Horse Wisdom: Lessons in Hospice Care

By Mary Walby

He was the first senior horse I took in 12 years ago when he was 26 years old and on his last legs. I was curious to know, if I could meet a senior horse’s needs from their point of view, would they thrive in their golden years? His name was Carro, and in the first few years we turned his health around. I turned him out 24/7 on acreage in a herd, and fed a forage-based diet. He thrived. It was amazing to see what he was capable of when his needs were met.

In his mid-thirties, as I learned to listen more closely to him, off-leash walks became our norm. I trusted him completely. As was our custom, I’d put a halter on his pasture mate, Elsa, and leave Carro loose on the walk.

Off-leash walks with Elsa and Carro

One day when we returned home, I left them loose in the yard and removed Elsa’s halter. Before I realized it, Carro had meandered onto the manicured lawn. I didn’t want that, so I caught up to him, put a halter on him and led him to the adjacent unfenced field. He could eat there.

I dropped the lead rope over his back and turned to leave. Carro, however, remained standing with his head up, eyes fixed and looking straight ahead. A carpet of green pasture was at his feet, but he had no interest.

Then I realized, “Oh! You want the halter taken off.”

No sooner had I removed the halter than he dropped his head to the ground and immediately started eating.

This is what I loved about Carro. He taught me how to listen to him and to myself. How to pick up on the subtle nuances of his body language, and notice the subtle cues my own body was giving me. It was this level of communication and understanding between us that played a huge role in giving me the confidence to care for him in hospice and to allow him to have his own natural death; which was one of the most life-giving experiences I’ve ever had. I had no idea that death could be so enlivening.

This is the story of how my fear of horses’ suffering, pain and death was transformed into peace, simply through listening to Carro and following his innate wisdom. It was his life, and he knew exactly how to live it right through to his death. I am so grateful that I found the courage to let him lead me into the unknown and teach me one more time. Thank you, Carro.

My hope is that in sharing my experience with Carro, it will inspire others to find what resonates with them and their horses when it comes to death and dying, even if it is different than my experience.

The Story Begins

One Sunday morning in the middle of winter I woke early, having just had a dream about Carro dying. A wave of fear came over me.

“Has Carro died, and I just don’t know it yet?” I thought to myself.

I resisted the temptation to check my phone for a message from Sylvia, the caretaker of the property where Carro lived. If something had happened, she would have called me as soon as she knew. Over the years, I’d had several dreams about Carro dying. This was probably just another one of those.

In my dream, Carro went down to the ground on his left side, and I knew this was it. I thought a good place for me was behind his spine, so I wouldn’t get kicked by accident. Maybe I could hold his head? I had heard of people doing that. But no, he didn’t want me there.

In the dream, went around his head and over to the side with his legs, a vulnerable spot for me. Having already practiced with witnessing the death of Prima, my last horse who died 18 months previously, I was able to keep my focus and not freak out.

I told him, “Run free with Prima, and Soleil too.” (Soleil preceded Prima in death a few years earlier).

He extended his hind legs toward me, nearly straightening them to physically connect with my center. I was sitting on the ground.

Lifting his head to look at me, he said, “Thank you for taking a chance on me.”

He was a horse of few words that always went straight to my heart. I felt the same about him. Then I woke up.

Carro before the colic episode

Days later, following the dream, it snowed a lot. By Thursday Carro had a colic episode that in hindsight was the starting point of what would be his last two months on earth. Those two months were so intense that I forgot all about the dream until after his death. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Carro in life and in death, it is that he is a gift that never stops giving. Thank you, Carro!

The day after Carro died, here’s how I felt:

“I don’t want to write. I don’t want to confirm the moment that has come and gone and closed the chapter of the twenty years I’ve known this horse named Carro. I took ownership of him 11 ½ years ago when he was 26 years old and cribbing every moment of every day. I saw something in him that no one else saw. Everyone else saw a problem to be fixed, and if they couldn’t, then they would euthanize him.”

But I knew if his needs were actually met, we would see a whole new horse. And that’s exactly what happened. Not only did his need to crib resolve completely over the years, but he also had a high level of health that kept him in the herd leader position until the day he died at 38 years old. It was a magnificent run of how horses can thrive when their needs are met.

The last two months of his life, the tables turned. He miraculously recovered on his own from a colic caused by a suspected partially displaced colon after 18 inches of snow dumped suddenly over night. However, at 38 years old, it really knocked the wind out of his sails. The vet suspected an underlying condition that couldn’t be treated. Rather than do further diagnostics only to euthanize him, I chose hospice instead and made it up as I went along based on my research of human hospice and comfort care.

Thanks to Prima, my last horse that died, I had 18 months of research on death, dying, hospice, pain and pain management to draw upon. With Prima, she had become septic and had a high level of pain, yet she did not want to go. I had never heard of such a thing. I thought all animals wanted to be ‘humanely euthanized’ to free them from pain. No one had ever talked about the opposite happening: the animal wanting to still live despite the pain.

People, vets, friends, always said, “You’ll know when it’s time.”

I found out that there’s just one problem with that idea. If my whole goal is to listen to the horse, what do I do when what they are saying means living despite the pain? I couldn’t wrap my mind around that at the time, so I euthanized her. However, I couldn’t ‘unhear’ her voice, and that is why I spent the following 18 months researching how to reconcile that.

So here was Carro, possibly embarking on his own death story. I was so thankful for everything I learned from Prima, and I was about to use every single tool she taught me, and then some.

Carro and Elsa on an off-leash walk – waiting for me to catch up

Carro taught me many things in those first few weeks of recovery after the colic. How to take care of myself and let him take care of himself. How to have boundaries for myself so I didn’t over do it. How to let him make his own choices, and me not worry about it. He even taught me that I am not responsible for fixing what is happening. I did not need to do anything. Just show up and let him take care of the rest. What a relief off my shoulders, but it was rough going initially as I adjusted to the ever-changing dynamic of caring for him.

Colic & Pain Management

When Carro had the colic episode I was very much in ‘fix it’ mode, and I had no reason not to be. He was in great heath, and I hoped that the colic could resolve, and he could return to his usual self. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple. During the day he seemed to be getting back to normal. Night, however, I soon learned was another story.

The second night after the initial colic, he had been hanging out quietly in the shelter area taking a nap. Having 18 inches of snow on the ground really limited the horses’ desire to move very much. At least in the shelter there was no snow.

I was on the other side of the fence lying on a foam green camping mat doing stretches. It felt wonderful. At one point I went and stood with him, my body parallel to his and not touching him, but just breathing and relaxing together. This was a normal thing for us to do together over the years (my favorite was to do this in the middle of a hail storm).

Inevitably whenever I’ve done this with him, I start to feel everything I’m holding, and this evening was no different. Soon I was expressing my fear of losing him and crying tears. I never touched him, nor made any gesture toward him. I just stood in my space, parallel to him several feet away. This made room for his free expression.

The next thing I knew he re-positioned himself so he was at my back. I didn’t move, nor did I look at him. I could feel his warm breath on my neck and back. It was absolutely amazing. I cried even harder. What compassion I felt from him. There was no fixing, just acknowledgement coming from him. What a gift! After I cried many tears and expressed all that was in my heart out loud to him, I felt much better. This is what I loved most about this horse.

Carro taught me this life lesson multiple times. It’s not the ‘fixing’ that heals, it’s the acknowledgement.

With him seemingly doing better, and I was feeling better, I thought it would be a good time for me to go home and go to sleep. However, over the next 30 minutes of preparing to leave, I started noticing little hints of pain coming back on the radar. I was hoping that it wasn’t true, but I waited to be sure. His expressions of pain grew. I didn’t go home. I was in for another night of monitoring him.

With a suspected partially displaced colon, as the colon empties, the horse is more comfortable. As it fills up it can get painful as digestive flow is backed up. The hope is that the horse can wiggle the colon back into its place. Rolling, ironically, can be a treatment. We just had to wait and see if that would happen.

