I've been involved with horses for many years. I bought my first one in 1984, and have owned horses or worked at horse farms ever since. Seen a lot of things. Done a lot of things. And, it seems in the last 8-10 years, put down a lot of horses.
Now, lest you think I'm some sort of horse killer (my Dad is starting to tease me about being the equine Dr. Kevorkian), let me explain why I'm more and more present at the end of equine life. Mostly, it's because where I've been in the last 13 years, is at a farm made up mostly of retired and aging horses. The eldest there will be 31 in March, the youngest 14! Since the average lifespan for a horse is 25-30 years, well, that should explain it all.
Yesterday we had to make the decision to put down another one. This was one of the younger ones, not quite 21 years old, but she was in a bad way yesterday morning at breakfast time, and despite having the vet out to treat her, things were getting progressively worse. About 3:00 yesterday afternoon, I made the call to the vet again, and we all knew how the story was most likely going to end.
The problem was colic, which can range from a mild belly ache that a horse comes out of on it's own, to a twisted or otherwise obstructed gut that ends up rupturing and causing agony, toxemia and death to the horse. Unlike people and other animals, horses are anatomically incapable of throwing up. So a 'simple' sour stomach can be fatal for them, due to the build up of gas and pressure in their guts. Next time you have the flu and are wretching miserably, be thankful that you are a human and have the ability to vomit!
With this particular horse, it first appeared she might have a fairly mild colic, and we hoped that it might be reversible. Even though the horse was uninterested in her breakfast hay, she was laying calmly, breathing slowly, evenly and not labored. Because there was only sawdust (stall bedding) on one side of her, I could tell she had not been rolling. Rolling is a common sign of a painful colic, and unfortunately can cause a twisted gut to occur. One worrying thing, though, was that her ear tips were cold, and she was trembling slightly. Cold ears on a horse that is indoors, is a sign of shock. Not good. That was the main reason we called the vet even though the horse showed no signs of pain.
The vet was able to come within the hour, and treated the horse with some muscle relaxers, which is the common treatment for a colic. She also 'tubed' the horse, which is inserting a naso-gastric tube through a nostril and into the stomach. With tubing, the vet can get an idea of the state of the stomach from the smell that will come out of the tube. The vet can pump in water to 'wash' the stomach (it will come out the tube when the stomach is full, often bringing with it stomach acids and chunks of undigested food) and/or pump in mineral oil. Oiling a horse will often help them out of a colic if it is caused by a clump of feed or manure that is lodged somewhere along the approximately 70 feet of digestive tract that a horse contains.
Then we waited to see how the horse would do. All was well for several hours, but when I went to check the horse at 3:00 in the afternoon, she was much worse. Her breathing was labored, she had definitely been rolling--violently enough to have scrubbed off a patch of hair and skin above one eye--and her ears were ice cold. After consulting with the owner (of the farm and of this particular horse), I again called the vet out.
The vet came right away, being only about 15 miles down the road at that time, examined the horse again, and tubed her again. This time, the stomach contents were smellier and darker than they had been when we'd tubed the horse in the morning. That is a sign that instead of passing along the digestive tract properly, the food matter was being pushed back into the stomach after it had left for the intestines. Meaning a blockage was there somewhere, and nothing was moving out the end of the digestive tract. Without surgery (very expensive, and not an option for most retired horses who don't have wealthy owners), there was really no way to remedy the situation.
The owner, the vet, and myself, made the decision to not put the horse through any more suffering, and we prepared to euthanize her.
Euthanizing a horse is pretty simple. The vet gives them a huge dose of barbiturates, which pretty much causes them to have a heart attack, and that is that. It is quick, and supposedly painless. The vet injects the drug into a vein in the horse's neck, and by the time the (large--2 @ 60cc) syringes are empty, the horse's legs are buckling. You quickly and gently guide the horse to the ground, a few gasps and some reflexive leg movements, and it's done. The vet will listen to make sure the heart has stopped beating (normally it has by now), touch the eye (it is very sensitive, if the horse is still alive, it will react to this), and pronounce the horse expired. All this usually takes less than five minutes start to finish.
This was done outside, near the driveway. To remove a dead horse from inside a building is very difficult. By taking her outside before performing the euthanasia, we were able to put her down in a spot that made removing the carcass easy. At the horse farm, we have designated a grassy area near the driveway for this task.
Around here, there is a service we can call to retrieve and dispose of the carcass. It is not cheap, partially because they have to come from about an hour away, and partially because they have to obtain permits from the Department of Environmental Quality for burying the carcass, which is pretty large (roughly 1000 pounds). They are only allowed so many permits/burials per year. Current price: $300. Like I said, not cheap, but it's pretty much our only option in this area anymore. People with lots of land, and a backhoe, or a friend with a backhoe, do it much cheaper but on the hush-hush so as to not get in trouble with the DEQ.
Yesterday made equine #6 that I personally have held while the vet performed the euthanasia. That is why my Dad makes the Dr. Kevorkian jokes whenever I mention we had to put another horse to sleep. What can I say? If you're around horses long enough, and especially if you manage a horse farm, it's something you will have to do sooner or later.