The Worst Hurt: When The Best Choice for Your Horse is to Sell Them

Photo © Evelyn Szczepanek / ES Equine Photography


Sometimes it is just time to let go.  It is time to humanely euthanize to end an animal’s suffering.  The why and when are patently obvious and when it is done, you mourn and your heart aches but you know that you have done the right thing and that the horse’s soul is at peace.  

But there are other kinds of hurt too. 

The worst hurt you will ever feel in your heart comes when you are backed into a corner and realize that the beautiful creature that has so enriched your life must go to someone else.  Their future is now up to the person holding the lead rope; the one loading what ten minutes ago was your horseonto a trailer and driving away.

As much as I wanted to believe that our partnership would be forever, I realized from the beginning that my time with my mare could be finite. I had beaten back a particularly nasty cancer over a decade ago…but it could re-emerge or another calamity could arise.  I did not make her the promise that I would keep her forever.  I only whispered in her soft ear that I hoped I could.  

 One year passed, then two. Our relationship seemed more permanent every day.  Then trouble came on swift wings and my heart broke with the realization that I was going to lose the beloved beautiful mare who had become the center of my days.

I’d been struggling to rehab from a leg injury for nearly eight months and things were only getting worse.  I had developed a compression fracture in my sacrum that would take more time to heal.  While she might have enjoyed loafing for a week or two, my girl loved working too much to be a pasture pet. The place where I boarded her was wonderful for her but not so good for me.  There was no lesson program, and I knew I needed more help than the occasionally offered and often conflicting horsemanship advice that was chipping away at my confidence. The next closest boarding facility that offered lessons was twice as far away, the board cost a third more, and lacked the kind of turnout I wanted for her. As the economy continued to sour, at home we were starting to feel the pinch of everyday expenses that seemed to rise exponentially day after day. It wouldn’t be long before boarding costs took a big jump and I never wanted to be in the position of putting off my horse’s care while I was debating the cost of a vet call versus my potential to treat the emerging condition on my own.  That is how horses suffer and sometimes needlessly die. 

When the moment came, I made the decision swiftly. Like a surgeon unhesitatingly slicing into flesh, I cut her out of my life with a single phone call and an electronic signature on a piece of paper. I had built a shell of logic around me but even as the electronic file transferring ownership faded from my screen, I wanted her back.  She was mine and I couldn’t live without her. But there was no going back.  In all too short a time she would be loaded on a trailer and headed toward what I hoped was a life as good as the one I was giving her.

The day before she left, I arrived at the barn when no one else was there and said a private good-bye to her, forehead to forehead, hand on her heart, exchanging breaths with her as was our custom, giving her part of my soul and absorbing some of hers.  I gave her a bath, tidied her luxurious mane and tail, rubbed cream in her beautiful ears so the gnats wouldn’t bite, and rubbed down her beautiful coat with citronella fly spray.  I picked her feet, applied hoof oil, and put some cooling gel on her legs from hock to heel in the hope it would ease the stiffness from standing for her journey.  I massaged the tricky spot in her neck for a long time as she dozed.  For the last time I ran my hand along her back and patted her rump. I couldn’t look her in the eye when I left the barn.

I am not a coward.  I cradled every one of my animals in my arms as they breathed their last and sat with them while their bodies cooled, remembering the joyous moments we shared during our time together but I could not bear to be at the barn when my beautiful girl left for her new home. I sat in my back porch rocker, eyes tightly closed against my tears, my mind tracing on an imaginary map the reverse of the happy journey she had taken into my life as the trailer hauling her slipped out of our quiet mountains into busy suburban traffic, then onto the highway, and then eventually back into the country again.  Would she recognize the twisting, hilly lane?  Perhaps she’d hear an old friend among the horses calling back and forth about the new arrival. Surely, she would recognize the barn, the pastures, and some of the people because mares have long memories. How would she remember me? I clenched my fist, feeling the beating of her heart in my hand and let the tears fall.

My beautiful girl went back to a familiar place because I adopted her from an accredited professional rescue/rehoming organization that promised in writing to take her back without hesitation should I be unable to keep her. I couldn’t make the promise so I made a succession plan.  From the moment I brought her home I knew that she would have a place to go if fate intervened in our lives.  She will always have that safe place from which she may find another person who will love her as much as I do.  If not, she gets to stay there where staff and volunteers will care for her kindly and she will live out her life content and safe. If she is adopted again – and I hope she does find a person to love her – she will always be followed by the organization. 

I’d written eight pages of notes about her care, feeding, training, and the cute little things she does that someone else might find annoying as hell.  I held back the saddle pad with her name on it, but I sent her fly sheet, her rain sheet, her slow feeder, and her half-gone block of pink Himalayan salt and vowed to buy her a winter blanket to replace the one she’d shredded early this spring.   I sent several informative emails and one text, hoping I’d get some substantive message in return.   

“She’s here. She’s in good shape” was all the news I got in a short text, and I had no reason to doubt that was true. 

I must be content with that because it is stated very clearly in the surrender papers I signed that she’s not mine anymore and I have no right to know how she’s doing; how she’s adjusting, how she’s coping without me, and if she goes to a new home. I’ve had my precious allotted time with her.

And she is gone, gone, gone.

Photo © Evelyn Szczepanek / ES Equine Photography

In all our married life, this is the first time my husband and I have not kept an animal through the end of its life span and I am as inconsolable as if I had sent my dear girl to auction and she had fallen into the hands of a kill buyer. No matter how many times I tell myself she is fine, I worry, fret, and cry. Then, once more, I pull myself together and remind myself of how much worse it would have been for her if I hadn’t had a succession plan in place.

When I was a child, I had little input on when and to whom the horses I rode were bought and sold.  The first one I remember leaving was a gelding with such a nasty, dangerous attitude that I’m sure he had a bad ending; the next ones I was assured went to good people who would love them.  The last two went, along with the last year of my childhood, to a horseman with a good reputation for finding good horses, training them, and selling them on to other homes.  I fully recognize that I am quite likely also grieving for the unknown fates of those lost horses though I had no control over their futures.   But, you see, that’s just the thing – even as an adult you have no control over the things that happen to your horses unless you make a succession plan.

You may not believe it now but even if you have made the promise there may well come a day when you too will face rehoming an animal that you swore you would keep forever. It won’t ease the worst hurt you will ever feel in your heart, but your brain will feel better if you have a succession plan for each of the animals in your care whether they be horses, dogs, cats or goldfish.  It is the only responsible thing to do, especially in these uncertain times. 

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