Mid-level veterinary pain relievers helped in the meantime, but witnessing his cycling pain every 15 minutes was a whole new experience for me. At times it was head bobbing, then pawing, then dropping and rolling. Moments of calm and quiet interspersed his expressions of pain. I pulled out all of the holistic pain management techniques I had learned since Prima’s death. This was all in addition to the veterinary pain drugs he was on:

1. flower essences
2. homeopathy
3. Ttouch
4. acupressure points
5. sweeping the air above his body, but not touching him (as in Pranic healing)
6. tea tree essential oil on the belly button for colic
7. therapeutic touch
8. witnessing and being a grounding presence
9. prayer
10. singing

When I went to singing it was the last thing I had left in my tool box. Thankfully he only rolled one time for about ten minutes, but my goodness, it was the longest ten minutes of my life. It was dark. I had a halter and lead rope on him because earlier we were walking together hoping that would help him. I was able to get a drop of tea tree essential oil on his belly button just as I felt his entire body relax and drop to the ground.

I let out the lead rope to the end, which was about 10 feet and gave him space to do what he needed to do. Moments like this, I was so thankful that I only use long lead ropes. It allowed me to be in a safe place while he rolled.

The night was dark but I had a sense of where his body was. I turned on my flashlight just for a moment to confirm my instincts. They were correct. I turned the light back off. It was a blessing to me that I couldn’t see his expression, but I could feel his presence and agitation.

He was rolling in a determined way trying to relieve pain, and there was absolutely nothing I could do to help him. It was an incredibly helpless feeling. For me, it is one of the worst feelings in the world.

Knowing that I couldn’t fix it, there was only one thing I had left to help him, and that was my presence. When Prima was dying, it was the only thing I had to offer her as well. Somehow it just felt wrong. There should be something more that I could do to fix this. And yet, it was a very difficult lesson to learn. Sometimes there is nothing we can do but offer our presence, and that is enough.

So as Carro rolled on the ground, I consciously focused on breathing deeply and creating calm and peace within myself. Soon a song found its way out of me, and I began to sing:

“Peace is flowing like a river, flowing out of you and me. Flowing out into the desert, setting all the captives free.”

I sang it over and over and over. Sometimes I started to cry worrying that he might die, that this might be the end, that I might have to euthanize him. But the worrying made my voice shaky. I decided to stop worrying and went back to focusing on breathing more deeply and singing more boldly. My voice became steadier, even more in tune, with each repetition. The bolder I became in singing, the calmer Carro became. That gave me confidence to keep singing even more boldly.

As I sang, he came to a sitting position a few times, and then went back to rolling. I wasn’t sure what that was about, but on the third time of coming to a sitting position, he pulled himself up to standing.

“Oh, that’s what you were getting ready to do!” I thought to myself.

Thank God, literally, that the rolling was over.

Over the next hour he had moments of calm and then a lot of head bobbing and pawing, then calm again. It was in the calm moments I’d talk out loud to him. My purpose in doing that was to be clear myself about what I was asking, and then wait and see what would come to me. I was not trying to figure anything out. I was simply letting my questions linger in the air and waiting. If a resolution was going to come, it was going to come on its own, and not from me stressing about it.

“What can I do to help you?”
“Do you want me to call the vet again?”
“Let me just be clear. If I call the vet, they tend to euthanize horses when they can’t manage the pain. I don’t want to euthanize you, and I don’t think you want that either. If I call them, there may be pressure to euthanize.”

His cycles of pain and then calm continued to take turns.

After about the third round, I said, “Ok. I’ll call the vet.”

I called the vet, and to my surprise he said, “I’ve seen worse. 10 minutes of rolling is nothing. It’s when it goes on all day for hours on end, that’s when it’s bad. Give him a chance.”

I asked him, “Have you seen horses pull out of this?”

“Yes,” was his reply.

I felt relief. There was a little glimmer of hope. He had also seen horses not recover. He said it really comes down to the horse.

“Give Carro a chance over the next several days and see how it goes.”

What a relief! Give Carro a chance. The vet was singing my tune. Thank you, God. My greatest fear of euthanizing him would not be realized that night. I held onto the hope of this conversation over the next several weeks.

For the next two nights I kept eyes on him, sleeping when I could. The second night I finally went home at 4 am when I realized that while his pain cycles were still happening, they had leveled off in severity. It was never as dramatic as the evening he rolled. Yes, he still pawed and bobbed his head off and on throughout the night, but it did not get worse. I knew this was my opportunity to go home and sleep for several hours.

Before I left, I remember his pasture mate, Elsa, standing quietly in the vicinity of him, taking a standing nap. Not a single flinch, nor sign that she was bothered by his expressions of pain. I can’t say the same for myself. I had a glorified notion of being there for him every moment of every day. But by the wee morning hours the constant squeaking of the hanging divider in the feeder was beginning to annoy me. Sitting in a chair outside with him, I’d doze off only to be awakened when he bobbed his head, bumping the hanging divider which produced the squeaking sound.

Up until then, I could breathe and relax through just about any pain expression he had. But I was becoming very tired, and I really needed to sleep.

That is when I realized, I am not a horse. Unlike Elsa who could still hold the space and sleep standing up, I needed to go home and sleep in my own bed if I was going to be able to function the next day. My becoming annoyed was my body telling me what it needed. I needed to sleep in peace and quiet. Seeing that Elsa was there with him and completely calm, I decided to go home and go to sleep.

Carro in his trees and Elsa keeping him company

It was the first time in three nights that I slept in my own bed. I soon found out that being up three nights in a row was more than my body could handle. I went to bed by 5 am, and at 7 am I was still awake. I could not go to sleep. The events of the past few days were traumatic to me. More than once I thought Carro was going to die. I was witnessing pain that I couldn’t fix. I also had no idea when, how, or if this would resolve. I worried that I would need to euthanize him, and that was so against my values. It was then that I understood why people euthanized their pets. We all reach our limit on what we can handle.

When I couldn’t sleep, I called my sister. I felt physically ill. I knew it was from all the stress and lack of sleep. She said, “Lie on the floor, put your legs up on a chair so they are at 90 degrees, breathe and relax.” I did as she instructed, piled blankets on top of me to keep warm, and started processing the past few days. Then I was able to sleep for several hours.

Later that day, several of my family members came out and helped me pick up manure and clean the barn yard. They filled me up with food, hugs and a trip to the vet’s office to pick up back-up pain meds. It felt so good to not be alone. They were pouring energy into me, and I was ready for the coming days. The snow was melting and the horses could move around more easily. Carro rested a lot, was eating some, drinking and passing manure. He wasn’t out of the woods yet, but everything was peaceful. More glimmers of hope.

At the time I was still monitoring his heart rate. When it started to climb into the 60’s I worried that his expressions of pain would start to appear. Often times it would be several hours later and the heart rate at the highest had climbed to 80 on more than one occasion. So when it started to go into the 60’s, I would give a pain med, to keep it from escalating.

That evening I checked his heart rate, and it was 60. Darn! I debated about giving a pain med. I decided to go eat dinner with my family, and then return and check him one more time before going home to bed. Staying up all night was not an option for me if I was going to be able to help him over the long-term. I rehearsed with my sister what I was going to do:

1. check his heart rate
2. give a pain med if needed
3. go home and tell him you’ll be back tomorrow

Leaving him that first time was really hard for me, but I knew I needed to take care of myself to be able to care for him. He lived on several acres with another horse, so I trusted that he would take care of himself overnight. He did, and he continued to do so until the day he died. Lesson learned. I don’t need to be there every moment of every day. It is okay to leave to take care of myself.

The next day I called Carro’s chiropractor, who he had seen for maintenance over the past 10 years. I knew euthanasia was not a part of his tool box so I felt safe calling him. I credit chiropractic as one of the things that kept Carro moving well as he aged. I knew chiropractic wouldn’t hurt anything, and would likely help. Nerves run to every single organ in the body, and keeping the nervous system tuned up helps the body be able to heal.

Chiropractic visit for Carro

The chiropractor came out and found Carro completely locked up through the thoracic area and somewhat at the sacrum. Yes, that would definitely inhibit healing in the body. By the end of his adjustment, Carro was licking and chewing and giving hugs and kisses to the chiropractor. It was the brightest moment since the colic started five days earlier.

The chiropractor said he’d like to see Carro again over the weekend.

My first reaction was, “That’s a nice thought, but I’m not sure he’ll actually be alive.”

Nevertheless, we put it on the calendar. I really had no faith that it would come to pass, but I left it alone. It was completely out of my hands and up to Carro what he would be doing, or not doing, on the coming weekend.

