“The horses at Rainbow Bridge play together in the sunshine until each of their owners comes to claim them, as the owners themselves pass away. The souls of horses and their owners finally reunite and cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again.”
To take responsibility for ending your own life is tough, but if it’s the wrong decision you only have yourself to blame. To end someone else’s life with or without their agreement is illegal, although Death Row and warfare continue. But to snuff out the soft breath of one so dear that the mere thought of it leaves you feeling like you’ve been eviscerated with a blunt fingernail, is the task we horse carers accept each time four hooves and a velvety nose nuzzle their way into our hearts.
It is our job to order destruction of the life that lives above those hooves, and forever close the eyes of the soul we have worked so hard to keep safe. There will be no more silken coat to groom, no more smell in which to bury our face, and we will never again see the blink of trust that passes between two opposing species. When we nod our head to signal the felling of the body beside us, the world instantly changes. Is becomes was, and wisps of memory are the bittersweet legacy of love.
I’m So Sorry are the three words you never want your vet to say, because There’s Nothing Else We Can Do completes the sentence. It’s not a life sentence it’s a death sentence. You nod, and as you mime an answer, trying to swallow rising bile, find a spare breath, and fight against the urge to run away, three huge tears plop out of your eyes and your horse turns to look at you. The vet stands back until you win your fight for air, and when you can agree coherently she brings you the death warrant to sign and you can’t write your own name. We have the idea that living creatures deserve a good death, but many didn’t even get a good life. You can only do the best you can do and there’s a whole future ahead to beat yourself up with what-ifs. Doing the best by your horse is commitment to love even when sparing him pain means sacrificing his life.
Death and sex (which ironically started the dying process the moment it gave life) are very similar. In reality neither actually resemble the misty-hued scenes depicted in the movies, but they do both leave you feeling totally exhausted, or disconsolate because the end came too soon. From Here to Eternity has the right title, but in death the waves only ebb and the tide never returns to the shore.
Euthanising a horse is not a pretty sight. Don’t let the Rainbow Bridge fool you for a minute, because horses don’t really metamorphose into a unicorn and trot across the coloured arch to heaven. I’ve stood with enough horses as they received anaesthetic overdose or bolt gun to know they all die as individually as they lived. Some struggle with surprise or fight to stay alive, some are thankful to go and some hardly notice. The sight that is unreal, and the one that I can never un-see is half a ton of horseflesh laid dead with its tongue lolling to one side. If you need to sob into a still-warm neck before your own heart breaks, brace yourself against the sight of a corpse because this is your last opportunity. You’ve held it together this long, and the vet will busy herself checking his pulse and heart even though you all know he’s dead. Touch his body, smooth his coat and stroke his ears. Whisper the prayer or the thankyou or tell him he’s a good boy because part of him might still be watching you, just like he always watched from the gate until you were out of sight.
He’s free at last. This magical creature had such a strong will to survive evolution, he paid for domesticity with his freedom, his ability to roam in a herd, and his fundamental right to just be a horse. He buried his wants, forgave constantly and learned to work through pain. He served people as best he could, if he was lucky he got his own girl and when she heaped the worries of her world on him, he carried them as stoically as he carried her. Mankind wanted a horse that suited their needs, not his, and the horse has made all the compromises. It’s not wrong to want something back from our horses, but don’t assume because you pay the bills and make the decisions, you own them.
We want a partnership but how many people communicate with their horse in his language? If you scratched his withers in a one-sided attempt at mutual grooming it’s a start, but then you put him back in his solitary paddock. Horses acquiesce and dominate and find safety in the herd pecking order, but we humanise their reactions and ‘protect’ them with fences. We leave a flight animal to watch 24/7 for imaginary predators instead of having a herd leader to do it for them, and then wonder why they get anxiety, or fat because they aren’t moving with interaction. Connect with your horse in his language while he’s still alive. Lower your eyes, lower your expectations, empty your mind and take the opportunity to just be with him, breathe with him and be quiet. Give him a holiday from your constant chatter, verbal and mental. Knowing that you’ve tried to meet him halfway will mean more to him than all the treats and titbits, and when the end comes he’ll know you know that the weakest has to leave the herd and he’ll trust you to be the swiftest predator.
“The horses at Rainbow Bridge play together in the sunshine until each of their owners comes to claim them, as the owners themselves pass away. The souls of horses and their owners finally reunite and cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again.” Don’t make Bruce wait for me, he’s done his time with people clinging to him and claiming him and his soul is his not mine. Just as he lived, he died with a force that shouted “That’s it, I’m off,” but this time I bailed out and let him run because there was no reason for him to stop. I might have paid the bills and taken responsibilty but I never owned one single hair on his body. How can anyone own magnificence?