The old horse hadn’t looked good for a couple of weeks, and he stood in the corner of the pasture with his head down, seeking space from the others. I had hoped that he would feel better after a long, hard ride where he had performed wonderfully to the end. But when we got home after the outing and he stepped out of the trailer, it was clear something was wrong. Gurgling sounds from his lungs and icky stuff coming from his nose made it clear that he wasn’t well. We gave him a shot to make him feel better, and waited.
A trip to the vet a few days later sent us home with antibiotics. The horse still seemed strong but kind of unresponsive compared to his former aggressive self. But the additional drugs and more waiting didn’t help. By Friday afternoon, just minutes before the close of the work week, he really looked bad and uncomfortable.
A frantic phone call to the vet was answered with a willingness to stay open late. The vet would wait for me to bring the horse in and see if a last-minute round of strong intravenous drugs would help the horse, or whether the most merciful of treatments was necessary.
The parking lot was empty when I pulled into Dr. Len Sorensen’s driveway, but the door was still unlocked. In his quiet, experienced way of going, the vet looked at the horse and knew right away that nothing could be done. “Looks like pneumonia from aspiration,” Dr. Sorensen said. “He’s choked on his food and now it’s in his lungs.”
I’ve learned about this condition and seen it before. In this particularly tough horse, the condition hadn’t been so obvious at first. He just seemed a little out of sorts and had a productive cough. Don’t read on if you get grossed out easily, because here’s the deal, and equine owners see it over and over: Horses can’t vomit, which makes their guts and plumbing exceptionally fragile. Things get backed up and they can’t get out. Aspiration of food, even for people, can be deadly. This Friday evening, with the clock ticking past 6 p.m., we had to consider the next step.
Which brought us to the second very important helping hand of the day: Bob Hawks from the sanitation company.
It’s not easy to dispose of large carcasses. Digging a hole with heavy equipment in a shady corner of a green pasture under a flowering apricot tree is ideal. But really, it’s not where most horses go when their time is up.
When the vet and I pulled into the transfer station at 6:30, Bob was there waiting. Waiting for the three of us to do what we needed to do to put this horse out of his misery. It was quiet, there were no garbage trucks coming and going, and we were thankful for the private space to put the horse down.
That wasn’t my first horse funeral, nor will it be my last. At this juncture my mind still ponders the “woulda, coulda shoulda’s” that human brains are demonized with. But what really sticks in my thoughts is how grateful I am that expert and helpful hands were there to handle the situation, even on a Friday evening when they should have been done with their work and moving into a relaxing weekend.