I also realized that in my multiple conversations with the vet, there was nothing further that could be done for Carro except expensive diagnostics that would only confirm an untreatable illness. Initially, euthanasia was far away in these conversations. But as the days went by, and I continued to monitor Carro, every conversation with the vet started to approach euthanasia. It dawned on me that whatever was going on with Carro, veterinary medicine had no treatment for, and when they don’t have a treatment, the only thing left is euthanasia. I decided to stop talking with the vet. He helped me tremendously the first several days. Now, it really was up to Carro.

Meanwhile, I was still operating off the initial diagnosis of a partially displaced colon because that was something that could be treatable with holistic medicine. If that was the case, I knew that visceral manipulation can move organs around in people. If I could find someone who did that with horses, that might be effective in solving this issue.

To my delight, a friend of a friend just so happened to be highly skilled in visceral manipulation. Ok then. Through a miracle she was able to come out the next day. I still didn’t think Carro would last very long, and I wanted this last ditch effort to help him.

The next day it was raining, and Carro preferred to stand in the rain next to a grove of trees. I was hoping to bring him up to the shelter so he would be dry when the bodyworker came. But no, he refused to move, and putting a halter on him did nothing to encourage movement. Oh well.

Visceral Manipulation Bodyworker with Carro

When the bodyworker arrived, we walked out into the field, and she went right up to him, placing her hands on him. He immediately closed his eyes and relaxed. She could read him like a book.

In the years I had known Carro, most people tried to read his book much faster. His internal tempo was quite slow. For an average human, it was way too slow for them. But for her, it was second nature.

For the next few hours we stood in the grove of trees in the rain with Carro, as I watched her work and connect with him. At one point she turned to me and said, “He’s preparing to say goodbye.”

Over the years I have had more than one person say that to me. Each time, it wasn’t true. Carro carried on thriving. This time, however, was different.

“I was wondering about that,” I replied.

We were both musicians, and she mentioned the natural rhythm of his body and how slow it was, just in general. He was a low-key horse.

I said, “You’re saying that he wants to determine when that rhythm ends all on his own?”

“Yes.”

Thank you, God. That is what I wanted someone to say to me when Prima was clearly dying and yet not wanting to go. Now, here I was with Carro, thinking he’s dying and me worrying about panicking and euthanizing him.

It was music to my ears. I didn’t need to be in charge of when or how he died. I could support him in living until the day came when he died on his own. What a relief! A huge weight lifted off my shoulders. I was not responsible for managing his death.

Then I began to play out the two scenarios where I knew I could get worried and euthanize him.

1. It is not socially acceptable to have a skinny horse.
2. What if he has a dramatic expression of pain? What do I do?

On the skinny horse front, he still had a glorious winter coat. And he wasn’t that skinny yet, but his appetite was not yet back to normal, hence my concern. The worst case scenario was that someone would call animal control. Well, if that happened, then I’d talk to them and explain the situation.

The possibility of a dramatic expression of pain from Carro was a little more worrisome to me.

The bodyworker said, “If something makes you feel better, then go ahead and do it. Just know that he doesn’t need it. But you can do it for yourself.”

“Ok then, what if he rolls around in the mud for hours? I leave?” I asked.

“Well, then, he rolls around in the mud for hours. He’s taking care of himself. Let him do it. It might even fix something. We have no way of knowing. If it’s too much for you to witness, it’s ok to excuse yourself. Say, ’Carro, I love you, but this is too much for me right now so I need to go.’ It is perfectly fine to do that.”

One more concern came to mind.

“What about monitoring his heart rate and hoping it goes back to normal?” I asked.

“You don’t have to do that anymore. If it helps you, go ahead, but if it only worries you, you can stop monitoring it.”

I let that sink in. For the first time, not only did someone connect with Carro on a deep level, she also connected with me. It wasn’t the usual surface level answers so prevalent in our society when it comes to death and dying. What she was saying was different. It was completely in line with my values, the very values I gave up when I euthanized Prima. The acknowledgment of Carro and of me was one of the most healing experiences. She gave me confidence in myself to care for Carro in a way that honored us both. What a gift she gave both of us!

I decided to stop taking Carro’s heart rate (and temperature), as knowing that information only caused me to worry. It helped that the vet suspected something else was going on that wasn’t painful, and the body was compensating, hence the high heart rate. He was not concerned about the high heart rate. He didn’t think it was a pain response. Initially I had put the high heart rate in the pain category. It was good to know that was not the case here.

Over the next few days I stopped the pain medication all together and decided to only give it if he was pawing, head bobbing or rolling, which incidentally never happened again.

Knowing that veterinary medicine had no treatment for the possible underlying health issue Carro might or might not have, I felt confident making the switch from ‘treatment’ to hospice.

Hospice & Comfort Care

What I love about hospice is that it doesn’t prolong death, nor does it speed it up, but rather, lets it unfold on its own timeline. This deeply resonated with me, and I had no doubt it resonated with Carro as well.

That first day I came out after I had switched in my mind to hospice care, and no longer ‘treatment’, I only had 30 minutes before I had to go to work. This was my first real test. Could I give Carro my undivided attention, and then leave when I needed to, no matter what was happening with him, and no matter how he looked? There was nothing to fix. My only job was supportive comfort care, and even that was up to him.

He was wet from standing out in the rain for days. He had a shelter, but he preferred the rain. His forelock was dampened down, and the hair on his face was soaked. He was standing quietly on the edge of what would become his protective grove of trees. He looked tired and weary.

It was a prime opportunity to start worrying. However, I consciously decided not to worry about it, nor judge it, as that would only take me away from connecting with what was before me: the Carro I had always known. I just wanted to embrace his presence exactly how he was. To me, he was still God’s beautiful creation, and I was going to honor him and his process, even if it meant he would die sooner, rather than later.

I gave him my undivided attention and just let him be how he wanted to be. I placed my hands on his belly behind his rib cage and let his breathing move my hands. I wasn’t trying to do anything other than just connect with the natural rhythm of his body, and let it move me. He closed his eyes and relaxed.

This was the same spot the body worker worked on the previous day when it felt like he was “holding his breath”.

Thirty minutes passed quickly, and it was time for me to go to work. I blessed him, thanked him and told him I would be back tomorrow. I put a touch of the Bach flower essence, Olive, on the tips of his ears and said goodbye.

This became my daily routine, and I was always sure to bless him each time before I left because I had no idea if he would be alive the next day.

I told Sylvia not to go looking for him. I would be out once a day, and one day I would find his body. There was no crisis to solve. I’m allowing him his process, and his process will end when he dies. I’m going to allow him to do whatever he would like. In addition, there was no need to worry about how much he ate or didn’t eat. It was all up to him.

My reference point was if he stopped eating for days at a time, then I would know the active dying process had started and could last anywhere from 1-5 days. I also knew from my hospice research that stopping eating is not painful. It is simply the body putting all of its energy toward dying and not toward sustaining life. It was this piece of information that gave me the confidence to let Carro do his own thing.

With Sylvia on board, we proceeded to let Carro do as he wished. There was always hay, water and shelter available to him. We also brought his soaked hay pellets out into the field to offer to him. He ate some on occasion, but his energy was really low. For weeks he preferred standing in the trees in the rain. Many times he was not visible from a distance. I had to go into the grove of trees to find him. It was the perfect cocoon of protection for him.

A few days later the weekend arrived. To my surprise, Carro was still alive. It was time for the chiropractor.

I asked the chiropractor, “I’m no longer haltering Carro for anything. I’m letting him do his own thing. Can you adjust him in the field loose? Is that ok with you?”

“Sure!” was his reply.

When he came, he adjusted Carro in the field, no halter, no nothing. I stood about 10-15 feet away. Carro loved every moment. His back was in much better shape. That was great news! After the adjustment, the chiropractor uses a vetro stim on Carro, but the extension cord was not long enough to reach into the field.

I opted for enticing Carro with soaked alfalfa pellets. Sure enough, he came up to the shelter and allowed the chiropractor to finish while he ate the pellets, all without halter.

A few weeks later, Carro dropped a lot of weight between a Monday and a Friday. To top it off, it had been raining almost non-stop. Guess where his preferred place to be was? Right in the rain next to the trees. He drank from puddles in the pasture, nibbled grass at his feet and licked dirt from clumps of grass he pulled up himself.

Sometimes he’d venture further down the field to the far fence line and nap there with his ear, lips or nose resting against a thick blackberry vine or tree branch. I wondered if he was doing his own acupressure points. He’d look over his shoulder to the adjacent property with even more trees and blackberry vines. I wondered if he was looking for a place to die (I later realized he was looking for more places for protection while he recovered.

