“We dream of a day when humans take responsibility for their actions and realize that horses are a privilege and not a right.” Author unknown.
Euthanized. Put down. Put to sleep. Gone over the rainbow bridge. No matter what words you use it all amounts to the same thing. Death. On the morning of August 30, 2013 my beautiful horse Tommie lay dead on the floor of the indoor arena and I was the one who had made the decision that put him there. How on earth had it come to this?
Let me start at the beginning. In January, 2008 I arrived in Florida full of excitement. I had a new horse,a wonderful seven year old Dutch Warmblood named Tommie. He was a laid back kind of guy and a good size for me. He was, in fact, perfect for me. We started our journey at USDF first level. Neither Tommie nor I had done anything remotely advanced before. It was an interesting journey with many times when we would take two steps forward and one step back. I think this is typical for a horse and rider both learning together.
Over the next six years we climbed up the levels and in March of 2013 we went down the centerline in Wellington, Florida for our first Prix St. George. What a thrill! And we placed in the class! This was the fulfillment of a long held dream of mine and Tommie was my partner in making it a reality. Just before we headed home, in April 2013, I noticed Tommie was looking a bit pudgy and his neck a bit cresty. He had always had a big neck so this did not immediately set off any alarm bells. I thought he would lose some weight on the thirty hour trip home so I did not worry about it. However when we got home and he had settled in to his routines I found he still was looking pudgy. My vet and I decided to do a fasting endocrine blood panel. The result…he was hypothyroid. No worries. There was a medication that was successfully used to treat this condition and I had several friends who had horses that had been treated and responded well. A few weeks later Tommie had a minor injury to his left hind fetlock. I gave him some time off, he recovered quickly and we were back to our summer routine of lots of hacking, days off and some dressage work in between. After six weeks on the thyroid medication we had the blood work repeated. Only a very small improvement so we increased the dosage of the thyroid medication. I was still optimistic. Then he colicked.
What horse owner does not dread that late night trip to the equine hospital with a horse that is colicking? All the blood work, rectal exams, ultrasounds showed nothing major. Everything in his intestinal system was working. So what was wrong? A gastric scope revealed the answer. Ulcers and gastritis. How could this be? He had been on the gold standard ulcer medication for over two years. He had developed a resistance to the medication I was told. He could be put on another medication for six weeks to “reboot” his system and then back onto the gold standard meds. My vet and I examined his routines. He was given his hay in a nibble net to give him something to be nibbling on most of the time, his grain feeds were changed to only fat and fibre and he was already on a four small feeds a day routine. My vet and I consulted with experts at the Veterinary College at the University of Guelph. We were doing everything we could. Tommie improved and we all relaxed.
Then came the next round of blood work for the hypothyroidism. This time the results were worse, despite the increased dosage. What was going on? We increased the dosage again and tried to remain optimistic. Then Tommie seemed to have another minor injury this time to his stifle. We had to put him on a very small dosage of anti-inflammatory medication. In two days he colicked again. As I walked him in the arena I talked to my vet on the phone. This had all the earmarks of another ulcer colic. We could not give him any medication to help with the colic as it would just make the ulcer situation worse. “Do you think something is trying to tell us something?” I asked. “Yes, I think it is, “he answered.
At this point I had to accept the fact that I was not going to ship Tommie for a thirty hour trip to Florida and have him in a full training program and be competing over the winter. I knew the priority was to try to get him stabilized and give him the winter off and hope that in the spring he might be better. I began to have a sense that there was a cascade effect taking place with Tommie and my only hope was that somehow we could get it to stop. A day after the colic episode I was in his stall about to pick out his left front foot. Suddenly he wrapped his head and neck around me. Tommie has never been a particularly cuddly horse so this was a first. He wrapped his head and neck around my waist and just stayed there. I put my arm round his neck and we held each other for a few moments. Over the winter of 2012 -2013 Tommie had really become my therapist as my daughter had been very seriously ill and I would talk, out loud, to Tommie about everything that was happening. It was a very stressful time and Tommie listened to all my tales of woe. When he gave me this hug I felt he was thanking me for taking him into my confidence. I didn’t know it at the time but I think now he may have been saying goodbye.
A couple of days later things took a dramatic turn for the worse. Despite the hypothyroid problem he had never shown any signs of laminitis, no heat in the hooves, no sensitivity but now the barn staff told me that he appeared very lame on his right front. I went out to the paddock and he greeted me with a high pitched whinny. This was not like Tommie. A nicker might have been his usual greeting. I knew something was very wrong. When I called my vet he said we had to start a laminitis protocol immediately. The next day he came to x-ray Tommie. I waited outside while he took the x-rays. When he came out of the barn I could tell by his face it was bad news. “He’s foundered,” he said. He took me in to show me the x-ray images on his computer. I could tell it was bad; eight degrees of rotation on the left and almost 12 on the right.
My vet and I sat in the tack room and talked about what could be done. But in my heart I knew nothing could be done. I had a horse that had foundered and would be in increasing pain and with his gastric situation we could not give him any medication to kill the pain. I was between a rock and a hard place and I knew the only answer was that I had to let him go. My vet gave me information on corrective shoeing and the slim possibilities of correcting the rotation. He also told me that should I choose to euthanize my insurance company would most likely not pay out unless I waited five more days and took a second set of x-rays. If they showed more rotation they might consider a claim but if there was no more rotation they would ask for corrective shoeing. I could hear everything he was saying but the words flew over my head. I was going to have to make the decision to end my horse’s life. How could I wait for five more days when he was already in real pain? How could I contemplate a year of corrective shoeing done every three to four weeks on a horse who could not take any painkillers? I am lucky that I owned Tommie outright. I did not have to consult with a syndicate to see if they would let him go in peace and not get the insurance money. I alone could make the decision. I could do what I felt was right for my horse. I could let him go.
I spoke to the insurance claims adjuster and my vet had been right. They would not pay out if I choose euthanasia now. They wanted to wait the five days for a second set of x-rays. While this may appear heartless I reminded myself that insurance is a business, it is not a charity. The claims adjuster was very sympathetic but she had to follow the rules. I told her I was going ahead with euthanasia. I would not see my horse suffer. I owed him that.
The next day the barn was closed and my vet came first thing in the morning. I was supported by my husband and my daughter. I spent time in the stall with Tommie giving him a final grooming. His coat was so beautiful and shiny. How could he look this good and be so ill? Then I looked at his stance. Front feet out in front of him and he was shifting the weight from one leg to the other. I took him out for grass to wait till my vet was ready in the arena. The walk across the gravel to the indoor arena was painful for him. I knew in my heart I was doing the right thing. But inside my head a voice was screaming. “My horse, my horse, how can the fates take my Tommie from me, this is not fair, NOT FAIR!”
My vet explained exactly how everything would go.The moment Tommie fell to the ground I knew his spirit had flown away and he was free. After my vet had made the final checks he stepped away and quietly left the arena. I knelt down and put my hand on him. Later my husband told me he could hear me sobbing from outside the arena. I do not remember that. I only remember the feeling that I had a huge gaping hole in my heart. Tommie had gone on over that rainbow bridge and left me behind.
I know there will be people who read this who will think I should have tried other medications or alternative remedies. I can only say to them that perhaps I could have. But in my heart I knew that, although he was only thirteen years old and in his prime, his time had come. He knew it and I knew it and it was my responsibility as his owner to spare him suffering.
“We dream of a day when humans take responsibility for their actions and realize that horses are a privilege and not a right.”
Leueen and Tommie . Prix St. George . Global Dressage Festival 2013
This post originally appeared in Horse Hero and also Barnmice.