What To Expect Once You’ve Made the Hardest Decision

Making the decision to have a beloved horse humanely euthanized can be one of the hardest decisions a horse owner can make. However, it is one most of us know we will be faced with at one point or another. But what happens after that decision is made?


I worked as a tech for my equine veterinarian for a couple of years. I’ll never forget the first time I assisted in helping a horse cross the proverbial rainbow bridge. As far as euthanasias go, it was about as peaceful and easy (for lack of a better word) as one could ask for. The patient was a gentle Quarter Horse in his mid-20s. The family had owned him for years and knew him inside and out. He was spoiled and loved. He had been colicking, but being the stoic older gentleman he was, he wasn’t thrashing in his stall, kicking, or panicking. Instead he would lay down and maybe roll a bit, but mostly he looked uncomfortable, was giving the Flehmen response (you know, the lip curl), and wasn’t interested in his feed (atypical for this horse).

The owner called us as soon as she observed the symptoms. She gave us his vitals, let us know how long it had been going on, and administered banamine. This wasn’t her first rodeo. My boss and I drove to the barn as quickly as we could and my boss assessed the horse. He had limited gut motility and a rectal exam indicated that there was a blockage somewhere in the intestines — a twist, an impaction, or perhaps a strangulating lipoma. We were in the field, so determining the exact cause of the blockage was unrealistic. The owner had had horses for years. She knew that the choices were limited. Due to his age, she did not consider this horse a surgery candidate, and we agreed. My boss, always one to give the horse the best chance possible, administered more pain medication and fluids in the hopes that the volume of the fluid would aid in untwisting the intestines if that, indeed, was the case. None of us was hopeful. This was a hail Mary and we all knew that the outcome would be clear shortly.

Unfortunately, this did not resolve the colic and the owner made the decision to let her horse pass peacefully. The day was temperate and the sky was clear. The horse was able to walk to the field that was closest to where he would be buried, next to the other horses that had passed before him. A hawk soared above us. The horse lay down because he was tired and uncomfortable. We let him, and in that position he was laid to rest.

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Last night, I was talking to a a friend who, not long ago, had to choose to euthanize one of her horses. Through the course of the discussion it became clear that although we, as horse owners, have an abstract understanding that one day we will have to make the decision to end our horse’s suffering, many of us do not know what to expect once the decision is made. It’s not the most enjoyable topic to discuss, but it’s absolutely a necessary one. We should know what the process looks like and what to expect during and after a euthanasia.

Based on my experience as a Veterinary Assistant, here is a break down of what you can expect when the vet comes out to lay your horse to rest:*

♦ If possible, either you or the vet/vet tech will lead the horse to clear, relatively flat and dry place (sometimes this isn’t possible if the situation is catastrophic and emergent; in these cases, a place that is safest for everyone involved will be found).

♦ The vet will administer a heavy sedative intravenously. If your horse does not handle needles well, you may be given the option to administer oral sedation ahead of time.  (Note: Not all veterinarians sedate prior to euthanasia. It is my opinion that sedation is necessary in order to keep from creating a dangerous situation or traumatizing the owners of the horse. I will not allow my personal horses to be euthanized without sedation first, if at all possible.)

♦ The vet will wait to make sure the sedation has taken full effect. This is usually a good time to say a final goodbye, give a horse a final pat.

♦ The vet will intravenously inject the horse with the euthanasia. Usually it is a blue or pink liquid with pentobarbital sodium as the active ingredient. Be warned: the syringe and needle are large. The injection won’t look like the shots you’re used to seeing your horse get or even an IV of banamine. For full sized horses, we would inject two 60 mL syringes (think large dosing syringes). I believe this was more than technically was necessary, but my boss always wanted to make sure nothing unexpected happened.

♦ Assuming the horse has been standing, either the assistant or the veterinarian will take the horse by the halter and help the horse fall to the ground once it starts to sway. In my experience, this happens within 30 seconds of the dose of euthanasia being delivered. This is often the most traumatic part for horse owners. We’re used to seeing our horses standing on all fours or laying down of their own accord. When horses go down with euthanasia, they usually fall to the side. Some skilled vets or techs can maneuver the horse so that it sits back and then lays to the side more gently (I was never taught this technique), but when a horse goes down the visual can be hard for the owners.

♦ Once the horse is down, the tech may hold the horse’s head and/or neck. This is due to the muscle spasms that can occur that cause the horse’s head to come up. Those spasms are not felt by the horse, but can be traumatic for the owner to see Sometimes the horse will gasp a little. Again, these are spasms. The horse is unaware of any of this. I always placed a towel of the horse’s face/eyes while the final breaths were being taken so that the owner didn’t need to see horse’s eye as he finished breathing. Often I would try to close the horse’s mouth so that it didn’t appear to be gaping, but this is only for the sake of the owner.

♦ The vet will monitor the horse’s heartbeat until it can no longer be detected. This can take up to seven minutes, but in my experience it usually took less — especially with older or sick horses whose bodies were already shutting down.

♦ Once a heartbeat is no longer detected, the vet will check capillary refill and ensure that the eyes are fixed, dilated, and non-responsive (that was usually my job).

♦ We would cut and braid a piece of the horse’s mane and tail to give to the owner. Many owners had already done this if the euthanasia was planned, but most vets want to make sure the owner has a memento in case they don’t think about it at the time of the horse’s passing.

*To be clear, this is based on how my boss did it. Every veterinarian does it differently, and the circumstances will vary based on whether or not the euthanasia was planned, the horse’s location, and the emotional state of the owner. 

Most of the time, the owners were present throughout this process. Once in a while they weren’t. I think my boss knew her clients well enough to know whether or not they could handle seeing the horse go down.

Once the horse has passed, there are multiple options for what to do with the body. Some owners, if they have the land and the equipment, will bury them on the farm (not all jurisdictions allow for this). If there is not the option of burying your horse on your property, haul out options include having the horse cremated, having a necropsy done (most major veterinary schools will do this for a fee), or general disposal based on what is allowed by your area. Most vets can recommend cremation and hauling services. Calling them is the responsibility of the horse’s owner. My recommendation to horse owners is not to be present when the horse’s body is hauled away. Maneuvering a horse’s body onto or into a truck once it has passed is not a pretty sight and is not the way you want to remember your horse.

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In my time working with the vet, I assisted in a number of euthanasias. Doing so definitely is one of the harder parts of the job, but I also am incredibly grateful to have worked for a veterinarian who truly loves horses and always did an excellent job when it came time euthanize. My former boss is not known to be overly compassionate to humans, but her love for animals is unparalleled. Therefore, she made a point to make their final moments as peaceful as possible.