At one point Sylvia was concerned about the puddle drinking. I replied, “He’s dying. It doesn’t matter. What am I going to do? Prevent him from drinking from puddles on the off chance he gets sick from it? He’s already not well and dying. It won’t change anything. Worst case scenario he dies sooner from an algae bloom, and then it takes him out in 24 hours. There’s no problem to solve here. In addition, there may be something in those puddles that he needs and might actually help him. There’s no way for me to know. I’m going to trust him to make his own decisions. I don’t need to understand them to allow them.” I also was not that concerned about an algae bloom since one had never occurred in all the years Carro lived there.

During this time I let him choose some flower essences. To my surprise he did not choose “transitions”. I was surprised as I thought he was dying. I made a note and kept in the back of my mind that he will die at some point, but it looks like it’s not right now.

One afternoon after my daily visit with him, it was time for me to go. It was a beautiful day, and as I was leaving I started to second guess myself. Maybe I could stay for just a while longer. I walked back to Carro who had now started to nap. As I approached, he laid his ears back and glared at me. “Go home.”

“Ok, ok. I got it.”

I went home. That was the one and only time I over-rode my internal knowing. Carro made his point. “You, Mary, take care of yourself. I will take care of myself.” Going forward, I began to equally value listening to myself and listening to him. It was another wonderful gift he gave me in those months of hospice, and allowed me to be truly present with him when I was there.

As the weeks went by, Carro lost more weight, but he was still eating and drinking enough to keep living. One particular day, I literally had 10 minutes to spend with him. That was not my norm, but it was the best I had that day.

Before I arrived, I had spoken to someone who said, “What an opportunity you have!” when I told her about Carro.

That comment put me in such a good mood, that when I went to see him, those 10 minutes were one of the highlights of the two months I took care of Carro in hospice. It moved me so much that I came home and wrote about it:

“Carro. Losing weight, but still eating and drinking. Prefers to stand in the rain, but his glorious winter coat is warm and dry on his belly, standing on end. Many standing naps, tired from not getting REM, but perks up at the sound of my voice. Bright and alert when I come calling. He wants me to itch his head. I happily oblige with it being the first time he’s asked in a long time since the colic.

I rest my hands on his hips, gently hugging his hind legs and let the rhythm of his body move mine as we’ve done so many times before over the last 11 years. “Where’s Carro?” I ask. I breathe and relax and sink into my own body, and then the wave of subtle movement from his body moves mine. “There he is! There’s Carro. Oh, Carro, Carro, Carro, Carro.” I whisper into nothingness. The movement of his life force moves my own.

I notice the bones of his pelvis are more pronounced, yet his glorious winter coat captures my attention and the life within him is still the same Carro. I can’t stay long and let him know I need to go do people things like teach piano and make money to pay the bills. I will be back tomorrow. He does a little stretch, itches his forehead on his front leg, and then starts nibbling grass. He is content, happy for the little boost from me and good to keep carrying on.

I put a touch of the flower essence, olive, on the tips of his ears, bless him and then bid him goodbye. As I leave, I acknowledge Elsa from afar. She gives me her two eyes, and I thank her for being there and taking care of Carro. She too starts nibbling grass, and I know it’s ok for me to go. Another day. Another gift. Today is complete.”

Elsa with Carro 4 days before his death

Later that week it was sunny again, and I greeted Carro at his shoulder and reached across his chest to scratch his shoulder. As I brought my hand back to this side of his body, it glanced over the hair, and the bone in the center of his chest nearly caught my hand. I felt more closely, and to my surprise, there was no flesh covering the bone, but rather just a thick, beautiful winter coat hanging nonchalantly over the bone. I felt down his neck and could feel the vertebrae more pronounced than I ever have.

When I was at his hips, and wrapped my arms around them like I always had before, I noticed that there was space between his hind legs. Normally my hand wouldn’t quite fit there, but that day, it easily did with room to spare. I lifted his tail and his butt muscles no longer met. Rather than round flesh on the ishiums, I could begin to see more clearly the bony structure of his pelvis. His lower legs themselves hadn’t changed. There’s not much flesh there anyway, but the rest of his body was showing the weight loss.

He didn’t seem bothered by it. His eyes were bright. He positioned himself where he wanted me to scratch him. I found some good spots in his mane and neck. And then he gave me his head to scratch.

It was still Carro, telling me what he would like. Never mind that he had lost weight and was now the thinnest horse I ever had in my care. I focused on his shoulders, head and neck. That was less scary to me. The weight loss was less noticeable there. The hips and pelvis really showed the lack of weight.

The only horses I’ve ever seen that thin were ones that had been neglected and not fed. Yet, Carro was not neglected. He was fed. There was just something wrong that we couldn’t fix.

I worried about being judged by people assuming that Carro was neglected.

Anyone who came to visit I prefaced with, “Are you ok with seeing a skinny horse? Many people are triggered by this and have a difficult time handling it.”

Few people delve into this area of the reality of caring for a horse in hospice. The common, “call the vet”, catch phrase everyone uses when they don’t know what to do, was no help. What do I do when the vet can’t do anything? For me, the deeper questions were:

  • How do I connect to what is happening?
  • How do I let the horse have a voice?
  • How do I differentiate between what is me, and what is the horse?

Carro had already been training me on the answers:

1. Clear boundaries around what I can and cannot do.

2. Clear boundaries that the horse’s life does not belong to me, it belongs to them.
They have a right to their own death as well as a right to their own life. It is not mine to take, nor alter. It is theirs.

3. It is not my job to keep them free of all pain, but rather to let them live and die on their terms and create an environment that supports them in taking care of themselves. They can do it far better than I can. And I can assist if called upon by them.

With Carro, yes the weight loss through the hips was alarming to me. I lost those round hips to hug. Yet, while his body was changing daily, his spirit was alive and well. It was still Carro.

If he could talk, he would have said to me:

“Mary, don’t get distracted by the appearance of my hips. I’m still here. I’m still the same Carro. Yes, I’ve lost some things, but not all is lost. You still have me. I still have you. And that is all we ever really had anyway. Now we’re just that much more aware of who we are when the physical body declines. I will always be me. You will always be you, and the fact that our paths have crossed and come to this point is a miracle. This is my last chapter of my life on earth in this body. Stay the course. Focus on me. I’m still here. You will know when I’m not. That day will come all on its own. However, today is not that day. Today is another gift of sharing our presence with each other. How lucky are we.”

This new “normal” began to sink in. Caring for a horse in hospice was new territory. It gave new perspective on the loss happening before my eyes. His physical body was changing daily, but his essence was as strong as ever.

This was my reflection at that time of my experience, continuing to support him in his process, whatever it looked like:

Why do I have a horse?
To ride them and feel freedom.
To groom them and feel their luxurious coat
To halter them and take them for a walk.
To be with them and give them a massage.
To be next to them and never touch them
To feel the gift of their presence filling the space between us

Why do I have a horse when…
I no longer ride them.
I let them be.
Their coat is soaked in the rain.
Their hip bones protrude after an illness, and weary eyes make me think they’re dying.
They don’t want to eat today, nor lie down. They don’t have the energy.

When the exterior appearance becomes fleeting in its glamour, why do I have a horse?
To feel the essence of the horse I’ve always known.
To thank the protruding hip bones that continue to support this horse in living.
To marvel at the efficiency of their coat to whisk rain away, and to feel the warmth of their warm, dry belly.
To learn that they do know how to take care of themselves. When will they eat? When will they lie down? When the time is right. Only the horse knows that time.

Their time is not my time. Their ways are not my ways. Do I want a humanized horse? Or, do I want a horse in its fullest expression of what we humans would call the “good and the bad”. Is it really good? Is it really bad?

What if it was just life with all its twists and turns? Do I embrace it and let it touch my deepest fears and deepest satisfaction? Do I hold it away, and hope it goes away quickly? Do I accept it, and let it shape me into a more compassionate human being? How do I fully accept that which I cannot control?

Only a horse truly knows their ways. Only I truly know my ways. They allow me my autonomy. Will I allow them theirs?

