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*Throughout this article when I refer to ‘horse’ or ‘equine’ this includes ponies and donkeys.

At Horsewell Equine Support we are only too aware that the very idea that we one day have to face the unimaginable prospect of our horse dying, is something we would rather not contemplate. And although it is a subject we would like to avoid at all cost, we may find ourselves having to deal with this deeply emotional situation when we least expect it. 

With this article I hope to inform you and dispel some of the fears and anxieties you may experience when you have arrived at the end-of-life care for your horse.

Very few horses are found dead through natural causes, it is mostly a case of them being old and arriving at the end of their time, which would still require us to assist them in making the transition without stress and pain and in comfort, or they become so ill, either physically or mentally, that there is no other way but to show them the respect and love they deserve and decide to opt for euthanasia. This will be in the end something your vet will indicate as the kindest cause of action to take. Of course, in case of an accident there may be no time to discuss or give end of life care, but it will still require you to follow the rules and regulations that are attached to the aftermath of the death of a horse.

We have the responsibility to ensure that our horses receive the very best of care and welfare throughout their life and this does not stop when our horse comes to the end of their life. If anything, we need to consider that the end-of-life journey is the most intensive and emotionally demanding than at any other period they are in your care. And it is at this time that we need to help our horse to transition with dignity. It requires courage and your unconditional love to show your horse the compassion and dignity that they deserve.

The circumstance when euthanasia needs to be considered. 

  • Chronic pain from a condition which is no longer curable.

  • Extreme sudden weight loss and/or complete loss of appetite, including no drinking. There are a number of extreme weight loss or loss of appetite causes, some of these may not be discovered unless an autopsy has been performed.

  • When your horse needs to undergo a surgery/medical procedure and it becomes clear that the prognosis shows that there will be a non-reversable great loss of quality of life.

  • If your horse has to be stalled for the rest of its life and the suffering can only be managed through life long use of continuous analgesic intervention. There is no quality of life for your horse.

  • Depression is something which is a difficult one to come to terms with, because we are often convinced that with our patience and help and the administration of anti-depressants, which can have severe side-affects, we will be able to help our horse/ to overcome this extremely debilitating condition. However, once the depression is so deep seated that the horse has completely shut down there is no way back.

  • Unmanageable behaviour or medical issues which become dangerous for the horseor their handlers.

There are a number of other circumstances which may lead to a vet advising immediate euthanasia.
Never hesitate to contact your vet when the above situations or other seemingly insurmountable issues present themselves.  Your vet will, together with you, decide when the moment for euthanasia has arrived. Nonetheless, you may like to get a second opinion from another experienced equine vet or your alternative medicine practitioner. And although it may be tempting, don’t be persuaded by others,

including, unqualified and equine inexperienced practitioners of alternative medicine*, that their particular treatment will cure your horse or restore their quality of life. 

*Professional equine alternative medicine practitioners can be of great benefit when used in the right circumstances. But be aware that there are also practitioners who will not shy away from persuading you that they can bring your horse back to a healthy life with their ‘special’ brand of medicine, even when a vet, or after a second opinion from another equine vet or professional alternative medicine practitioner having given their considered and reasonably evidence-based advice, concluding that it would be cruel to continue treatment and thus unnecessary suffering. All practitioners, be they of conventional or alternative medicine will advise the right course of action when it is clear that there is no alternative other than to cease the suffering of the horse. 

Image Credit: Jon Tyson

Protocol – Process – Application of Euthanasia

Every country and local authority has their own rules and laws when it comes to the application of euthanasia. Please be advised to always seek their guidance.

In the U.K the following rules need to be followed.

  • Euthanasia may only be administered by a highly qualified and experienced vet.

  • The vet will ask for identification of the horse, to verify that there is no foul play.

  • The owner or yard manager or designated person needs to sign a consent form.

