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.

17 thoughts on “on hard decisions”

  1. Holy shit, I am so sorry Nicole. But I’m also glad that you were able to handle such a difficult situation with so much grace and to do the right thing for him even though some people won’t understand it. “It would not be kind to force him to be around new, different people just for the sake of a few thousand more heartbeats.” <– This says everything. What an incredibly written tribute to a horse I don't think any of us will ever forget. Hugs.

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  2. Hugs. I wish our culture was more accepting of the fact that there are far worse things in life than humane euthanasia. It takes guts to write about things like this honestly, but I’m glad you did. Murray was such a unique soul and you did the best you could for him ♥️

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  3. It’s such a tough decision. Hugs. And thank you for writing on such a tough topic. 💜

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  4. Nicole I’m so sorry you had to make this decision and for your loss of Murray. It’s never easy, and I really admire how you carefully and lovingly considered his experience and quality of life. Ya done good. Lots of psychic hugs coming your way!

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  5. I am so sorry to hear this for you, but you did the best for him. In some instances such as these, I do not think it would have been any better if they could talk. They are such complex, intricate beings far beyond most human awareness. I do know they are all here for a reason and he was here to teach you. None of us involved with animals can avoid helping one along their way for whatever reason. Having experienced veterinarian assisted euthanasia a few times now over the years, I kind of have a feeling or belief that a lot is experienced even through sedation. Scientifically, I do not understand it. There is no best way. A well placed bullet I may think would be sometimes better. I do not know if I could ever do it myself, but I have known some old timers that believe in doing it themselves that way. That it was their reasonability and duty to do it after caring for them. That there was more honor and truth in it, and beyond that, that it was quicker. Hugs to you. In no instance is it ever not hard or difficult, even though you know it was best. Celebrate his life and all he taught you.

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  6. I’m so sorry you had to make this decision, but there is comfort in knowing Murray is out of pain. Hugs, and let me know if there’s anything I can do.

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  7. There are so many worse things than euthanasia. Murray was lucky to have you as his advocate when his retired life was no longer right for him. I am so sorry for your loss; he sounds like such a special horse who taught many lessons.

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  8. I’m so sorry for your loss. It sucks. It’s never “the right time” in our hearts. So we have to use our heads and you used yours. I’m just a person on the internet that you tangentially know, but I’m proud of you for making the hard decision.

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  9. Oh Nicole, I am so sorry. For what it’s worth I think you gave Murray the very best retirement he could have asked for, even if it was shorter than you would have liked. And when he started to tell you he was in pain you listened and did the right thing by him. It’s tough and so hard to say goodbye, but making sure he wouldn’t be in greater pain was the biggest act of care for him.
    Look after yourself

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  10. While I’d never wish such decisions on anyone, I do wish every horse could have such a compassionate and caring owner able to make the tough decisions. I’m very sorry for your loss – he was one in a million.

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  11. I’m so sorry to hear this, but I applaud you for being able to make this decision. He was most definitely a horse that stamped his mark on everyone who read about him!

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  12. Sending hugs: goodbyes are never easy, and Murray was such a character! I know how hard these decisions are: we chose euthanasia for an older retired mare we had many years ago whose mobility was rapidly deteriorating; we chose to let her go with dignity, rather than waiting for a catastrophe that would have been traumatic for her (and us too!); it didn’t make it any easier, but I never regretted that decision for her. You did the best and kindest thing for Murray ❤

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  13. I’m so sorry for your loss, and that you had such a hard decision to make about it. I 100% agree with your decision as well as the method (gunshot is approved as a humane form of euthanasia with the American association of equine practioners). Honestly, I have client’s horses that I wish would make a similar decision because I can’t even remotely get close to the horse to provide veterinary care- what is going to happen if those horses break a leg (trust me they can still run on three legs), have a bad colic, or even an infected wound? How many minutes/hours/days would those horses suffer before a similar decision is made?

    I’m sorry for you that it did come to this decision, and I hope you take some comfort from all of the many fun and unique memories that you have with Murray.

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  14. Hugs to you. Thank you for making the decision that was right and also incredibly hard. I’m looking at making that decision for Irish this fall. It’s hard.

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  15. As someone who is nearing the end with a “mostly sound-ish” horse, I appreciate your story about Murray so much. As much as our stories differ, they are one in the same.
    I have been chastised for my choice for my not even 3 year old, and after yet another appointment with a Vet, we are still at the same limbo.
    She “could” be okay for 2 more years. Maybe 3. Maybe 10.
    But she will always be lame and in pain.

    Why is euthanasia such a “wrong” choice? Why do people judge it so fiercely when the animal is 2? 3? 12? Why is it only socially acceptable to euthanize an old animal?

    Sending you a million hugs.

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    1. A million hugs coming back at you. That is really heartbreaking.

      At the end of the day, somebody has to bear the burden. Whether it’s you, because you chose to end your filly’s pain because you could never know if she could get better. Someone else, because you retired her to a “rescue” situation and they get to financially and emotionally deal with it (although it would always weigh heavy on you). Or your filly, the worst case scenario, as she went through life hiding the pain she was in and never knowing if or when it would end.

      You’ll know when it’s right. It is also kindness.

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