Providing hospice care was emotionally difficult at times for me. But Carro was not stressed about it at all. When emotions came up in me, I always expressed how I felt to him, and I wrote about it. I also had the Bach flower essence, Rescue Remedy, in my pocket for myself for stress relief. Daily squirts of it for me were the norm. All of these things enabled me to be able to stay the course of long-term hospice care and not panic.

Six weeks into hospice and listening to Carro, the magnitude of the essence of the full expression of a horse hit me like a ton of bricks.

This was my reflection at that time of where the 10 plus years of rehabbing senior horses had brought me:

Seven years: No death, no significant illness. A lot of healing and restoration.

The next five years: 2 deaths, one significant illness. Listening to horses, allowing their full expression that was and is my experiment. What would I learn? I had no idea, until it all started to unfold.

First it was physical healing, followed by emotional healing. Then it was engagement and curiosity from the horses. Then it was dying. Then it was learning to allow the expression of pain and suffering.

Before the two deaths and illness, all pain was significant. All pain was frightening. What to do with all this?

Horses are big animals. Their expressions are big, including pain, death and suffering. It’s a part of being alive. And I completely understand why society avoids this topic all together and euthanizes before the expression touches those areas we humans don’t wish to witness, or experience.

I don’t want to see it either. I don’t want to witness it. The entire experience of domesticated and wild horses has some form of pain, death and suffering. It is impossible to avoid it completely. Yet, we humans find a way to enjoy the fun part about what horses can do for us, and then take control of any pain, death and suffering by euthanizing before it gets too rough for us to witness. Everyone has their own barometer on what and how much they can witness.

We humans were not made to be able to handle witnessing the pain, deaths and sufferings of horses. We can barely handle it in our fellow human beings.

As a child, I longed for my own horse. As an adult, I found my own horse, and then two more. All of them a call from God to help them. And now, two deaths and one significant illness later, I no longer want horses. My desire and experiment to allow their full expression has come full circle. Their fullest expression includes pain, death and suffering. It is too much for me to handle. I can’t do it anymore.

I recall the man who lived out in the wilderness somewhere, and the herd of mule deer that would traverse his property every year. After a buck acknowledged him from afar with the nod of his head, this man’s life was never the same. Over seven years he came to know the mule deer, many of them individually. Every year he learned who made it through the winter, and who made it through hunting season. By the time year seven came, the level of loss was too much for him. He was outliving all of them, and he emotionally couldn’t do it anymore. Today, he sees them from afar, and let’s them pass through his property, but no longer does he engage with them individually.

This day, I have one surviving horse, my first horse, Carro. For him, I will see it through until the day he breathes his last breath on his watch, not mine. And then, I want to be done.

I did my experiment. Yes, my hypothesis was correct: give a horse what they need on all levels (physical, mental, emotional), and yes, they will thrive.

They will also all die one day. There is no healing that can prevent death. I learned straight from the horses what it means to be a horse, and how they live and how they die. That is enough for now.

***

Ironically, when I expressed this all to Carro, he simply acknowledged it all, and then came through loud and clear:

“Mary, you don’t need to do anything. I’m doing it. You can just show up and be.”

What a relief. Once again, I felt so much better.

Death Comes Closer

Carro asking for his pellets

Five weeks after the colic, I began to think that maybe he would fully recover, and just maybe he wasn’t on his way out and dying. He no longer hunkered down in the grove of trees. He came up to the barn area more often for his pellets, and his energy in eating had increased tremendously. The edema and blood in the urine, which first appeared 2 weeks post colic, resolved on its own. While he had dropped a lot of weight, he was slowly beginning to gain some back. The only things left for a complete recovery were him laying down to sleep and maybe regaining 20% more energy.

It was with that in mind that we took a walk on that Monday. We had done so few walks since the colic episode; the fact that he had the energy for one was wonderful confirmation of his healing. Would his energy level continue to increase? Would he gain back all his weight? Would he lie down again?

When I led Elsa on the walk, and left the gate open for Carro to follow, he didn’t canter to catch up like he did when he was completely well, he did have a very forward walk. He did choose to lag behind and eat grass, but then he would do his forward walk to catch up to us. It was beginning to look like old times.

Unfortunately, that ended up being our last off-leash walk together. A few days later an odd swelling showed up on his left side behind his rib cage. It was like a fist protruding from his side. Over the next days new edema developed on the underside of his belly. Darn, darn, darn! By Friday there was even swelling between his hind legs, and that is what alarmed me. Prima developed similar swelling between her hind legs three days before she died.

I knew the end for Carro was likely closer.

In my mind, I thought to myself, “Please don’t go septic like Prima.”

That was a rough death, and while I had more skills this time around, I really did not want to test them. In addition, my birthday was the next day.

“Please don’t die on my birthday. However, if that’s what you need to do, I’ll be ok. But please don’t die on my birthday,” I pleaded internally.

I had Sylvia take a few photos of us on the chance that this day might be my last opportunity. Those were my last photos of him and me together.

I went home that evening, really bummed and depressed. The next day was the weekend. I was slow in getting started, dreading what was coming. By late afternoon, I finally went out to see him. And while the odd swelling was still there, he was perked up. Go figure. Once again, I couldn’t help but switch gears and appreciate that he was still here with me today, and today, he was not dying. What a relief. I savored that afternoon.

The next day my sister visited with her three young children, all of them afraid of this huge horse. Carro was so personable. It was a sunny day, and he nibbled grass up close to the barn area where we were. He happily ate his pellets and welcomed their tentative pets on his glorious winter coat. It was a good day.

Before we left for the day, I saw Carro pass a manure pile from afar. I wanted to see it, so I told the kids, “Hey, Carro just pooped, and I want to see it.” They followed me out, curious themselves, and we all investigated the manure pile. It was normal.

Then of course they pet Carro one more time and said goodbye. Carro positioned himself so I could itch him, and how I wanted to stay. His coat was warm in the sun. He had energy and felt good, and a little grooming could work out some of the mud from the last time he had rolled.

But I needed to go to my other sister’s house for a birthday dinner. There was no way to fit everything I wanted to do into the day. If there’s any regret I have about Carro, it is wishing I had one more hour to spend with him right then, especially when he was having a good day, and it was beautiful out.

I gave him a few minutes of itching, blessed him, and said I would be back later that evening on my way home from my sister’s. That evening I did groom out some mud on him, but it was dark, and not the luxury of the sun shining on us. It wasn’t my ideal, but I kept my word to him.

Days later the swelling remained and now included the left hind lower leg. I couldn’t feel any of the ankle bones because of the swelling. I had gotten used to the swelling on the belly, but I didn’t want the legs to blow up and cause mobility issues. I wasn’t sure what to do about it from a comfort care perspective.

I went home and did some research. I learned that edema is common in human hospice, and lymphatic drainage massage can help it.

I talked with my sister who does massage for people, and she said, “You need to know the route and exit point on the horse’s body for the lymphatic system. And the touch you use is extremely light, almost just like a suggestion to the fluid to go a certain way.”

I went searching on the internet for someone to tell me the route and exit point, and that is when I found a picture with a technical description.

At the time, it was too much to understand, and I was short on time. I just needed someone to say, “Here’s the exit point.” Oh well. I had just enough time to still visit Carro between my jobs. That was more important than whether or not I could do anything further about the swelling in his legs that day. So I saved the picture for later, and went out to see him.

I found him in his usual spot by the grove of trees. He was standing quietly. I offered him some soaked hay pellets, and he had a bite or two and that was it. Not a big deal. Today he didn’t have the energy for much more. I checked his legs and not only did the left hind still have the swelling at the ankle, but now the right front had some that was only noticeable when I touched his leg. I was a little concerned about the additional swelling in the right front leg. I didn’t want this to get out of control.

Since his right front leg was closest to me, I decided to just try my own version of massage to try and help the fluid move. I knew that the hooves of a horse are a pumping mechanism and walking is one of the best ways to move swelling back up the leg and out. Yet, he was much too tired to ask him to walk. So I thought to myself, “I’ll sweep up your leg and do it for you.”

With him being a sensitive horse, I knew it wouldn’t take much for his body to respond; I extended my arms and hands toward his hoof about a foot out from his body and then swept the air upward. To my surprise, I would feel the weight of the fluid in his leg with my hands out a foot from his leg. It was heavy. Wow! I had never felt that before. Twice I swept the air up the length of his leg, and then suddenly a wave of emotion came up through my body.

