Struggling With An Impossible Decision – NOËLLE FLOYD

It started slowly. The horse came to me, a few years under saddle but quite green, and he was charming and uncomplicated until one day, he wasn’t. Shortly after mounting one day he bucked me off in a blind panic. I was injured. But I healed, and I got back on later, and slowly built up confidence to the point where I was riding him as confidently as I was before.

There were two more bucking incidents, neither while mounted but rather while wearing a surcingle, and shortly after the girth being tightened and being asked to work. That’s classic cold backed behavior, and after a veterinary investigation (revealing no mission critical reason for that behavior), I was relieved. While cold backed isn’t a barrel of fun, it’s at least relatively predictable, and manageable.

Except that then, months later, he bucked me off again, this time at the 15 minute mark. That’s not cold backed behaviour. But sometimes horses are young and strange, so I wrote it off and rode on.

A month later the odd behavior on the ground started. Small things, but definitely strange. Claustrophobia. We’d begun some groundwork with a horsemanship expert over the summer – who declared the horse “interesting” and “aloof” – and we started it up again, and it seemed to help, though not a lot. When he’d blow up, he’d really blow up.

And then, over the course of a few days, the horse became completely impossible to groom and tack while on crossties. Blind panic. And the kind where he didn’t care who was in his way when he blew up. He became a liability.

It was distressing, for sure. But it was also out of nowhere, and for no reason. It went from 0-60 in a few short days, during which there was no trauma, no precipitating incident. Nothing.

Equine Degenerative Myeloencephalopathy – EDM – is a condition in horses resulting from lesions in the brain stem and spinal cord. It is fatal. It is awful. It is only concretely diagnosable post mortem. And it’s on the rise – I’d never heard of it until a few years ago, and now I feel like I’m hearing about a friend with a dead EDM horse every few months, and even had one in my own stable two years ago.

It’s a diagnosis of exclusion. You rule out the obvious causes of neurological problems: EPM, Lyme Disease, Wobbler’s. Then there’s conversations with veterinarians and insurance companies, and a plan is made for what comes next.

It’s linked to a vitamin E deficiency in very early development, and because it takes years to develop, you can have a foal or young horse sail through a pre-purchase exam only to develop it down the road. It can manifest a few different ways, but the primary signs are ataxia – wobbliness in the horse’s gait and bearing, usually beginning behind – and behavioral changes. With the one in my own barn two years ago, it was the little things. A bad attitude. Naughty behavior under saddle. And in warmblood horses, sometimes the line between mild ataxia and being an impressive mover is very, very thin.

So it went on a while, until this horse was quite sick. It made the choice easy – she was suffering. My horse is not yet suffering. But he’s dangerous. And as I write this, there’s a few more tests to embark upon, but so far they’ve all been negative. It’s possible he has this horrible, fatal and painful degenerative condition. It’s possible he has something else causing him to be complicated. And there’s a very, very real possibility that there’s absolutely nothing physically wrong with him.

And so I’m left with three choices. One is to send him to a behavior specialist, because the behavior is beyond my means to fix. Another is to just retire him. Both of those are options that involve cost and time, and allow him the opportunity to decline naturally, if he is in fact sick.

The third is to put him down. If he’s sick, then that’s the right choice – to let him go while he’s still feeling vaguely ok, before it gets grim. It’s also the easier financial choice, to go there before I’ve spent more money on training and board and care, and also because if he’s sick, insurance will reimburse me for much of the testing, and then pay out on his mortality claim. I am not an independent wealthy person. This will let me start over with a new young horse. It will be awful, and sad, but it will be over.

If he’s not sick, then I will have killed a healthy but quirky animal.

I’m writing this anonymously because there are going to be people to respond to this in angry ways. “How dare you even consider this! How dare you consider murdering your horse because he’s complicated! That is not what horse lovers do!” If you don’t think that voice isn’t inside my own head, you’re out of your mind. And I hate that finances are a consideration, but this is the world. Unless you’re well-off, maintaining a horse – even in just one out in the field because he can’t be ridden – for 10 years, 15, 20, is an extraordinary cost, particularly when that horse is complicated to work with . And I could be putting those resources into the next animal, one who isn’t a liability.

And sure, I could put in more time to see if I can address the behavior. But if I sent him to a cowboy, a fixer, would I ever trust him again? And if I gave him away to someone who said they could handle the quirky, and he hurt them, or if that person got him going well enough that an unsuspecting amateur buyer might not know the back story and purchased him and ended up hurting herself, where does that leave me?

What is the better horrible choice – a calm and quiet end, running the risk that it’s premature, or to toss the dice of possibly fixing it or possible condemning both the horse and future humans to potential danger, and me to even greater financial hardship?

I think I know what I want. For sure I’ll continue to utilize the best veterinary team I can find, and take their advice. I’ll work with my insurance company. And I’ll make the decisions I’ll make, and then I’ll live with them, because that’s the only option. But it’s going to be hard. Really hard. And so I write this, so that maybe some of the people who are quick to judge can understand the back story, can give some thought to how someone arrives at a choice like this. And maybe it’ll help them step back from the keyboard, or from the angry comment, and be kinder.

No matter what, I hope it makes all of you hug your horses, and be grateful for them.

Read this next: Sometimes, I Don’t Like Riding (But the Magic Happens When I Do It Anyway)

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