Last Updated on March 23, 2023
One of the saddest parts of owning or loving a horse is knowing when it’s time to say goodbye. However, learning to recognize the signs a horse is dying will help you understand when the end is near for your beloved horse or pony.
Horses, like nearly all other animals, have life spans shorter than their human partners. While a horse could stay with one person its whole life, people will likely have multiple horses throughout their lifetimes. Horses can live to be up to about 30 years old, but most horses will pass away in their mid to late 20s. There are many reasons a horse could be dying, including sudden onset illness and tragic accidents.
Today, we will be focusing on the end stages of life that accompany old age in horses. We will be discussing behavioral and physical signs that your horse may be ready to cross the rainbow bridge, and what you can do to help both your horse and yourself through this difficult process and the decisions and emotions that accompany it.
What Are Common Causes of Death in Older Horses?
Dying of ‘old age’ is not particularly common in the world of horses. It is far more likely that your horse will succumb to some kind of disease or disability that will lead to the end of its health. The main reason that horse owners feel the time is right for their elderly horses to be euthanized is that their quality of life is poor or because they are suffering.
There are many reasons a senior horse could be nearing the end of its lifetime. Senior horses, like any other senior animals, are more prone to illnesses and injuries than younger horses. Even smaller injuries and illnesses can become larger problems as a horse ages.
Senior horses can develop any number of sicknesses that can rapidly decline their health. Some of these illnesses include Cushing’s disease, colic, laminitis, chronic coughs, respiratory disease, and much more. Any of these illnesses can lead to the death of a horse if left untreated.
Senior horses are also more susceptible to injuries than younger horses. It is harder for a senior horse to get back up after falling, or to get over a stone bruise on his hoof. These seemingly harmless injuries can pose a bigger threat to a senior horse’s health and well-being than to that of a younger horse.
Older horses are also far more prone to musculoskeletal injuries that can affect your horse’s ability to move around normally. Reduced mobility is a big problem for geriatric horses and often means they have a poor quality of life.
All of these things can contribute to a senior horse’s decline into the last few months or weeks of his life. The best thing to do to care for your horse is to watch for signs that it may be their time to pass on and help ease the way when the time is right.
Signs a Horse is Dying
The signs a horse is dying will vary according to the reason for its suffering or imminent death. One of the main symptoms of a horse dying of old age is that the horse no longer seems interested in food, and will often stop eating altogether. Elderly horses often become disinterested in normal events, and no longer show pleasure at being turned out or when greeting a familiar friend.
If the horse is suffering from a health problem, you may see some specific signs the horse is dying.
For example, a horse that has been struggling with recurrent colic may stop eating and start to rapidly lose weight. A horse that has been struggling with laminitis may lose the ability to stand up due to muscle weakness. A similar issue can arise in older horses with osteoarthritis or other musculoskeletal problems.
The best way to identify these little tell-tale signs a horse is dying is to know your horse and its normal behavior. Spend time with your senior horse and get to know his habits, likes, and dislikes. It can be a good idea to fill in a written questionnaire, answering questions such as:
- Where does he like to stand in his pasture?
- What does he do when he is brought into his stall?
- What is their behavior like when he gets fed, and how quickly does he eat?
- Does he respond to seeing other horses or humans?
- If he is still being ridden at the time, how does he respond to exercise, both during and afterward?
The biggest signs you will have that your horse may be declining will be changed in his everyday behavior. If the answers to the questions listed above are changing, it may be time to start discussing options with your vet. For example, if your horse normally stamps at the barn door in his eagerness to go out to graze, you can be sure something is wrong if he stops this behavior.
What you can do if you see signs a horse is dying
The process of deciding when it is your horse’s time to go is quite possibly the most difficult thing about owning a horse. When it comes to euthanasia, you will want to be 100% certain that you have done it at the best possible time to save your horse from unnecessary suffering. Thankfully, there are many great services and resources available to help you and your horse through this difficult time.
First and foremost, if you have an elderly horse, maintain regular communication with your vet. Make sure your vet knows your horse’s unique situation and medical history, and make sure your vet is made aware of any drastic changes that have been going on in your horse’s behavior. Always consult your vet before making any decisions regarding your horse’s health and well-being.
In the case of an older horse, your veterinarian can help you put together an end-of-life plan for your horse. This will involve assessing your horse’s quality of life, to enable you to keep your horse as comfortable as possible. At this point you can also make a plan for what will happen when the time arrives for euthanasia, helping to take the stress out of an already difficult situation.
Just like there is hospice care for people when they are nearing the end, there is also hospice care for horses. Some horse owners do not like the idea of euthanizing their equine partners. If that is the case, hospice services for horses are available.
These services can be provided by owners or by hired hospice companies. Most equine hospice programs involve removing the senior horse from its herd, giving it a comfortable and clean place to lie down, and providing it with natural comforts such as essential oils and probiotics.
At the risk of allowing their equine partners to suffer in pain or discomfort, many horse owners will elect to euthanize their horses when they feel that their horse is ready. This can be an extremely difficult decision and is best made with the support of a vet.
Quality of life assessment is the best way to decide when euthanasia is the kindest option for your horse. When horses stop eating, stop moving around, and stop performing basic functions, most horse owners know it’s time to call their vet.
Once you have made the difficult decision to let your horse pass on, or your horse has passed on naturally, there are a few options you can choose from. In some situations, your equine partner can be buried. If you live on a private farm or have access to a pet cemetery, this could be an option for you. There are laws surrounding where horses can be buried, so check with your local authority first.
Equine burial services exist, but are limited in quantity; you would have to research to see if there is one near you. An equine burial can be extremely expensive, as it does take a significant amount of effort and machinery to move a horse after he has passed away.
Cremation and other services
The more popular alternative is cremation, many horse owners elect to have their horse cremated rather than buried. Equine cremation is fairly straightforward, and many pet cremation companies provide equine services.
With equine cremation, the owner has the option to select which kind of urn they would like their horse to be placed into. They also frequently have the option to have a portion of the horse’s mane or tail made into a bracelet or other memento.
Equine cremation services also sometimes provide shadowboxes, photo frames, and other services in addition to cremation. Frequently, they will come to pick up your horse after he has been euthanized and will perform the services within a week or two of pickup.
Read about Signs Of Neurological Problems In Horses
Do Horses Know When They Are Going to Die?
It would be impossible to be 100% sure if horses know when they are going to die, as they are unable to communicate these feelings to us. There are some anecdotal reports of horses behaving oddly before they died, but it would be difficult to know the reason behind these behavioral changes.
If your horse is being euthanized, then your veterinarian will take every step possible to ensure your horse does not know what is happening. Most horses are sedated before euthanasia, so they have no idea what is happening when the time comes.
Seeing your horse’s health decline is never easy, but knowing your options and understanding the changes your horse is showing can help you navigate these difficult times.
I hope this article has helped you understand what to look for in your declining senior horse, and what you can do to help! If so, please share this article and share with us what your experiences have been!
Michael Dehaan is a passionate horse owner, horse rider, and lover of all things equine. He has been around horses since he was a child, and has grown to become an expert in the field. He has owned and ridden a variety of horses of different breeds, and has trained many to compete in shows and competitions. He is an experienced horseman, having worked with and competed many horses, including his own. He is an active member of the equestrian community, participating in events and teaching riding lessons.