I stopped, knelt down and turned my body parallel to his, and felt. I started to cry. I was fully aware of the magnitude of what I was doing. I could feel the weight of the fluid. I could bring it up, but I didn’t know what to do with it next. Where did it need to go? Which way? What if I sent it the wrong way and caused more problems?

Not knowing the answer, I let myself cry, breathe and relax. Then the answer came to me.

“Ok, Carro,” I said out loud, “Here’s what I can do. I can bring it up to the top of your leg, and then you take it from there.”

I knew walking would bring fluid up the leg, so I felt comfortable bringing it up for him since he didn’t have the energy to go for a walk.

I felt much better now that we had a plan. I spent the next 5 minutes feeling the weight of the fluid and gently sweeping the air a foot out from his body, encouraging it to go up the leg. Then I touched the ting points on that hoof and watched his eyes, waiting for the blink and relaxation. After a few more minutes I stopped, not feeling called to do anything else.

The next day when I returned, the swelling in the right front leg was completely gone and the swelling in his left hind was 90% gone. I was so pleasantly surprised and so glad that there was something I could do to create a little more comfort for him.

When I got home I looked at the technical jargon on the route and exit point of the lymphatic system in a horse. Low and behold, the exit point was the upper right forelimb! And the beginning area was the left hind.

The next day came. Carro was in the barn area relaxing. I took up my usual post of connecting with his hips. At one point he had his left hind cocked. There was a touch of a flare on that foot. Now was my opportunity to give it a touch up. He let me do it. A short while later he moved and pointed his body at the gate. I knew he wanted to go out. I looked at my watch and saw that I had to leave in 15 minutes.

I told him, “I can let you out, but I need to go soon, so it will be short.”

Getting him back in might take a while, and I’d be cutting it close. But I decided to let him out. I opened the gate and he eventually ventured out still able to get around despite his decreasing strength. I watched him climb a little bank, pass a normal manure pile, and then disappear around the corner. He grazed and hung out with the chickens. It is the last photo I have of him.

Carro on his last day out

When it was time for me to go, how I wanted to leave him out. He seemed so content. It took several minutes to bring him back in. He wasn’t keen on it. Turning sharply wasn’t a good idea as he wasn’t that stable, but backing up he could do well.

So we backed, and then took one step to the left, then backed again, then one step to the left until we had made a 180 degree turn to get back to the fenced area. That would be the last time I saw him out and about being his usual self.

The next afternoon I received a call from Sylvia that he was down and unable to get back up. When I heard the message I felt the pit in my stomach. I knew this might be the beginning of the end. I headed out.

When I arrived, he was laying down up at the fence line near the driveway. I had no idea if he was alive or dead. I got out of my car and asked, “Is he gone?”

“No,” was the reply.

The pit in my stomach left. Knowing there was nothing to fix, I chose peace. My only goal was to support Carro in his process.

I put on my layers of coats and boots and went immediately to him. Sylvia told me that she hadn’t seen him eat all day. Earlier in the day when he was up, she had seen him circling to the left and pausing and resting on his circle until he resumed moving.

I have heard of other horses circling like that before they die. My hypothesis is that this is where death bed visions might occur, if they do for a particular animal.

A friend also said to me, “That sounds like a closing ritual. Chakras spin to right for opening, and go to the left for closing.” Fascinating!

As I knelt down next to him at his withers I placed my hands on his body. He wanted to get up.

“Ok then, I am happy to help you get up.”

I considered Ttouch ear slides to help prevent shock, if that was even an issue, but he reached up with his head, bared his teeth and threatened to bite me.

“Ok, I got it. I won’t touch your ears.”

I was glad to know he could still make his wishes known.

I switched gears to sweep the air a foot above his body down his neck toward his withers. That was more comforting to him. I was able to get some flower essences on his ears, and at one point I blessed him and his legs with holy water. I wanted to access every resource I had to give him every chance to succeed at the very thing he wanted to do, which was get back up.

He would rest, and then gather his strength and attempt to rise. When he initiated the try, Sylvia and I added our own energy to his hoping it would be enough to help him get up. Twice he almost made it 2/3 of the way up. I just needed another set of hands at his hips to push them the rest of the way up.

I called another friend to come help us who also knew Ttouch and reiki. When she arrived, she asked, “Why are you trying to get him up?”

“He wants to get up, so I’m helping him when he makes an effort,” I said.

Then she asked, “What if he goes back down once you get him up?”

“Well then, he goes back down. We are only supporting him in what he wants to do. Nothing more, nothing less. Right now he’s making it clear that he wants to get up.”

Carro would come to a sitting position, and he was able to hold himself there. I was so glad I had training in aikido and how to align my body so I could support the weight of his body and have it go through me into the ground. It was a comfortable place for me to be right behind his withers as he rested in a sitting position. When he wanted to lie back down, I simply scooted back and made room for him. When he wanted to come to sitting I came in right at his withers again with my hips.

We massaged and Ttouched his legs and shoulders, wanting to help keep the circulation going and improve his chances of getting back up. At one point Sylvia massaged his head, neck and ears, and I had his shoulders and legs and his expression relaxed. He closed his eyes, going inside himself to gather his energy. It was the Carro I knew. He was still very much with us. We carried on with matching his flow, observing his expression, and letting him lead us in how to help him.

While I was Ttouching his legs, my hands glanced over his girth area, and his heart beat jumped out at me. I knew it was over 60 beats per minute. I felt it and let it pass through my mind. No fear. Just information that his body was working hard. There wasn’t anything to do about it.

In between his tries to get up, we offered him water, and he continued to drink at regular intervals. When I saw that, I knew he was not yet in end-stage dying where drinking water ceases.

My friend also offered reiki. For a period of time, Carro would “take energy” from her, and then he would stop. At first when he became quiet from an energetic perspective I wondered if that meant he was moving into the active dying stage. Over the course of 2 hours, however, we saw the pattern. He was resting to gather his resources. The cycle of “taking energy” from my friend corresponded with the cycle of him resting and then trying to rise.

Post-death

Carro died later that night, on his own, with Elsa looking out for him. She had six manure piles surrounding him in a circle several feet out from his body. Not only did she stay with him the night he died, she continued to guard his body and lay down next to him until his body was picked up three days later.

Elsa guarding Carro’s body

Beautiful sunny days followed Carro’s death. Each day I uncovered him. His coat warmed in the sun, and it was as luxuriously soft as it always had been.

That first day, I laid my arms on his bony hips and rested my head on his rump and cried. How I loved those hips, even when they were bony. In fact, I could walk right up to his hips and greet him there. Yes, we could do the official horse greeting at the nose, but he loved my hands on his hips for itching and massage. He’s the only horse I’ve had where that was our unique greeting.

The day after he died, it felt so good to lay on them and feel them again.

I sat with his body, completely uncovered that evening, drew artwork and pondered questions out loud, the same I had always done with him when he was living, especially in the past few years.

“Hey, Carro, is it okay with you that I left last night when I did?” I paused without judgment and let that question linger in the air. I could feel myself breathe, relax and contemplate. There was no right or wrong answer, just being-to-being, me to him, what were his thoughts?

Then I continued, “I knew I needed to sleep to be able to function the next day and help you if you were still alive. You also made it clear to me weeks ago that my first job was to take care of myself. I also wondered, should I stay in case you die tonight? Should I be there? I also had no way of knowing what the next day would bring, and I wanted to be rested to be able to give you my all. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that if I was up all night.”

I had also learned from a hospice nurse for humans that it is common for loved ones to crowd the person who is dying. Somehow that might make it easier on them when their loved one dies, knowing they were there. Yet, not all dying people want to have a crowd all the time. It really depends on the person dying. I imagine that listening to a horse who is dying is much like listening to a human who is dying. It’s not about us. It’s about them and their process, and making space for it. And that will be unique to each being, human or horse.

I also thought of Elsa, his pasture mate. She was a horse and could do horse things. I am a human, and I am not privy to all of their ways. Yes, it would have been interesting to remain and see how everything unfolded between them, and if he died, for me to be there for his last breath. Maybe one day, I will have that opportunity with another horse.

But that night, I decided to leave Elsa and Carro to their horse ways with privacy. There was a chance she knew something I did not. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he was up and walking around the next day. I also wouldn’t have been surprised if he died. There was a slight breeze and the temperature was dropping to near freezing. I wanted to give Elsa the opportunity to help him, especially if this was going to be the end. I had spent the previous few hours trying to help him up, but he did not have the strength.

