Wednesday, January 28, 2009

When to Put a Horse Down

Cowboy's Story

Boy, this is a topic I would never presume to answer for anyone--it's hard enough to answer for myself. But Cowboy, my horse, is the only one in my herd I ever made the decision to put down. My thinking has always been--when a horse can't be a horse anymore, it's time to let them go--(not to the auction)--but put them down--and stand by their side while it happens.

I bought Cowboy about six years ago from a friend. She'd picked him up in a trade from another friend, who'd picked him as a trade from another friend....and on and on.

Cowboy had a tough start. When he was one month old his mother got her head stuck in a feeder and broke her neck trying to get out. From that day forward, Cowboy had to be bottle fed by humans.

Because of that, he has always been a real character--but not very good with his own kind--which has guarunteed him a spot as the lowest man on the totem pole no matter which herd he's in.

But he's a sweetheart--a BIG baby. He's also a chicken. When I got him, he'd spook at anything--and he was stubborn as all get out. If you tried to soothe him by rubbing his mane and talking sweet, he'd really go beserk! Obviously, that had been tried on him enough times that he figured anyone talking sweet must be covering up something SCARY!!

So, I had my work cut out for me with Cowboy, and I still do really. But working through these trust issues has brought us closer together.

As for the decision to put him down--two years ago this February, I came out for the evening feed--around 4:00, and found Cowboy all alone in the paddock, shaking and in a great deal of pain.

I called the vet and had them out immediately, but they misdiagnosed him with an abscessed hoof. They dug it out until they found blood, packed, and wrapped it. However, instead of instant relief, Cowboy was still dead lame even with Bute (an equine pain reliever).

They came out again and took x-rays, dug the hoof deeper for the abscess and rewrapped. Another week passed, no improvement--more x-rays, more Bute--eventually a special plate was made for his hoof.

Fast forward three months--we get a second opinion--they read the original x-rays and find a fractured P-3--right down the middle of the coffin bone up to the coffin joint.

After consulting with WSU, his prognosis for recovery was poor and it was too late to do a surgery. So, I decided to do the "practical" thing and have him put down.

However, before the day came--we were out in the evening saying goodbye and I thought--hey, it's his last night here on earth, I should let him have one last run. Poor guy had been locked up for three months--what kind of ending was that?!?

Hmmmm...shall I say STUPID?!? We let him out, all right, but Cowboy took off in an all out run across the rocky pastures--fourteen acres--spinning at the borders, bucking, it was CRRRAAAAAZZZZYYYYY!!! My husband and I jumped on the 4-wheeler and took off after him with a halter, to try to get him calmed down before he further injured himself. But we couldn't catch him for some time.

Now all of that got us to thinking--if he can run like that on a broken foot--maybe he has a high tolerance for pain--and maybe, just maybe he has a shot at living.

We called the farrier and canceled the vet. The farrier put Cowboy into a bar shoe with a special pad and 12x12 stall for 6 months. The first day he came, he looked at Cowboy and said, you did the right thing, I can save this horse. Wow! We were kind of happy about that--but skeptical, of course.

So, then began the waiting and we waited and waited, wondering if Cowboy could keep it together mentally. I kept a stall buddy next to him at all times, to give him company. I'd rotate the stall buddy in and out--each horse in the herd taking their turn. The whole family pitched in going out and seeing him, and his makeshift stall was close to the house.

Last Spring was the first time I could ride him again---and I was holding my breath--but Cowboy stayed sound. In fact, he stayed sound the entire Spring, Summer and Fall, and I rode him all over the place. He's out there right now, still sound. What a miracle--I'm still surprised by it.

So, the question of when to put a horse down has yet to really be answered by me. I guess in the future, I'd err on the side of life, as I did with Cowboy. I don't believe in allowing them to suffer, but short of that, if they have the will, I say give them the chance.

Cowboy is not the horse Red is, not in conformation or his mind--but he has been good in other ways. There's never a dull moment with him, and because of his insecurity, he challenges you more to be a real herd leader--no false bravado or he'll expose it. I've learned more about horses because of him, and I value every day after having come so close to losing him.


  1. Thank you for sharing his story with us! He reminds me of my gelding, Sunni! Sunni also spooks a lot.

  2. "Err on the side of life." Always, always. Beautiful story.

  3. This is a great story. It got me a bit emotional. Sounds like Cowboy is a trooper, and I can truly tell how tight your friendship is.

  4. Great story! I'm so glad it had a happy ending. I recently had to put down one of our newer geldings. We tried and tried, but finally the decision was made to put him down. Like you said, with one of us standing by his side.

    I wish our story had ended up like yours, but sadly, sometimes, God needs another horse.

  5. I'm very sorry to hear you had to make a hard decision like that, but I can assure you, you did the right thing, and more than most people would do, standing by his side.

  6. I'm not sure if I made this clear in this post, because this story had a very unexpected ending, but I still do believe that when a horse is suffering, or can't be a horse the way God intended--running, jumping, being free--for me, it would be time to put them down.

    I feel that way about all animals. Often it's more humane to let them go. Only an owner who loves them will know when the "right" time is.

    But I really believe in holding them in your arms or standing next to them while it happens so that their last thought is that they've been loved and life has been good.

    However, if they have a chance to survive--and you feel it can in Cowboy's story...and on the other side they'll be pain free and normal--it could be worth trying if it's within your means.

    Just my personal opinion, and I'm very sorry for anyone who has to search their heart and make this tough decision.

  7. I thought your point was very well made and couldn't agree more. We should never let our own feelings overide that of the animals; if they are suffering or not able to live a "normal" life, then it is time. In our case, we knew that JT would never run again, would be in pain just walking, and I know that would be no life for him.

    It was hard, but I'll never let one of my animals go without being there with them.

  8. Update--This is four years post-fracture and Cowboy is still sound. We keep him in front shoes to stabilize the hoof wall and cut down on the natural flux in the hoof that could bring pain from what we assume is some arthritis in the coffin joint. He'll camp out the hoof during the cold/wet winter months, but when it comes to walk, trot and running, he doesn't miss a beat. We haven't had to decide on a next step because we've been very lucky and are not there yet. He's fourteen this year, and I love him more than ever. The last four years have been true gifts to me, and I can't wait to start this year's trail riding season with my guy.


Please feel welcome to join our discussion by telling us about your own thoughts and experiences.