No horse owner wants to face the awful decision of having to put their beloved equine companion to sleep. It remains a very emotional and difficult task, regardless of the fact that euthanasia is generally chosen because it’s considered to be in the horse’s best interests. 

Why might a horse need to be put down?

We imagine our horses passing away peacefully in their sleep, but it doesn’t happen very often. More frequently we are presented with ageing or ailing horses and ponies, for whom we are constantly assessing their quality of life. Taking account of the subtle changes which indicate they are nearing the time to let them go.

It’s important to bear in mind that, whilst the idea of having to put your horse down is probably something you’ve planned to deal with far into the future, unfortunately accidents and illness can happen. A severe injury or unmanageable colic might mean we are faced with this heart-breaking decision sooner than we’d thought. So it’s good to have an idea of what euthanasia entails and the arrangements that will need to be made. 

What are the options for euthanasia?

There are two possible means of euthanasia in horses, both equally humane and acceptable.

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Euthanasia by injection

The first, most commonly chosen option, is euthanasia by injection. Normally the horse is first sedated before an injection of the solution. Euthanasia is given into the jugular vein in the neck, causing him to gradually fall to the ground. The vet will then check for a heartbeat until the heart has stopped and the horse has died.

It’s common for the horse to let out a few deep breaths, and to twitch a little after the injection, even when the heart has stopped. These are just normal bodily reactions. 

Euthanasia by shooting

The alternative option is euthanasia by free bullet, or shooting. This is something that can be performed by a suitably licensed person which could include your veterinarian, a knackerman, huntsman, or equine slaughterhouse. It’s a very rapid process, not requiring sedation unless the horse is particularly anxious or nervous.

The horse immediately drops to the ground, meaning that owners must remain a safe distance away. There may be a small amount of blood, and twitching or stiffening of the legs is not uncommon. Although often perceived as cold or impersonal, shooting is a very rapid method of euthanasia. It involves no suffering and no further stress to the horse than lethal injection.  

There’s no right or wrong method, it depends on individual preference and the situation at the time. If a decision needs to be made as an emergency, there may be little choice. But it’s advisable to have an idea of what you might choose, should the need arise. Some owners find euthanasia by shooting more distressing. Particularly owing to the noise and the fact that they are required to be more distant from their horse. 

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What happens to my horse’s body afterwards?

If the horse has been euthanised by lethal injection, you can arrange for incineration (with or without recovery of his ashes as a keepsake), or you could choose to bury him. Bear in mind that burial can involve significant costs, time and require special approval. 

Horses euthanised by the free bullet method could later be incinerated, buried or, potentially, allowed to enter the human food chain. Only horses fit for human consumption may enter the food chain. This means the horse’s passport must indicate as such – in section 9.

However, in many cases, the horse will have been signed out of the human food chain automatically because of medication that it has received during its lifetime, preventing this from being an option. Additionally, to be fit for human consumption, the horse would need to be sent to a licensed slaughterhouse for euthanasia and management of the carcass, something which may deter many owners. 

Either way, you can make these arrangements yourself or, alternatively, your veterinarian can make them for you. It’s probably best not to be around when your horse’s body is removed because it can be distressing to see. 

A note on insurance

If it is not an emergency, it’s a good idea to get in touch with your horse’s insurance company beforehand, if you’re thinking that he might need to be put to sleep. They will be able to inform you of any steps they need you to take, or your policy’s requirements (such as a second opinion, or a post-mortem). This way you can prepare yourself should the situation arise.

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Following emergency euthanasia, the insurance company should also be contacted. They can advise you whether the horse will require a post-mortem. It’s important to not make arrangements for the disposal of the horse’s body until the insurer has been contacted, in case they will need the results of a post-mortem examination to validate a claim.

Euthanising your precious horse or pony can be a heart-wrenching task. Careful research prior to the time and a thorough discussion with your veterinarian or with other horse owners, for their experiences, can help make this time a little easier.   

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