As I looked around with night approaching, Elsa was completely calm, munching hay nearby. Nothing in her demeanor indicated that I needed to do anything. I placed a fleece on Carro’s back to give him some protection since he was on the ground. But I also left it completely loose so it would not impede him in any way.

I laid my hands on Carro’s shoulder, blessed him and told him I’d be back in the morning. I gave him permission to do whatever he needed to do. If he died tonight, I told him that was okay. I will be sad, but I will be okay. If he was going to live through the night, I would be here in the morning to help him. If he needed Sylvia, she’s in the house. Elsa can call her out if need be – Elsa has an incredible set of lungs and vocal chords, and when she calls, it carries. If you need me, send me a dream, and I will come. With one last breath of connection from me to him and his physical body, I got up and walked to my car, knowing full well that this was not over, and I needed to be rested for what tomorrow would bring.

At home I did a little research on how long a downed horse can live. Of course, just that question alone triggers so many humans that I couldn’t get a straight answer. What I did learn was that the longer they were down, the higher the chance of secondary issues showing up. From my experience, I knew an elderly horse that was down all day, and later got up with no ill harm. I knew we had some wiggle room, but exactly how much, I wasn’t sure. I didn’t worry about it. I knew Carro would let me know.

That night I did not dream about him, and when I woke early the next morning, I called Sylvia. She told me he had died in the night. I was relieved that it wasn’t long after I left at 9 pm. She checked on him an hour after I left, and he drank water. He was still intermittently pooling his resources and attempting to get up. At 2 am, she came back out, and he had died. She draped the red fleece over his back. I had used it over the years for emergencies with all of my previous horses. This time, while not necessary from a horse’s point of view, it was a gesture on our part, of respect for him and comfort for us.

Sunrise the morning of Carro’s death

When I saw his body the morning after he died, I gathered my courage and uncovered him completely. He looked like he was sleeping comfortably. His eyes were half shut, his jaw relaxed, no teeth showing and his legs straight. I later saw a photo of someone’s sleeping horse, and it looked just like Carro, right down to the placement of the legs. It was further confirmation for me that he died peacefully.

Post-Death Cranial-Sacral Rhythm

The second day after he died, my youngest sister came. She knew some reiki, and I asked her if she would mind feeling his body and see if she could pick anything up. I knew that post-death scientific instruments can measure energetic activity, and I was curious to know if it was possible to feel it.

“Oh, Mary, I’m not that good,” she replied.

“That doesn’t matter. You don’t need to know anything. I don’t know anything. I’m just curious, and would love to know if you feel anything.”

She agreed, and began touching his body. She was at the top of his shoulder blade and said, “Mary, feel this.”

I rested my hands lightly on the top of the shoulder, and to my surprise, there was a rhythm that went up and down, like respiration, but it wasn’t respiration. He was clearly dead. Heart was stopped. Breathing was stopped.

She then checked other spots on the body. There was no activity in the hips. A spot on the side of the belly was very faint. Then the point of the shoulder had activity like the top of the shoulder. When I touched this spot, I could feel a rocking in my own body, in time with his, and on the downward beat, it drew me in until my face was 6 inches from his body. It was so relaxing and mesmerizing. I straightened back up and tried to differentiate between what was me and what was him. I eventually went back to the top of the shoulder.

The best way to describe it was that it felt like the cranial-sacral rhythm of the fluid that runs through the spinal column. It’s difficult to feel in a live person because so many other systems are functioning, like the heart beat and respiration. However, in a dead person, those systems are no longer running, and perhaps that’s why it’s easier to feel – if that’s what it was.

Before I went home that night, I felt the top of his shoulder again, and it was active. The moment I touched lightly I could feel it palpate my hands. Wow!

The next morning was day 3 post-death, and my last day with his body. I only touched the top of the shoulder, thinking it was the cranial-sacral rhythm, and the top of the shoulder is quite close to the spine. The rhythm was there, but fainter. I didn’t bother touching the point of the shoulder.

The following morning before dawn, the rendering truck was coming to pick up his body (the property was just too porous to effectively bury a body). Just before it arrived, I knew this was my last chance. I touched the top of the shoulder. It was cold (the temperatures froze that previous night), and I couldn’t feel anything. By this point, depending on which way the wind blew, I could smell the sweet, pungent smell of decomposition. For a moment I was reluctant to check the point of his shoulder. This was a dead body after all! But I quickly realized that if I didn’t do it now, it would be years before the next horse death.

I went to the point of the shoulder and placed my hands lightly on his body. The rhythm was there without question. It went up and down. My body instinctively rocked in time with it. His rhythm drew me closer, just as it had done two days earlier. I could feel the immensity of his heart. The magnitude of his heart overcame me. I became aware of my own heart, laid wide open. Not an ounce of fear in me, but just love for Carro, and for myself. We had seen it through together.

“Carro, you have such a big heart. Wow, Carro, so big!” I wallowed in the experience, filled beyond full. It swallowed me up. Tears came to my eyes, and I started to cry.

I couldn’t believe I was connecting with his body once again. It felt how it always felt when he was alive: His internal rhythm moving my body in relaxation. I could feel the essence of his magnificent being. It allowed me to breathe more deeply, embracing my own heart and his.

What a gift he gave me, three full days post-death. Thank you, Carro for continuing to teach me the ways of the horse.

Reflections On My Life With Carro

Memorial flowers for Carro

Never again…
The bump on my arm, “Mary! Did you see that!?”
Perking up out of his nap when I arrived, “Mary, you’re here!”
He finishes grazing and starts napping. I second guess myself about leaving and return. He glares and pins his ears, “Go home.”
Him breathing on my neck and low back to comfort me when I was afraid of losing him.
Singing Peace is Flowing Like a River when he was rolling trying to relieve pain. The stronger my voice, the calmer he became.
The off-leash walks with him exploring the neighbor’s lawn, no longer following his norm, but his natural curiosity exploring. Don’t bother trying to catch him. Draw him instead.
His waiting for Elsa and me when he got ahead of us on off-leash walks.
His desire to take another route. Stopping and turning his head where he wanted to go.
Completely nonchalant about the baby cougar frozen mid-stride 50 feet from us like a picture out of National Geographic. I woke him from his nap and backed away slowly the length of the trail.
Choking on a blackberry leaf on a trail. I was ready to put my hand down his throat, but he worked it out himself.
Eating dirt, drinking from puddles, tucking into groves of trees. Nature had all he needed to recover from illness.
His bony hips in my hands, his essence still there.
Lagging behind to eat grass, and then cantering to catch up.
Driving the neighbor dog home after the dog came onto the property barking at us. The dog cowered and slinked away.
Protecting me from another horse I was wary of.
Caring for other herd members when they were ill.
Sniffing me all over after I injured my shoulder. A low pitch nicker at my shoulder and then pointing at his shoulder with his head.
Visiting the neighbor’s horse. Walked right across the lawn and started grazing next to the horse on the other side of the fence.
His luxurious winter bay coat and coal black mane. It shone in the sun.
The leader of his herd until his death at 38 years old. The wisest, fairest, strongest and kindest herd leader I’ve ever known.
Outliving all of his herd except one who protected him when he died on his own in the night.
A peaceful horse in living, and an equally peaceful death.
Full circle we’ve come, Carro. Thank you for sharing your life with me.

Epilogue

Rays of sunlight overlay the solid, deep gray sky. It has just rained, and now the sun is out. A rainbow frames the right side of the scene before me. I’m in the barn area sweeping, looking out on three horses, a side view of all of them. They are all munching hay, and all of them are wearing a lightweight blue-gray blanket. The closest to me is Carro. There is something slightly different about his body, so I know it is not on the earthly realm. I can’t tell if he is underweight or not because of the blanket. He perks up and acknowledges me.

“Mary, you’re here!”

I know he is in my dreams, and for a moment I worry that if I look at him too long he will disappear before my eyes. But that doesn’t happen. He trots straight over to me with such joy, and so happy to see me. His head is up; he is bright and alert, and his black mane flounces and keeps time with his every stride. It is just like old times, but this time he is healed.

I step through the fence to greet him, my heart bursting with joy. I am so, so happy to see him once again. He stops in front of me with his right side facing me. I place my right hand on his winter coat. It feels so wonderful to connect with him. I get rid of the rake in my left hand to free it so I can fully connect to him one more time with both of my palms. What joy and happiness in this heavenly realm where all creation is made new! Blessings to you, Carro!

