BY DEBORAH JANE NICHOLAS
A vet once said to me by the time the horse shows pain, the damage is already severe. Those words sent me down the road of wanting to fully understand equine body language, instinct and psychology. I have now adapted those words to fit what I believe is true, which is by the time a human identifies pain in the horse, the damage is already severe. The horse is very good at hiding injury or illness because it is a prey animal. A lion hiding in tall grass never steams into a herd of zebra, but selects the animal it is most likely to succeed at killing. No animal will want to expend energy for a useless cause. The likely target will be a zebra that is old, young, weak or injured. Therefore if a horse is retired that is quite obviously lame then I am certain it must know it is vulnerable to attack. Thankfully there are usually no free roaming large predatory animals hunting around the countryside of Great Britain. Considering the amount of times I have either stopped, or managed a bolt, I am fairly sure evolution has yet to tell our equine friends this fact. It is evident that the domestic horse has all the same instincts as the wild horse. Of course Homo Sapiens is also a predatory animal, probably the worst, most destructive animal on the planet. Albeit horses can have some trust in their human handlers, some more than others, it will never be 100%.
If a horse is showing catastrophic lameness through an injury, condition or disability then it should be put to sleep, rather than retired. If mother nature herself has decided not to tell the horse he is safe in his paddock, then it could be considered cruel for the horse to live with the stress of knowing he is vulnerable to attack 24/7. Horses generally operate as a herd, the herd is the entity, not necessarily the single horse. In some ways the herd does not care about the single horse, but only the survival of the herd itself. Observe the hierarchical system, when a person hays a paddock the weakest animal can often not eat. The weakest, most least dominant horse will either only eat the scraps, or eat when the more dominant horses have had their fill. This ensures only the fittest, strongest animals survive, the herd itself stays strong. It may seem harsh but the horse does not care if a weaker animal does not eat, even dies. In the wild the weaker animal is not just a threat to the survival of the herd, but rather its more advantageous to the survival of the equine to build a herd of strong animals. Horses with colic and other life threatening conditions die so it is less common for wild/feral horses to pass on genetic defects.
Therefore it could actually be a very stressful life for a horse with obvious lameness to be retired. Not only does it have to live with the stress that it understands its vulnerable to attack, it will be identified by its herd as weak. There just won’t be a crippled horse in a domestic herd that is the leader, or even 2nd in command, it will be the lowest. The lowest that isn’t getting hay over winter, is sent away from the lush grass over the summer and an animal that is constantly badgered by the higher horses. The very core, the very thing that makes a horse a horse is the ability to run. Nature dishes out specific tools to every species to give it an advantage. The horse was given lightening quick reflexes and the power to run at speed at a moment’s notice. Now imagine for whatever reason that ability is taken away from the horse. The human is prolonging the suffering of the animal for their own selfish reasons, because we love the horse.
No-one wants to be the Grim Reaper. No one wants to face the realisation that the very animal you have loved and cared for over many years will now die from your decision. But horses hide pain to ensure their survival. As harsh as it is, once a horse is showing obvious weakness it already knows its defenceless and vulnerable. The horse you love should not spend its time being in pain and feeling defenceless, the stress of this is unfair, and both physically and mentally cruel. Those that pass the horse around as a companion, or even worse as a foal factory are not people that love horses. Horses that are riddled with arthritis, and disorders of the musculoskeletal system will be in agony if forced to produce offspring, they also pass on genetic defects.
If your horse is showing visible signs of discomfort and/or lameness, it might just be kinder to let go. Do not prolong the suffering to protect yourself from a broken heart at the detriment of your equine friend.
Just let go.