As many of you know we recently had to make one of the toughest decisions that any animal owner has to endure - euthanasia of a beloved pet. In our case our Grand Prix DWB horse Charrington WVH, aka Charlie.
We had owned him since a three year old. Recently gelded at that time and full of stallion antics, he knew nothing about riding and hubbie Paul and I enjoyed the 16 years of owning him and teaching him all about dressage. Both of our twins sat on him over the course of the years as young teens/adults for an occasional lesson, but throughout his life he was very much my horse. Everybody loved Charlie. He was the 'go to' horse for photos. Always completely trustworthy with neophyte horse visitors of all ages. Charlie never had an unsound day in his life, and was always willing to play and loved to be ridden. Never a colic, but an occasional choke that we were able to resolve without a vet visit, caused no doubt by his amazing vacuum abilities and cathedral like mouth.
In Spring of this year he suddenly collapsed in his stable after being given a Zimecterin Gold dewormer. It was within minutes of the administration. I had just put him back into his stall and gone to retrieve a flake or two of hay. When I opened his stall door he was laying prostrate on the floor on his side, his breathing labored and his eye scared. I called out his name, went to his neck and put my hand to his face and he struggled to move. For a split second I thought it was the end of his life. His breathing was irregular and he gasped for air. With some urging from me he managed to get onto his chest, and from there to his feet. It took several tries as I had to help him roll back onto his side to adjust his legs for best placement to complete the task. He had evidently collapsed without regard to how to fall, and his legs were in weird positions.
As he stood up, Charlie's flanks twitched as his muscles continued to conduct some sort of seizure and he appeared spatially unaware.
Once he recovered himself a bit, he turned his head to my chest and buried it there for several long moments. We checked his vital signs. His heart rate and pulse were both rapid as expected, temperature normal.
We made the assumption that it was an allergic reaction to the dewormer
( which he had received many times before with no problem), and gave him a shot of Banamine and he seemed to recover himself.
Hubbie later told me that when I waved at him to come over to the barn from the driveway where he was running the tractor, he had never before seen my face so ashen or heard my voice so eerily calm, and knew immediately something dreadful had happened.
A month or so passed uneventfully. Aside from the fact I noted that when Charlie was brought in during his daily routine he always came straight over to me as I removed his halter and stood with his head in my chest as if asking me to fix something. We also noticed that when Charlie whinnied his voice had changed to that of a sad, pitiful version of his previously masculine tone. He did seem distracted at times, with a far away look in his eye that I did not recognize.
Then a few weeks ago the horse dentist came for his usual annual visit. Without administering any meds he did his usual good work of a manual dental float. We both noticed Charlie had a cold nose and ears despite the 75 degree sunny day. I also noticed Charlie's eyes looked different from anytime I had seen them over 16 years together - there was a white scared look to them while the dentist worked. That half moon crescent that some horse have when scared, one that I had never seen Charlie ever exhibit.
When Charlie's teeth were filed we moved down the aisle to our other Grand Prix horse and long time buddy of Charlie's, Tigger. Once I had the dentist settled working with Tigger I headed back to Charlie to check on him and he was once again down on the floor in the same position as before with the same issue. This time it was as if he had passed out altogether. It took a few agonizing seconds before he heard my voice and he managed to lift his head with obvious difficulty, to turn towards me.
We checked all Charlie's vitals and brought him outside, where he eventually began to graze as we administered Banamine once again. His heart rate was extremely high and he shook from hoof to poll and nose to tail.
We called the vet out and she gave Charlie a complete physical exam including a full neuro exam and sadly he failed. On hind leg placement he had zero idea where his hind legs were, he could not turn his head/neck right and his tail pull worked in one direction only. There was a small cyst in one eye. His front leg placement wasn't much better, and as he attempted to turn to reach for a carrot to the right he crossed his front leg weirdly and almost fell over.
Blood was drawn and tests were completed and the usual suspects for such neuro issues were ruled out during the next seven days.
Meantime it was clear that Charlie was not himself. At all. We observed him walking aimlessly around the back paddock, occasionally walking up to Tigger and licking his friend's flanks up and down in strange motion from belly to topline. Then he'd sniff around Tigger as though he'd never met him before. Charlie would wander back and forth the field in a figure Z to get to the water trough, and once there not drink at all but wander back in exactly the same pattern. He began head pressing in the stall and instead of facing to the breeze at his stable door, in his lifelong favorite position, he stood with his head in the corner. All his vitals seemed fine except for an elevated heart rate. He was eating, though not with his usual fervor and sometimes even left his hay. Hydration checks were fine. It seemed as if he drifted in and out. Sometimes present with me, sometimes somewhere else.