Caring for a Sick Horse – TOP 10 TIPS

Here are the Top 10 Things I Learned from a Sick Horse:

1. I am not a horse. I am a human. I have human capabilities and limitations.
2. Horses are masters at holding space for sick herd members. They don’t just do this for a few minutes. They do it every moment of every day. This is where it helps to remember that I am not a horse. I need to sleep at night. They can sleep standing up and still hold space.
3. Horses are much bigger than I am. Their expression of pain can exceed my capability to witness it. It is ok to excuse myself if it gets too big for me to witness.
4. My first job is to take care of myself. It is only then that I can even begin to offer support to the horse.
5. A sick horse does not need me to crowd them. They do not need me to spend every moment with them. It’s ok to let the horse be.
6. Keep horses in a herd in a wide open space, preferably with as few human constructs as possible. What are human constructs? Anything man-made: fences, posts, barns, feeders, etc. It is easy for a sick horse to injure themselves in tight quarters or with human constructs. Wide open space is the safest place for a horse to be able to take care of themselves when they don’t feel well.
7. Provide food, water, shelter and horse friends. Let them decide if they want to eat, drink or take shelter. They know better than we do what they need to heal.
8. Not eating very much or stopping eating is not the end of the world. It is simply information. Losing weight is not necessarily painful. Not eating very much is the body putting all of its energy toward healing and not toward digesting a lot of food. If the eating stops completely for a few days, the body is simply preparing to die.
9. Sometimes standing in the rain is a comforting place to be. Tucking themselves into a grove a trees can also provide comfort. Resist the temptation to control them. Allow them to make their own choices.
10. Observe. Observe. Observe. Horses are masters at taking care of themselves. Allow a sick horse do what they need to do to take care of themselves. If they are preparing to die, let them do that too.

Horse Hospice Care – TOP 10 TIPS

Here are my top 10 tips for providing comfort care for horses in hospice and supporting them in living:

1. Provide food, water, shelter, and let the horse decide if and when they want it.
2. Say hello. Touch base. Love them. When it’s time for you to go, it’s ok to leave. When you leave, tell them when you are coming back.
3. Is there anything you can do to support the horse? Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. You could give a pain medication if it’s relevant, or not.
4. You can stop taking vital signs. They are data, but you aren’t going to do anything with them. You can take them for your own knowledge, but if it’s stressful for you to know this data, do not take the vital signs.
5. Are they pooping and peeing? This again is data.
6. Flower essences can be a wonderful compliment. My favorite Bach Flower Essence for hospice is Olive for energy.
7. Thank their body for continuing to do its job housing their spirit.
8. Keep things simple. Herbs, flower essences, bodywork, etc can all be wonderful compliments, and there can be many choices. Sometimes too much choice can be too much. Find what resonates with your horse and stick with that.
9. Is there something your horse likes? A favorite food or treat? Where do they like to be itched?
10. Do not underestimate the power of your presence. You are enough.

Animal Hospice Resources

Spirits in Transition – support worldwide for animal hospice
Bright Haven Center for Animal Rescue – hospice and holistic education
See my other post on Rehab Tools for the Senior, Distressed or Dissociated Horse.

My own website, Senior Horse Rehab and horse hospice Facebook page

***

Mary Walby began rehabbing senior horses by accident over 10 years ago at the same time she started training in the martial art of Aikido to learn how to fall off a horse. Little did she realize that the essence of Aikido would permeate every aspect of her life and make it better, from performing and teaching piano, to rehabbing senior horses. She recently founded God’s Window Senior Horse Rehab and Sanctuary, a non-profit organization committed to promoting the health and welfare of all senior horses from a holistic perspective.

Horse Wisdom: Lessons in Hospice Care

8 thoughts on “Horse Wisdom: Lessons in Hospice Care

  • May 3, 2020 at 5:20 am
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    Thank you so much for sharing your experience in honouring death and the process of dying.
    Through your words a sacred silent space becomes present. It feels comforting in itself. I love how this is all part of the field of connectedness. Thank you

    Reply
    • May 6, 2020 at 2:04 am
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      I was incredibly touched ,shed a few tears beautiful words ,I will read over and over .Thank you for sharing, with having a older horse myself I live in fear of the day ,I hopefully will remember your words and the beautiful horses you have helped through this life and the next Thank you so much

      Reply
      • May 10, 2020 at 8:08 pm
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        Thank you, Jayne. Yes, the thought of losing our older horses is hard, and sometimes they have nine lives like a cat, which can make it like a roller coaster. It is also a wonderful opportunity to share ourselves and our deepest fears with them about being human. Being to being with everything on the table is an amazing feeling. We all know every life’s journey will end in death. The question for me becomes, how do I live it and let them live it as well. You have a wonderful teacher in your horse who is more than willing to guide you. Include him/her in the conversation and prepare to have your mind blown.

        Reply
    • May 10, 2020 at 7:54 pm
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      You’re welcome, Ulrike. The horses seem to have many sacred, silent spaces, and yes, I find them comforting too. I’m so glad to have stumbled on this one.

      Reply
  • May 3, 2020 at 7:10 am
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    What a Beautiful Love Story between a horse and his human….. I am touched beyond words! As told (written) by you and your every experience….. I understand, your every thought, every concern, every wish and every once of love, that the two of you shared, with one another!!!!! The essence of his beating spirit, still palpable 3 days, post death! An Amazing relationship, to be so bonded together, so spiritually in tune and not even the same species, this spoke volumes, to me, and what a valuable lesson could be earned by all….. Just simply…. Let it Be, because no one can stop death, only support the process… and be Grateful for the opportunity, the closeness of becoming one, with spirit!!!! Experiencing life, to the Fullest, and without limits, even through death……. is PRICELESS!

    Reply
    • May 3, 2020 at 10:49 pm
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      Thank you, Lauren. He was an amazing horse. I had no idea what gifts he had in store for me simply by listening to him.

      There were moments, especially the last day he was alive and post-death where the reality of the cycle of life was so present. This force was bigger than either of us. Even in death, how the body breaks down begins internally, and it’s a dynamic process. My horse had died, but the dynamics in the body and the cycle of life was still in full force. As I look at trees in the forest, my interest has become the ones that have fallen down. There are so many, and they support the new growth. One day I’d love to be able to compost the body, letting it return to the very soil that supported the horse when it was living, completing the cycle of life.

      Reply
  • May 12, 2020 at 8:54 pm
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    Thank you, Mary, for sharing your experiences.
    I have not been brave enough so far to allow my older horses to die on their own. As they live with me and are in view of me for all daylight hours, and I hear their sounds at night, I couldn’t bear to witness their pain or incapacity to rise.
    I hope they forgive my need to euthanize them. I helped three 30+-year-olds to live a good life until their bodies gave up the ability to rise from sleeping on the ground.
    After reading your story, I still don’t know if I can leave a downed (or incredibly pained horse from colic) to die in their own time, but I’ll keep your words and experience as a guide to try for their sake when the time comes. I still have 11 equines – 7 are 20+ and have been with me since birth so I’ll get more practice.
    Thank you again.

    Reply
    • May 12, 2020 at 10:41 pm
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      Thank you, Cynthia, for your comments. I completely understand where you are coming from. They are big animals, and their expressions are big. At times it can be a lot for us humans to handle, and we do the best we can. No matter what we decide to do or not do, I find the most important thing is to honor ourselves and what we can handle and honor the horse to the best of our ability, whatever that looks like.

      I never thought I’d be this far out on the fringe when I started rehabbing senior horses. What I allowed this horse to do, I never dreamed that any of it was a good idea if I thought about it, but as I was in the moment and learned to differentiate between myself and him, I began to see his innate wisdom over his own life and death. Connecting with him dwarfed my fears.

      With all of the horses, every time I allow something for them that initially I had great fear about, they have blown me away with what happens next. It is always better than anything I could have come up with. Stepping into the unknown and letting them lead me is an act of courage. And I always remind myself that I can change course at any time. When it comes to death and listening to the horse’s voice, leave it to the horse to put one of the most taboo topics for humans on the table.

      In terms of a down horse, if they are not dying, but just unable to rise and otherwise ok, here’s an article that might be of interest to you. https://spiritsintransition.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/DownHorse.pdf

      Best wishes to you and your horses!

      Reply

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