  • In cases of an equine needing to be immediately euthanised, such as a yard, field or traffic accident, a vet is authorized to go ahead to prevent prolonged suffering.

  • There are a number of applications that may be used for euthanasia, your vet will discuss these options with you.

  • The environment where the euthanasia is going to take place needs to be made very comfortable for the horse and needs to be large enough for the horse to lay down stretched out and there needs to be enough room for the vet and handlers.

  • The environment needs to be assessed on safety, as euthanasia can be unpredictable as to how the horse is going to react. It needs to be safe for the horse and everyone involved.

  • It is highly recommended that whenever possible the horse is sedated before the application of the euthanasia method is administered.

  • Loss of consciousness needs to be achieved so the equine is not being subjected to cardiac arrest or respiratory failure, both of which can be extremely painful and very stressful for the horse. The whole aim of euthanasia is to prevent any more suffering, not sedating the horse beforehand may incur greater suffering, something to be avoided at all cost.

  • Euthanasia may only be administered when the effect is guaranteed.

  • Death will be confirmed by heartbeat cessation, ceasing of respiratory function ie: no movement in nostrils, lungs or thorax.

  • No corneal eye reflex.

Other things to consider is to ensure that the process is not being carried out in the hearing or smell of other horses. As horses are extremely sensitive to external stimuli, it will greatly upset and stress them if they become aware of something happening which brings them to a state of panic of an unknown quantity.

Also consider your horses human carers and friends, speak to them about what is going to happen. And if at all possible, bring the horses’ equine companions near to say goodbye before the procedure is being carried out.

In all eventualities it is important that every single process and procedure is being carried out with dignity, grace and respect. Not only for the horse, but all who are concerned with them.

The unavoidable practicalities of end-of-life issues for you and your equine.

Insurance – When you are looking at insurance for your horse it is of great importance to you and your equine to consider the following clauses.

  • What is covered in the policy when it comes to end-of-life proceedings and after your horse has died.

  • Does it include end-of-life vet fees, including emergency coverage in case of acute attention, for instance when your horse is involved in a traffic accident, a fatal accident in the yard or considered plans for euthanasia.

  • Does it make provision for heavy plant hire, such as diggers or other machinery in the event that you want a home burial (the rules of which we will come to further on in this article). Or the collection and disposal of your equine after death.

  • Does it cover cremation costs.

  • You will need to get in touch with your insurance as soon as possible after your horse has died.


Livery Yard Policy and Protocol

  • When stabling your horse with a commercial or privately owned livery yard it is important to find out what their policies and protocol consists of in the event of your equine needing immediate vet attention is case of an accident or when end-of-life proceedings are necessary.

  • Make sure the yard is unsured for all eventualities and has the right protocols in place in case of euthanasia and that they only employ an experienced and qualified vet to apply the procedure.

  • The yard needs to show that they have all health and safety regulations in place in case of end-of-life procedures. They have to be able to show you black on white that these regulations are adhered to. They also need to have the contact details of the relevant local authority to ensure correct and dignified removal of the equine.

  • Have the discussion about what they are willing to undertake in case you, for whatever reason, cannot be present during your horses’ end-of -life stage and subsequent euthanasia. You may have to sign an agreement that you agree with the yard manager that in the event the worst needs to happen, you allow them to follow all legal proceedings. And that they inform you immediately when it is necessary to undertake any of the above proceedings.

Home Burial

  • If you have the facilities to opt for the home burial of your equine, please consider the following.

  • In the U.K you will need to inform your local authority of your intentions. Most will only consider a license for home burial when you have kept your equine as a pet.

  • Your local authority will make the decision if they consider your equine to be a pet or a working horse. Such as in the case of working equines for commercial purposes; as in wood felling practices or transport, including horse and carriage transport for funerals or entertainment. You may own a horse which you consider to be both a workhorse and a pet. So, this may need a discussion with your local authority when you have your heart set on a home burial, providing all guidelines are followed. Some local authorities may show leniency when you can show that although your equine is a working animal you are emotionally attached to it and have a close human to animal relationship.

