Since 2003, I have operated a removal and burial service for large animals, mostly horses, in the southern Willamette Valley. During this time I have helped people with nearly 1000 horses. We keep a record of each horse with their name, age, breed, sex, and how or why they died if it is known. After recently reviewing our records I would like to share some thoughts on how you might keep your equine friend around a little bit longer, or at least save yourself some stress and vet bills.
Thirty-five percent of the horses lived to at least 25 years of age; they died naturally or were euthanized because of disease or old age. In other words this means that if you are an average horse owner your horse has a one in three chance of living to the ripe old age of 25. One Chincoteague pony was documented to be 47-years-old! In my opinion these are the fortunate ones.
Twenty-five percent of the horses under 25-years-old died of colic or had colic-like symptoms. I have no medical training so my percentage is based on veterinary diagnosis or the owner's observations.
Most horses recover from colic with prompt treatment, but obviously some don’t. I have noticed that certain times of the year I see more horses dying from colic. Spring seems to be pretty tough on horses. I think the warm days and cold nights along with the lush new growth of grass sometimes triggers an impaction. Some people don't realize that this can also happen in the fall when early rain again causes the grass to grow lush and is accompanied by wide temperature swings. A 50 degree daily temperature swing is hard on some horses. I have picked up several horses that have pigged out on fresh grass clippings some-well meaning soul decided to feed them. I know some of you are saying, “duh,” but it happens every spring. In winter there are horses that colic because of dehydration. Does drinking ice-cold water ever hurt your teeth? Supplying warm water in the winter may save your old boy. In the summer months I look at our water trough and think, “how thirsty would I have to be to drink that?” If the answer is “really thirsty,” then I clean the trough. If something just doesn't seem right when you look at your horse then take some notes: is he breathing fast? Is he sweaty or in pain? Is his belly sucked up? Is he laying down a lot or biting at his side? If the answer to any of these is yes, then call your vet and ask for advice. I've never heard of a vet refusing service in an emergency, but I know that I am much more willing to help people if they don't owe me money, so please try to keep your account current. We always have some Banamine on hand that we can give them while the vet is in route if he or she advises it. Finally, although it is just an observation, I have noticed that many horses that die of colic are very overweight, so if your horses' butt looks fat to you, pay attention. There are many potential causes for colic, please educate yourself on them.
The rest of this article is about accidents. About 10% of the horses under 25 that I have picked up have died from accidents. Many accidents are not preventable, such as a frisky horse kicking up its heels only to come down in a gopher hole and break its leg. A stray kick by a playful pasture mate placed in exactly the right (wrong) place can shatter a knee or tear ligaments. This is heartbreaking, but part of life with horses.
Our horses are never tied up unless I am confident in their training to give to pressure, and I almost always use a Blocker tie ring when I do tie them. I have picked up several horses with broken necks because they pulled back so hard that they either broke the equipment and flipped over backwards or the equipment held, but caused irreparable damage to their neck. Don't ever tie your horse to a stall door, gate, fence board, or anything that can move if they pull back. The movement may spook them and the next thing you know your horse is being "chased" through the barn by a board or stall door. Believe me; I've seen the results.
Walking the horse pasture to check for dangers is a habit I try to make routine. After a heavy rain is a good time to check for holes. I have seen broken legs with jagged bone shards sticking out as a result of a horse running through the field and stepping in a hole. I remember one whose hind leg went down about 2 feet into a hole and as he tried to get up he flipped over sideways and dislocated his hip. How does a hole suddenly appear in your pasture? Many years ago most of the pastures in western Oregon were forest land. After the trees were logged, the land was cleared and leveled, but during this process some of the stumps and logs were buried. As the wood rots, rainwater follows these tunnels and makes them larger. Eventually the ground caves in which sometimes results in a shallow depression, but other times it looks like a post hole. We had a small hole appear that took an entire tractor bucket of gravel to fill - one shovel full at a time! Gravel is better than dirt for filling holes, especially if they are full of water.
I never ignore anything that poses an entanglement threat. This includes, but is not limited to twine, wire, rope, clothes line, fencing, and cable. Try taking a piece of twine and wrapping it tightly around your arm just below the elbow and then pull on it. If you were to pull hard enough it would cut through your arm and peel your flesh away leaving only the bone. The vet calls this “de-gloving” and I have seen it more than once on a horse’s leg. I hope you never see it.
If your horse gets out, wanders onto the road, and gets hit by a car, you may be found negligent and therefore responsible for any damages and injuries. I have been called to the aftermath of three auto-horse accidents and can say that a horse has an incredible amount of blood which makes for a gruesome sight. Thankfully no people were seriously injured in those particular collisions, although the vehicles sustained major damage.
Keeping fences safely maintained is another priority. I don’t know if there really is such a thing as a horse-safe fence, but I do know that loose fences, leaning fences, and those overgrown with berry vines or weeds are all hazardous to horses for multiple obvious reasons.
If you have a fence with loose wire and leaning metal t-posts please fix it today. On three occasions I have picked up horses that were impaled and eviscerated when they became entangled, chased, or were spooked near a leaning t-post. The horse does not just lie down and die quietly; it is an awful sight to see. We have t-posts on our property, and I do not believe they are inherently dangerous if they are property maintained. I have never picked up a horse from a fence accident where the fences were well maintained with a visual barrier such as white electric tape at chest height.
I have picked up several horses as a result of blood poisoning caused by an abscess or a puncture wound. Nails sticking out of boards, fence posts, or the side of the barn can cause this. If promptly treated they almost always get better. We are fortunate to have some wonderful, dedicated veterinarians here so when you are in doubt, call them out!
Don't leave loose equipment on your horse that should be snug. I have seen several horses become entangled in turn-out blankets that became loose. They freaked out, mortally injuring themselves. If you ride western and use a back cinch, keep it snug. A loose back cinch not only looks dorky, it isn't doing its job and it is dangerous. Imagine you are walking down a trail, your horse steps on a short, stout branch with his front foot and the branch kicks up and goes between the cinch and his belly. He is startled so he jumps which causes the branch to impale him and start stirring up his insides. I've only seen this once, but that was enough.
One parting piece of advice: if you are lounging your young horse while riding a 4-wheeler, stay very alert! She might get scared and jump in front of you. If you don't stop fast enough you might hit her front leg and break it. Yes, sadly, this really happened.
In the past eight years I have seen more tears and been around more grieving people than I thought I would ever see in a lifetime. If you read this and follow some of these suggestions you will never know if they saved you and your horse some pain, but if you don’t bother to follow this advice and your horse has one of these "accidents" you can probably add the guilt of knowing that you knew better to your grief and tears. If by writing this I help one young filly to become an old grey mare, it was worth my time.