When is the When, Part II

Editor’s Note: I wrote this piece years ago, while I was living in Maine and owned Phoenix, a broodmare Paint originally from Massachusetts. With winter coming, we thought it would be an important conversation to have with our readers as they may be contemplating the same difficult decision. Have courage and share your thoughts, Maddy Butcher

Read Part I

The End of October, The End of a Life:

A few months ago, I told myself that it’d be best to put down Phoenix when she came off grass for the season. With compromised teeth, she’d been doing much better on grass than hay. When I gave her hay at night, she looked at it and looked at me.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” she seemed to ask me.
And so this last week, when my horses were back from the pasture for until next May, I made the dreaded call to my longtime friend and veterinarian, Dr. Linda Barton.

These thoughts, as I wrote about earlier, bubbled to the surface as I dealt with the reckoning:

  • I could, with more time and money, keep her alive for a few more years.
  • Or, she’d have been euthanized already at someone else’s farm.

I waffled back and forth. Hers was not a sudden injury. Some days, as I watched her and groomed her thin coat, I changed my mind a dozen times. Some days, I was mired in an indecisive mud.

Coincidently, I got an email from Kim Stone, a Mainer working on a ranch in Idaho: “The cow boss lost his horse today. The horse broke its leg and it had to be shot in the field…we will have to ride by the dead horse for the next several days,” she wrote.
The cow boss’s decision was quick and correct. In comparison, I was second-guessing every day, every hour.

In the end, I stuck to my decision to euthanize. The actual process — from administering the shots to burying her – was dreadful. All the credit due to vets like Linda who must be there time and again. We don’t think about death when we acquire our animals. On that decided day, all the joys and routines of her life seem crushed by the weight of that cruel moment.

Now that she’s gone, I am trying to overlook those ugly minutes and focus on happy, richer times. That’s what Phoenix did — she enriched my life. I tried to tell her, “Thank You. Rest In Peace, with as much grass and sun as you can manage!”

Here is one of my favorite poems by Henry Taylor. It may be about the passing of a human friend, but I think of it fondly when I lose an animal, too.

“Someone we love, old friend, has telephoned
to let me know you’re gone – and so you are.
I touch the steady books: my mind casts back,
then forth, and says, as you said once, “so long –
I look forward to seeing you everywhere.”

Listen to Vess Quinlan recite “Where the Ponies Come to Drink”

Posted in Best Horse Practices, Horsemen & Women, Reflections and tagged , , , , , , .


  1. Dear Maddy,

    I remember that October day all too well when you said goodbye to Phoenix. My own heart shattered into a million pieces for you and for Phoenix. As a new owner of horses, this was the first that I had ever crossed the rainbow bridge with a fellow horse owner.

    You happened to be caring for my horses that day and as my heart broke for you I will never forget how strong and brave I found you. You made a tough but humane decision and taught me a very important lesson about a responsibility we have as part of the deal when we welcome horses into our lives. Like a perfect marriage, it is for better or worse and not for the weak of heart. Your example helped ease my pain when I had to face saying goodbye to two elderly rescue horses. Their memories of their best days will always be with me. You once again set an excellent example.

    Thanks for sharing this discussion my amazing mentor and friend.


  2. Our animal friends often tell us that they are ready to go, but it never makes it easier to dial that number. When I make my mind override my heart, to be kind and do what is best, it still hurts like hell. And as a lifelong animal person, my mantra has been that I would much rather make that call two weeks too soon than two weeks too late. I have seen needless suffering because of the human wanting to postpone the pain they knew they would feel. It’s not about us.
    Lovely piece you have written. Thank you.

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