  • Every country will have their own rules and regulations. It is therefore advisable that you find out about these before you are faced with unforeseen events.

  • The plot you are designating for home burial needs to adhere to very specific guidelines. Remember that each local authority may have their own rules. If you carry out a home burial without local authority permission or if you do not follow the legal guidelines you may incur a heavy fine.

  • Your burial arrangements or collection of your equine from the premises where it is being kept need to be in order before euthanasia. It would be prudent to have everything in place before any end-of-life situation presents itself or in case of a fatal accident. As in knowing who to contact for big plant/machinery hire is vital when you plan a home burial or which company to use for collection.

A home burial may be conducted along the same ritualistic ceremonies as a human burial. You may want your religious advisor to be present to conduct prayers. Flowers may be laid on the grave and a headstone erected. Invite those people close to you to be present to lend support. There may be people who have known the horse and who would want to be present and they might like to do a reading.   


There are specialised companies that deal with equine cremations. It would be advisable to know who you can contact before the necessity to use them arises. If you would like to receive a part of your equines ashes to be kept in an urn or to bury on a home plot or want to distribute some of the ashes in a special place, they will be able to advise you on all these issues. There may be an opportunity to be present at the cremation. If this is the case it may be conducted on the same lines as a human cremation. See burials.

Often people have a plaque made up in remembrance of their horse which can be placed somewhere suitable, perhaps alongside a photograph.

Further considerations

  • Inform your farrier.

  • Inform your hay and food delivery contractors.

  • Inform the breeder where necessary.

  • You may want to put a notice in your preferred horse magazine.

Children and the effect of losing their beloved pony or horse

As parents and carers, we would always want to shield our children from things which are painful for them to cope with. And although I would never advocate forcing a child into something they are not ready to face, it may be advisable to involve your child in some aspects of what happens when their beloved pony or horse dies. It is of course up to each individual as how the loss of their pet is presented. Children are far more resilient and capable of dealing with death than we may give them credit for. To lose a pet is painful and it is therefore important that you help them cope and guide them through the mourning process. As it is something which they will come across at other times in their lives, it will be easier when they experience this at a time where they can process the feeling of loss with your support.

Coming to terms with loss

The hardest part of losing our horse is the feelings we are left with afterwards. Mourning is a journey which we need to accept as something that evolves in stages. We may be left with a feeling of guilt, convincing ourselves that we could have done more for our horse, these feelings are perfectly normal and will fade when you come to realise that, unless there has been avoidable negligence on your part, you should not add to your anguish by apportioning blame.

You will feel that there is a huge hole left in your life, and it is heart breaking to no longer have the daily responsibility of caring for your horse. To see the empty barn or stall, or the field where his friend’s may be roaming around not understanding what has happened to their companion. Seek solace by spending a bit more time with the ones left behind, reassure them and yourself that their friend is no longer suffering.

Talk to your friends and loved ones about the happy times. You may even want to set up a small memorial where you can place some photographs and light a candle. Walking the route you used to take with your horse, is also a way of remembering and relishing the joy you experienced with your horse on those rides.

Take your time in disposing of your horses’ tack, rugs, toys or other items. As even though you may feel that you do not want to be reminded of your loss by seeing their things around you, to immediately get rid of them may at a later point feel like a mistake.

You may like to mark the anniversary of their passing with a special ritual or ceremony. As time goes by, the feeling of acute pain and loss will lead to healing.

It is my sincere hope that this article will dispel some of the myths and fears connected with the idea of losing your horse.

Image Sources: Unless otherwise specified, from Wix

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Geertje is an Equine Nutritionist and Behaviour Consultant who applies a very hollistic approach to her equine clients.  Her business, Horsewell Consulting, covers Berkshire and Oxfordshire.


Phone: 07582 704830

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