Touchingly Tigger would respond to Charlie's strange attentions by walking really closely alongside him for periods of time, as if trying to comfort Charlie by letting him know he was right there. For a very long week we observed every nuance, scared at what we saw. Our exuberant, stoic, long time heart horse was struggling. He was scared too.
Paul and I were out of options. The horse was in obvious decline. The vet called with final test results that were all negative and reported that 90-95 of neuro cases do not respond positively to any treatment and there was nothing to be done. I thanked her for all her efforts, fully aware that she knew the decision that had to come and I understood the helplessness she felt and told her to try not to worry. The best we could do had been done.
Throughout this entire period my long time friend, also a vet (and an advanced dressage rider of sincere repute) had been in touch, and offered her input and advice as both a medical professional and a friend.
"You cannot take this horse through a winter," she warned me, as I explained that his thermoregulation had been getting worse.
" If you try and take him to Cornell for more tests I'll tell them to lock the gate," she said smiling but not joking ( she is a Cornell alum), protecting me from what she knew would be an unnecessary stress on both us and Charlie and just add a big vet bill to the equation.
This valued friend helped me through the loss of my brother over a decade ago, and her advocacy for Charlie and for us has meant the world of difference to both Paul and I during this difficult time. I could not be more grateful for her guidance and intelligent psychological therapy. She is one of the most spiritually aware people I have ever met and she nudged me kindly into action when I needed it.
SO we made the tough decision and had Charlie put to sleep. The livestock agent brought his trailer and hubbie led Charlie onto it while I stood by. The horse didn't blink at the huge shiny vehicle he just marched right on. He experienced some difficulty stepping up at the back but he sorted himself out and got on board.
The team did what had to be done and left quickly. Paul and I hugged each other and cried and cried.
The next day I knew I had to face the barn. Paul had gallantly taken care of the barn chores for the other horses in my absence and he had thoughtfully taken down Charlie's old worn and hardly readable bronze stall plaque, tucked away the turnout sheets and halter and cleaned out the stable. The door is still shut today. Perhaps in a week or so I'll open it and powerwash the stall and cleanse the space both figuratively and literally.
It was early evening 24 hours later when I finally plucked up the courage to walk across from the house to the barn. I carried two glasses of wine, determined to sit under our tree and have a toast to Charlie's life and count our blessings for having had him in our lives.
Then a weird and beautiful thing happened. As I crossed the dirt driveway and onto the grass on the other side, where the trailer had been parked, I was suddenly aware of a large white circle on the floor under my feet. There was a flash of white light and I felt as though this strange whiteness had been rocketed up from the ground and had entered my body. As if it had somehow been sucked up into my person through no measure of my own. I think I startled and stepped forward, and spilled drops of wine on my hands.The feeling was one of a soft power that seemed to whoosh from the soles of my feet to the top of my head, and then it was gone as if it had settled somewhere. I looked back at the 5 foot diameter circle as if expecting it still to be there, but it was just green grass.
I stood there shell-shocked for a moment. It was an intense feeling that came and went in a flash but the light was clear and soft. I did a self check. Was it a positive thing? Yes. It felt positive. I felt calmer. Energized. I felt Charlie. I sat down at the garden table as I felt a bit wobbly.
As I gazed up at the tree above me through to the setting sun beyond, every leaf on the tree seemed to be magnified. Clearer in outline and saturated in different hues of color, their movement intensified.
Overall there was a feeling of peace.
Of course the grieving process is still ongoing for both hubbie and I, and real peace is somewhat fleeting right now. But I do know that there is so much to this universe that no-one knows, that gives hope to us all with the knowledge that those we have lost are somewhere better. No longer suffering.
For myself, I am sure my late kid brother (who was my keen riding companion growing up), will enjoy his new horse spirit companion. This morning as for many nights this past few weeks, I could not sleep. So after too many wakeful hours I got up to welcome the dawn. A rainbow came with the morning sun, stretched its huge arc directly over our house and barn. It seemed to show me that both my brother and my heart horse along with others lost, will be waiting on the other side of that rainbow bridge when the time comes.
As I finished writing this, with tears streaming down my face - two bluebirds flew into the crabapple tree by my office window and perched facing me as if to send some sort of signal. I could barely see them through the tears, but their gaze was piercing.
The loss of Charlie reminds me to live my best life and to value every minute of it, and to do kindnesses to others I meet along the way.
I am glad that when the time came I was brave enough to do that last great kindness that we can all do for our beloved animals.
I am also extremely grateful to everyone for their outpouring of love and support to Paul and I during this loss and for the professionals that helped Charlie and ourselves through the entire process. It has made a difficult time much more manageable. And we send each and every one of you our heartfelt thanks.