Life and Death in the Balance
By April Horowitz
(The Heart of a Horse Story, part 6)
The emergency call was about a mare named Toby who had a colic and had to be put down. When Kevin told me this, it was very upsetting and I asked him why it had to be done. He said, “This mare has lived her day. She is old and toothless, and arthritic, and she has colicked a lot.” Colic in horses is a severe abdominal pain, and can be a sign that several things are wrong; if untreated it can result in death. It is often caused by an impaction of the colon, where hay, water, dirt, sand and other debris clog the vessel, causing the horse to roll in agony. It can be treated with psyllium laxatives and by flushing the colon, but it can also require expensive surgery, where the horse has to be opened up. It is the leading cause of premature death in horses, and always has to be taken seriously.
Toby was well over thirty years old, a mixed quarter horse paint. She was situated on a property which had no ranch house and was a good distance from where the owner, a man named Jorge, lived. Jorge was afraid Toby might colic in the middle of the night and without attention die a slow and agonizing death alone.
While Kevin was telling me this as we drove through the winding back roads in Ojai, all I was thinking was that I did not want to have to watch a horse be put down. Even though I could see that putting Toby down might be the merciful thing to do, I couldn’t get my head around euthanizing her. I just wanted her to live. To take my mind off my fears, I asked Kevin how many animals he had to euthanize in his career. He turned to me and said gravely, “April, too many. Sometimes I wonder when it’s my time to go, are they going to be there on the other side waiting for me? And what will they say?”
It was the other side of the conversation I was having with myself. I tried to dissuade him: “They’d be saying that’s the guy who took me out of my pain and misery.” Kevin smiled and said, “Oh I know, April. I don’t have any second thoughts about what I did. Every horse I put down was suffering, and facing an even more horrible end if I hadn’t been there. It’s always better – more humane if you like – to give them a peaceful passage and save them from unnecessary pain. But sometimes there’s that little voice in the back of my head asking ‘Did I do it at exactly the right time? Was it done the way the horse and the clients needed it done?’ Whenever I leave a euthanasia, I check myself with those thoughts about the horses and the people who love them. I think any good doctor would.”
Then he told me a story to illustrate what he had said. “I remember a call I got around 2:30 in the morning from an eighty-year-old woman in Malibu whose horse I had been treating. It was a stormy night. I had been working all day and I had just turned the key in the door, and the phone rang. The voice on the other end said, ‘My horse isn’t any better.’ I had treated this horse for many years and it had been clear to me for over a month that the horse’s time had come and he was ready to pass. But she wasn’t ready to let him go. I had been looking forward to dropping on my bed, but I turned around and went back into the night. I thought, ‘I did not want this to happen. I told her the horse should be put down but she wouldn’t listen because she couldn’t bear to let him go. Now what I did not want to happen is about to take place. The horse will have a bad time and suffer, and the owner will never be able to forget it.’
“When I stepped into the night, it was raining, and the winds had begun to pick up. I drove to Malibu on Route 1 and then up the road to her house at the top of the hill. When my headlights illuminated her driveway, I saw her tiny frame through the rain, standing at the front door shaking. ‘Where’s the horse?’ I asked. She pointed to the pipe corral at the back of the house and said, “I couldn’t get him up.” She was wearing a yellow slicker and she started to come with me, but I stopped her and told her to go inside. I didn’t want her to go through this.
“When I came on the horse, I saw that he was very ill and ready to go. I couldn’t help but have feelings for him because we had known each other for some time. I examined him and gave him a cocktail of drugs to ease his pain. Then I went back to the house and told her what had to be done. She didn’t say anything. But she asked me if I would take the horse to the other side of the property so she wouldn’t have to see the body in the morning. So I knew. Then she asked me if she should go up the hill and be there when I did it. I said to her as gently as I could, ‘No, you don’t need this kind of memory. You need to remember the good times.
“I gave the horse a drug to take him out of his discomfort and then, together, the two of us trudged up through the rain. To keep his spirits up – or maybe more to keep mine up — I kept saying ‘C’mon buddy, it’s just a little farther. You’re going to be ok.’ As we got up to the crest of the hill, the rain seemed to let up and give us a little space. The night sky was lit by the lights of the Malibu mansions on the hills around us. I turned to the horse and gave him a last hug and said, ‘Hey buddy, you’ve been a good horse, and your owner loves you, and now you’re going to a good place where you will be out of your pain.’ I could see his eyes were soft and he was feeling relaxed from the cocktail I had given him, and he didn’t mind when I injected the drug that brought him his final peace. As soon as I administered it, he went down, almost floated to the ground. And just as he fell the skies seemed to open and the rain came down in heavy sheets.
“As soon as he was gone, I realized that I didn’t have anything to cover him with. I didn’t want to leave him exposed there in the rain, which was coming down so hard. I wanted to give him some kind of dignity. He was such a nice horse; he deserved some kind of covering. I started down the muddy hill towards the house, half sliding as I went, and knocked on the door again. I asked the lady if she had something I could use to cover her horse. She went into the house and brought out a blue tarp. I took the tarp from her and worked my way back up to where the horse was lying and covered his head and as much of him as I could.
“When I came down the hill again I told her she needed to get the hauler to come as quickly as she could the next day. I didn’t want to think of the coyotes eating at his corpse. I drove away, and as I left the lights of Malibu it became pitch dark, and I felt so completely alone. But I was also calm when I thought about the horse because I knew he was finally out of his misery, and wherever he was going it was a better place than he had been. I said to myself ‘Dear God, when I pass, I hope on the other side these animals understand how much I cared about them and why I eased them out of this world.’” As he said this, I saw that however much he told himself this, the pain of those partings would never leave him.
Kevin’s story had left me emotionally drained. I thought to myself, “What a job this man has. It’s not just giving vaccines to keep the horses alive. It’s making judgment calls about life and death, having the confidence that you know the end is near and that what you are doing is the right thing to do. It’s helping the horses go out with the least amount of suffering, and it’s comforting the owners who love them so that that they have some closure and peace.” I felt a rush of admiration for this man, and the tough lot he sought for himself in life, and for the good he accomplished which was so hard to do.
By now, we had reached the hills of Ojai and were getting close to the area where Jorge and Toby were waiting for us.