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When is the right time?

Knowing the right time to put your horse to

sleep can be a very tricky question to answer.

It depends on both the individual circumstances

and personal opinion


Ultimately it should come

down to quality of life, and that should be a

reflection of clinical disease and pain levels.

As vets we try to impartially assess the horse’s

ability to conduct normal behaviours, e.g.

getting up, lying down, eating and the ability to

move around freely without pain. Furthermore, if

the line is becoming blurry, ask yourself if they

are having more bad days than good days


There is a saying amongst vets that is very true:

‘better a week too early, than an hour too late’.

The biggest regret we see in owners is wishing

they had made the decision sooner, not the

other way around

(figure three)


What are the options

for euthanasia and

what is the process?

You can choose to say goodbye in two ways,

either by shooting or euthanasia by injection.

This decision comes down to personal

preference and animal suitability. Shooting is

very quick and straightforward, the limbs

contract and consciousness is lost immediately.

There is a bang and there will be a small

entry hole in the forehead area just below the

forelock, from which there may be some

bleeding. Involuntary reflexes may occur.

Some owners choose to have their horses

sedated by the vet first, many just feed them

a nice bucket of treats.

The injection is a drug that has two

components: an anaesthetic agent that leads

to loss of consciousness, so the horse falls

asleep, and a drug that stops the heart once

consciousness is lost. Many vets will sedate

the horse first and place a catheter into the

vein in the neck to ensure giving the injection

is straightforward. It takes a minute or two,

then the horse usually starts to breathe a little

heavier and gently goes to the ground. Rest

assured the moment they start to become

unsteady, they are losing consciousness and

are not aware of anything around them.

Once they are on the floor, there may be

some involuntary reflexes. The vet will check

the heart to ensure the horse has passed

away, it may take a few minutes for the heart

to completely stop.

Figure two. As loving animal owners, we

have to take responsibility



With permission, you may be able to

bury your horse on your own land. If this

is not suitable, your vet can organise a

transporter to remove the body to be

taken to a pet crematorium. Cremation is

the most common option for owners.

Most crematoria will perform individual

cremations and offer a casket of ashes for

scattering or burial. Finally, some owners

prefer to use their local hunt if they have

an established relationship and they will

also take care of the remains for you.

The grief of losing a horse can be as

pronounced as losing a friend or family

member, as often the attachment and

bond is very deep

(figure four).

It is

important to never put a timescale on

mourning, as everyone is different and

the grieving process different for

individuals. In recognition of how difficult

this time can be, there are an ever

increasing number of resources for

owners. XLVet Equine practices offer a

very valuable Equine Skills workshop

dedicated to this topic - ‘Old Friends

and Saying Goodbye’; specialist animal

bereavement counsellors are available if

you need someone to talk with, and both

The Blue Cross website or The Ralph Site

have more information.

What happens afterwards?

Figure four. Grieving takes time and should

not be rushed

Figure three. Reassuringly, owners almost

always know exactly when the time is right

for them and their horse