One of the hardest things about owning horses is that one day, you’ll have to take the decision to say goodbye. It’s always horrendous, whether it’s a planned decision you’ve had time to reach or the result of catastrophic injury or illness.

On April 2, an equine eventing icon was put down. Headley Britannia, Lucinda Fredericks’ awe-inspiring little chestnut mare, was 21 years old, an age at which many horses would be long retired. Brit, though, was still going strong and had enjoyed a fantastic cross-country schooling session with one of Lucinda’s working pupils.

Lucinda Fredericks with Headley Britannia.
Lucinda Fredericks with Headley Britannia.

It was an accident that could happen to any horse at any age: a landing over a small fence, on good ground, which shattered a bone. Everyone will sympathise with Lucinda, for whom Brit has been part of the family for so many years – and those of us who can look at our own horses and be thankful we still have them should make plans for their end.

It’s something no one wants to do. Human nature means we find it hard to plan for awful  eventualities, but trying to at least get some strategy in place is a way of showing you care for your horse. If you haven’t done so already, talk to your vet when your horse is due for a routine vaccination visit or similar.

Your vet might be surprised, but he or she will also approve. Deciding what method to use and what is going to happen afterwards will enable you to stay as calm as possible if the moment arrives and you won’t make a hurried decision that you later regret.

Planning ahead will also help if you make the decision to have a horse put down because you feel he no longer has a quality of life. It’s an agonising time – I’ve been there, with three much-loved horses, once when there really was no choice and twice when I knew that elderly friends were no longer happy, despite my best efforts.

Amadeus, a legendary stallion who was put down aged 31 and is buried in his owners’ field.
Amadeus, a legendary stallion who was put down aged 31 and is buried in his owners’ field.

Be careful what you say to or about others who make that choice. Sadly, there are always people who think they know more about your horse even though you may have looked after him for 15 years and they’ve never seen him.

Sometimes, their advice is well-meaning, along the lines of ‘Have you tried this or that approach or therapy’. Sometimes it’s because they believe it’s fine to keep a horse who is so lame and/or arthritic in retirement, even though he no longer lies down because he knows he can’t get up.

And sometimes – the worst ones of all – they will accuse you of having a horse put down because you can no longer ride him. A wise field officer at World Horse Welfare, who sadly is no longer with us, once told me that every horse should have a job and be happy in it. It didn’t matter whether that horse was a world class athlete or a companion to others: his role was equally valuable.

Plan now, know your horse and know that you’ll have the courage to do the right thing when the time comes. Caring for your horse takes many forms – and that’s one of them.