on hard decisions

We euthanized Murray on Wednesday.

sorry, it’s gonna be a media-heavy post

After Murray retired in 2018, he went to live at MIL’s house (where Speedy spent his first three months, I made them meet) in an irrigated pasture with an older retired horse buddy to keep him company. He was pretty delighted by the lottery he had won, and it was quite clear he was in heaven. Whenever I was home to visit I would bring him in, give him a good groom, brush all the tangles out of his mane and tail, and cry a little bit before he went back out.

in retirement

After a while, Murray decided that continued human management would not be for him. It started with refusing to stand for the farrier without drugs. Then he said no to the vet. Eventually, nobody at the ranch was allowed to catch him.

I could still get him, without deception or difficulty. More often than not, Murray would come sauntering up to me for a good scratch and let me put a little swat on his midline or pick out his feet without a halter on. But it did get harder and slower over time, and the last time I was home he galloped away from me. He came back later, but it was the first time he had viewed me with that much suspicion.

As you might imagine, a horse who can’t be caught is a horse who can’t be managed. And there is only so long a horse, even a Murray, can go without seeing a veterinarian or farrier. While I wish I could point at his rotating club foot or a clear and growing lameness or colic or a disease process, it was nothing so simple. Watching him become more and more feral — and not in the “fat happy retired horse” way — I knew that Murray’s time would be limited.

This year MIL renewed her efforts to halter Murray, so he could be brought in for a trim. About a month ago he kicked her as he fled. And so she called me and said she thought it might be time. His behavior was clearly deteriorating, and even if we couldn’t see head-bobbing lameness from the outside, we both suspected that was pain related. Rather than let Murray get so painful that he couldn’t run from us — or hurt himself more trying to do so — we decided it was best to euthanize him.

working on our camel act

Why am I writing so many words about the decision to euthanize my retired horse? Because it was hard. And I hope that other people who might be struggling with the decision or who may have to cross this road in the future might see this option and know that it is a decision to be made with love and kindness. There’s a lot of pushback in our culture about euthanizing apparently healthy animals. Apparently being the key word there, because there’s a lot of vectors that make up “healthy,” much more than just “alive and breathing”.

Murray was 13 and physically sound-adjacent. I “could have” found a retirement or rescue situation for him that would have understood his very, very special needs better and been able to manage him and impoverished myself paying for the rest of his life. I could have built $10k in fencing on the 6 acres behind my house, converted a lean-to into a barn, found a pasture-buddy, and turned my life inside out to bring him home to retire in Oregon. (If we could have gotten him onto a trailer. Also a pretty hard Murray-No.) It would have trashed my life. I would probably have needed to sell Speedy. It would probably have caused a divorce. I could have done that. But I wouldn’t.

In the end, the people who knew Murray and me best agreed that this was the right call. Murray was making it clear that he couldn’t be around people any more. It would not be kind to force him to be around new, different people just for the sake of a few thousand more heartbeats. It would not be kind to stuff him on a trailer to live in the mud for the sake of a few thousand more breaths. And if, as we suspect, his behavior change was caused by increasing pain in his body — though we won’t know, as I didn’t get a necropsy — it would not be kind to insist he keep living in that shell.

Murray was, to be direct (and he was always direct), a pain in the ass. He hated almost everyone, and his distrust of humanity ran deep. Pretty much none of those “good horse manners” came easily to him, nor did they stick around the second things got rough. He was uniquely confident in his own judgment, and intensely unpredictable in whether that judgment would line up with reality or not. He was persistent beyond all mortal ken, a riddle wrapped inside a mystery stuffed into an enigmatically-cute horse suit.

He was my first horse, and I loved him fiercely.

What is there to say about this horse who was so formative in my life? That nothing for us came easy at first, that all our lessons were hard-won, that he was never good for a cuddle?

I think more about the sense of humor, the laughter, the ridiculousness. Murray did not let me take myself too seriously. Which was probably desperately needed.

I think about the way we thought out of the box, got creative, and stuck to our guns.

I think about the times he showed up for me, all the adventures we had with our friends, and the memories we made.

I think about his bangin’ forelock, his incredible shiny body, his baby-forever face.

Murray delivered experience in spades. Not carefully or thoughtfully or delicately, but shoveling it onto you so you had no choice but to adapt lest you drown in chaos.

I will always remember what we learned together. Laugh always. Find the itchy spots. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Get creative. Scream as needed. Fight for what you believe in.

Content warning — euthanasia details below.

If you want to know how you euthanize a horse who can’t be touched, it’s with a bullet. MIL found a cowboy confident in and comfortable with the process. Cowboy grained Murray at the gate for a while to habituate him. The morning they pulled the trigger, Murray dropped instantly, mouth full of grain. I know it’s a controversial method. I feel that if it is kind enough for me to use on my food animals, it is kind enough for me to use with my horse. As much as I wish we could have filled Murray with enough sedatives and painkillers to render him insensate, the process of being caught and injected would have been incredibly stressful to him, and he was a heavyweight at the best of times. I felt this would be swiftest, which is kindest.