August 18, 2021
Every time I think about sitting down to write about Caleb, I don’t know where to start. His 5 years with us is a long story, inextricably woven into the formation of Sumner Brook Farm, and my personal healing.
I know a lot of people want to know what happened the other day, what led to the choice to euthanize him, so I will start at the end. But as I know so many folks are new here and haven’t heard his story before, here is the short version-
I rescued Caleb 5 years ago from a severe neglect situation involving 19 horses and other farm animals in Lyme, CT. He had been locked in a stall for months and was nearly starved to death. The day that I picked him up, he put his head in my hands with a sense of relief. I promised him in that moment I would do my best for him, but I would never let him suffer. He had already endured more than any being should have to. And so I brought him to the farm.
There are certain things you know when you commit to a horse for life. You know you will be responsible for the basic daily care, feeding, grooming, etc. You are entrusted with their happiness, their quality of life and the choices you make daily affect that horse’s life. You know that someday, the decision to let them go, will be your responsibility.
This issue is so complex and every individual case needs consideration, but I am speaking for myself, my practice and philosophy as a horse owner and professional for the last 25+ years.
Caleb was diagnosed with Cushing’s Disease a couple of years ago. This was not a surprise. Many horses develop this metabolic issue as they age, and managing it with diet and medication is just part of the deal with many senior horses. There are a lot of visible changes in body condition as the medication works, horses can lose muscle and fat and they often appear sunken and thin.
What we cannot see directly, are the changes inside the hoof. Over time we may see evidence of laminitis as the way the hoof grows will tell the story of internal damage, both past and present. You will notice the horse’s stance in the paddock, parked out or rocked back to take pressure off the toes. The horse will become painful and unable to walk. It may start with hard surfaces, but they are ok on grass or soft bedding. You may be able to lessen the pain with medication, corrective shoeing or boot options for the feet. But you can not stop the progression disease. The symptoms will ultimately become unmanageable as they did with Caleb.
He had been struggling on and off this past year with foot pain. His last foot trim he almost fell down due to all the conditions of aging. In addition to his incredibly creaky arthritic joints (honestly don’t know how he moved at all) he had a hind leg that sometimes randomly winged out to the side in spasm and he couldn’t stand on it for long. He wasn’t laying down to sleep, but he managed to get dirty so I knew he could still roll.
He had a major pain and abscess episode coming out of winter. We put boots on him and voila he seemed much better. But I knew then what we were facing and it was only a matter of time.
Last week, I saw him take “the stance” and rocked back off his front feet. Sometimes he stood like this for quite a while before he would urinate, he took his time thinking about it and then finally would pee. Old man problems I guess.
He was reluctant to walk. Last Friday we changed his pain medication and put on his boots. He had marginal improvement. I already knew what my decision was going to be at that point. We had our open house the next day and so we gave him a bath, the best deep scrub he’d had in while. I knew then what I was really preparing for but couldn’t say it out loud. I knew I would be calling the vet and that it would be time.
He did not improve over the weekend with increased meds. The vet was called out Monday for X-rays and confirmed what I already knew, but needed to see for myself. He had rotation of the coffin bone in his left front foot, as well as bone fragments that had broken off the tip of the bone as it separated from the laminae. This damage was causing the severe pain he was experiencing.
I am not a believer in heroic measures for the sake of saying I did everything humanly possible, especially for an aged horse. I would not feel better if I put a 34 year old horse through months of being stall bound or painful shoeing. I would not feel better waiting for this flare up to pass and drain the abscess, especially knowing what was happening inside the hoof.
I would not feel better, because it would only continue to happen over and over again until the bone penetrated the sole of his foot. I am not willing to watch a horse suffer in agony because I want to save them.
This is not about you, or me, it is about the horse.
The mission of our rescue is to prevent and alleviate suffering. And so we did.
We nerve blocked (numbed) his feet so he could walk to the field to be buried. He practically dragged me out there now that his pain had been temporarily lifted. We saw glimpses of the feisty old man that we knew. We stood with him while he gummed mouthfuls of grass and spit them out (he could not chew it). We scratched his favorite spots and talked about the past 5 years with him. We loved him all over, as much as you can love on a horse.
When it was time, the vet gave him a sedative. He put his face right on my face, his head in my hands and breathed into me. He knew, I knew. It was a very powerful moment. He gently laid down (thank goodness for that) and the final injection was given. He did not resist, he breathed a quiet breath and was gone. We stayed with him for quite a while and then covered him with a blanket while we waited for him to be buried.
He is in the corner of the grass field that will someday be fenced for more rescue horses to graze and thrive as he did. Caleb’s Field.
He is missed, we are incredibly sad to have lost our friend. But we know this will happen. We will lose them, we will have to manage difficult things and make hard choices. I am ok with that because the life we gave him was as perfect as it could be, and that in the end is what matters most. I promised he would never suffer, he would never be betrayed by humans again. That is the purpose of our rescue and what drives me to do this work.
Thank you all for loving him, for supporting him and other horses who need us.