The Death of a Horse
Jim, our vet, was holding a sedative-filled syringe and stroking Jake’s neck, feeling for a vein. “Hold his head,” he said to me. “Tell me when it starts to get heavy.”
A horse’s head weighs about 100 pounds and steadying Jake’s head while Jim injected the sedative, I felt only the weight of companionship.
Jake was a 24 year old quarterhorse, built like a small tank, with powerful hindquarters, a well-muscled chest and a sculpted head. Horsemen talk about a horse’s eye as a measure of temperament; Jake’s eye was soft, kind, steady.
He belonged to my younger daughter, Erica, but I loved riding him, and did, often. Over the past year, Jake had begun to deteriorate. He had difficulty getting up the hill in his pasture, his hind legs crossing-instead of tracking straight- when he walked. Jake’s muscles were slowly wasting, his legs wobbly. Horses are prey animals, constantly testing the wind for strange smells, or sudden movement. Then they run. Movement, speed, running are the essence of horse. Lacking mobility, there is no horse, only a target. It was time to euthanize Jake.
When the day came to put Jake down, I was there, resolute. Erica and her older sister, Rebecca, were with me, waiting for the vet. Erica walked down the hill in Jake’s pasture, and as she approached, Jake lifted his head, tilting it towards her, while she attached his halter. I watched him struggle up the hill, halting every few steps. Horses are stoic, and if they appear in pain, then the pain is serious. The domestic horse lives a life free of predation, but tell that to evolution. A horse hides his pain, not wanting to give away his weakness. For a wild horse, it makes sense to fool the mountain lion. The stoicism of a domestic horse places humans in charge of reading equine body language, trying to determine quality of life. The last thing my daughters and I wanted for Jake was the terror of falling in the field, unable to get up and run.
The horse now struggling to climb a small hill once carried me nimbly up steep rocky hills, across streams, down narrow slippery trails. His body then was strong, and riding him, I felt his powerful muscles move beneath mine. It evaporates gradually, physical strength and grace, so that you don’t notice the unfolding weakness, until one day, the hill is too steep, the legs too tired, the once familiar path treacherous. A body in motion can’t remain in motion. Jake’s decline was my decline too, the decline of everyone I loved, just more visible. Once on level ground, Jake grazed, occasionally lifting his head, looking around, alert.
The farm was divided by an unpaved, narrow, dull gray road. We walked Jake along it to a small, flat grassy area. Across the lane were drifts of pasture, dotted with horses. While we waited for the vet, the girls fed Jake the equine equivalent of the condemned man’s last meal- carrots, apples, granola bars. Food which would have killed him from colic any other time,
We heard the crunch of tires on the gravel drive; Jim, our vet, was close. More kisses, tears. Erica buried her head in Jake’s neck. Neither she nor Becky wanted to witness Jake’s death, but didn’t want him to die alone either. I promised I’d take good care of him. As Jim approached, they drove away.
Across the farm lane, the horses were grazing, ignoring us. Jake’s last view was pastoral, the horses scattered across fields, singly and in pairs.
Jake’s head soon felt heavy, and I cradled it, supporting him.
Jim prepared the large dose of barbiturate, frivolously pink inside the syringe, and told me to stand back. Horses were unpredictable in their last moments, could rear up and fall over on top of a person and kill her. I let Jake go, and backed to the end of the lead rope. Jim injected Jake and a look of surprise, the universal moment of recognition just before the fall, or the crash, or the gun, flitted across Jake’s eyes. “It’s ok, buddy,” Jim said, and Jake dropped and hit the ground, the surprise in his eyes replaced with a glassy void.
After Jim left, I knelt by Jake’s still warm body, and stroked his neck. I stood up, Jake’s body behind me, and looked out across the summer pastures. The late afternoon sun was strong. The horses had moved to the top of a large expanse of rolling green fields, framed by fencing, and beyond that, the undulant tree line. I turned again and looked down at Jake, his body beginning to stiffen in death. The renderer would pull up soon, and load Jake’s body into the truck. Dust to dust. I walked to my car, slid into my seat, and turned onto the dusty farm road on my way home.
About the Author: Anne Sagalyn is a retired physician and lifelong equestrian. She has been published in Annals of Internal Medicine, in the "On Being a Doctor" section. The essay was chosen for the most recent Annals of Medicine anthology, published in 2014.