Commentary

Considering a Horse's Quality of Life

Considering a Horse's Quality of Life

"Buttons" took author Lauren Gash to many of her "firsts" in eventing and triumphs overseas.

Photo: Lauren E. Gash

In the past, when a life-threatening or quality-of-life incident has occurred with one of my horses, I’ve gone down one of two avenues: surgery to fix the problem or euthanasia. But never had I been down this road with an eye condition, and I couldn’t have expected how it would pull at the heartstrings. 

Making the hardest, best decision for your partner is never easy, and I like to think I always put my horse’s interests first. Buttons was the most amazing partner, who taught me so much about riding and life. He was an accomplished three-star event horse who took me to many of my firsts and my triumphs overseas. At the age of 20, I retired him to be a confidence ride for some of my lower-­level students and then, later, the saint that would pack around my now-husband. 

In February 2015, Button’s eyes started to fail him and became his nemesis. The first was his left eye, which developed a thick cloud of edema (fluid swelling) starting in the lower quadrant and then progressing to the entire cornea in a matter of 48 hours. My veterinarian (Dr. Chris Newton of Rood & Riddle, in Lexington, Kentucky) and I started treatment with intravenous flunixin meglumine (Banamine) and dexamethasone twice daily as well as several eye ointments, including antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and dilating drugs administered multiple times a day. 

After heavy treatment we made a plan to slowly back down the medications. But in March 2015 Buttons’ right eye followed suit, and we initiated the same treatment. All the while, my vet and I developed a plan of recheck schedules, obtaining additional opinions, and trying experimental treatments—all to no avail. 

I constantly told myself I would always make the best decision for my horse and not be selfish with his life. My vet knew both Buttons and me so well, knew that he meant the world to me, and knew how difficult this time was for me. He offered suggestions and recommendations, which I valued and followed.  

What helped Buttons through all of this was maintaining his routine. He had lived at Antebellum Farm, also in Lexington, gone into the same paddock, and had the same turnout buddy for a decade. He knew and trusted me. He adapted to his compromised vision and became more cautious, but his quality of life was good and he seemed content. We carried on like this for a while, and I found ways to keep him a part of the daily routine without riding him. He was groomed, bathed, and loved on every day. However, I worried when winter came and the snow started falling. How would I lead my blind horse together with his paddock buddy down the driveway covered in snow and ice, and how would he navigate the slippery footing in the pasture? But in spite of this, his life was mostly business as usual, and all continued to be good for about a year and a half.

In December 2016 I started to notice that Buttons was having a more difficult time with daily activities (needing constant guidance when walking, only to be groomed in the confines of his stall, and the first horse in and out) and his contentment seemed to be fading. While he previously loved being outside in his paddock, now he became nervous when outside; he walked the fenceline, sometimes taking the top board down; and he hardly ever left the gate. I waited to see if it would be a phase that he would adapt to once again and move past, but it didn’t happen. His new behavior became worse, more serious, and I knew he was unhappy. The very last thing I ever wanted for my heart horse was for him to be in pain, scared, or hurt. In the end I made his last days as comfortable as I could with lots of carrots, love, and scratches for him in all his favorite places. 

After his soul had long left his body and the tears had dried on my face I knew I had done right by my horse and given him the best life he could have asked for. I knew my hardest, best decision was made for my partner. 

This Across the Fence forum was originally published in the August 2017 issue of The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care.

About the Author

Lauren E. Gash

Lauren E. Gash is a member of the AK Eventing Team, based near Lexington, Kentucky, where she and her off-track Thoroughbred Toby are progressing through the grades.

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