who read this to do what is right for their partners - and realize when we are keeping them ....for us.......God Bless all of us and all of our horses, the ones we can touch, and the ones that have touched our hearts and left for a while....
11/18/2009 Cheryl
She was my child before I had children. I spent countless hours grooming her, riding her, listening to her, training her and caring for her. I spent nearly half of my life loving her. I am deeply saddened she is gone but relieved she is at peace and all of her suffering is over. I've been trying to let go for 13 years since I gave her up for adoption but once you care for them and love them like your child you can never let go. I have amazing memories and I have learned so much about life from our experiences together. She will live in my heart forever as part of my family.
7/22/2012 Karen Conway
This is so hard. I admire you for writing about it. My ancient gelding (30 years) looks liek a prisinor of war; yet I hesitate. I'm gaining courage to put him down next week; he has a pituatary tumor and is devloing diabetes. I lovn e him lick a rock. But, I suspect it would be better to go down ow than suffer. Hugs to you and your chocie. You'll do the right thing.
2/18/2014 Peggy Keator
Thank you for your personal letter. I'm facing the same problem, My mare is over 30 and every day I battle with my thoughts, about when. I know in my brain it's time, but my heart refuses to let go. Reading your letter with tears in my eyes. I know what I have to .do. Life choices are never easy, again thanks for sharing.

"No one can teach riding so well as a horse" - CS Lewis