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Patches The Pony-Dealing With The Death Of An Equine Friend

This morning we said good-bye to an old friend. It was an absolutely beautiful morning and my friend and neighbor Cheryl got up early in anticipation of the vet’s arrival at 7:00 am. When I arrived at her place 6:30, Cheryl had Patches nicely groomed and was walking her out in the field to let Patches nibble on her favorite morsels.

As we wandered through the field, going wherever Patches led us, we chatted about the hundreds of kids Patches had taught to ride when Cheryl had her riding lesson business. We watched as Patches bit off, chewed up and spit out the grass as she nibbled while we walked. We listened and remarked at the squeaking sound of her gums rubbing together, hopelessly trying to masticate the forage.

At nearly 40 years old, Patches’ grinding teeth were long gone and Cheryl was past the point of keeping her going on Senior feed and bran mashes, which she had recently been turning up her nose at. Cheryl tried any and all foods and strategies she could think of to keep the pony eating and healthy for as long as possible. The little pony would like some for a bit, then go on a hunger strike, then like something for a while again, then stop eating again. It was getting difficult to see the pony slowly starving to death though she thought she was eating with the rest of the herd. Patches had such a precious place at Cheryl’s farm–she was allowed to roam most anywhere on the property and was often the first greeter when you pulled down the driveway. The pony was the topic of discussion many times–was it time? Was she healthy? Cheryl worried and wanted to make sure she was doing the right thing–whether that was making a choice to let go or trying some new feeding ritual and recipe.

Patches was a lucky pony. Even though she worked for a living over several decades as a lesson pony, she was loved by many children and most certainly her photo adorns many refrigerators and scrap books. She was also fortunate to have an owner that gave her a comfortable retirement and one who could afford the expensive feed required to keep an old horse going.

An issue that I’ve seen coming for some time revolves around the incredible strides we humans have made to keep old horses alive long past the time they lose their teeth and would naturally die. Is this all the extra treatment for the horses or the humans? Sometimes I drive past pastures and see an old horse, nothing but a bag of bones, and wonder when and if someone will turn the owner into the animal control for neglect, even though his herd mates are fat, happy and healthy and chances are good the horse is just old, not neglected. Just because we have the ability to keep old horses alive longer, does that mean we have to? And what if the owner cannot afford the $100+ a month it would cost to sustain an aging horse, what then? Is that considered neglect to let nature take its course? Just questions to throw at the moon….

When I was a kid, the life span of a horse was considered to be 25 years and many didn’t make it that far. But now it is common to see horses in their 30s and even 40s. Don’t get me wrong, I think the advancement in health care and nutrition that has led to this longer life span is a wonderful thing and many of these horses remain useful for many more years than they would’ve back then. But I also think it is okay to let horses go when they get too old to chew grass or hay.

We have the option of humanely ending a horse’s life when it is time, but sometimes that decision is a tough one to make–whether it is age, sickness or lameness that prompts the question. Have you struggled with this decision before? When do you know it’s time?

Cheryl made the right decision to let Patches go before she got so weak she couldn’t stand or before some crises forced an emergency call to the vet in the middle of the night and a stressful euthanization. Cheryl wanted a calm and dignified death for Patches and that she got.

Cheryl said her good-byes at the barn and as the vet and I walked Patches toward her final resting place, she picked up her head and actually started trotting. Maybe she was ready to go or perhaps she was just excited to be headed toward a new place on the farm.

Patches went quickly and quietly with hardly a twitch. She was ready to go and did not fight it a bit. We laid her to rest wrapped in a warm blanket and laying in a deep bed of shavings, with a bag of carrots sprinkled on top to keep her busy on her way to horse heaven.

We’ll miss you Patches, but we know that you are in a better place.


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  1. Thankfully, this pony enjoyed a long & fruitful life with a loving owner who chose to let her go rather than see her suffer. But Patches’ story prompted Julie to question the wisdom of keeping old horses alive via extreme human intervention (i.e., special diets, nutritional suppliments, etc.) Personally, I think it depends on the individual and the williness of an owner to provide special care. As long as the animal feels relatively well and has a good appetite, I don’t see the harm in helping a horse enjoy a happy retirement.

    But then, I may be prejudiced because my husband & I have rescued three old horses. The first was a 29 y/o Saddlebred with a kind disposition that I used for a lesson horse until his muscle tone declined. He never lost his appetite or the sparkle in his eyes. But when he developed chronic diahrrhea at age 34, we put him down.

    The two remaining seniors are still with us. We adopted a 25 y/o old Quarab from a rescue facility that soon became our little grandson’s personal favorite. The other horse is an OTT (ID by lip tattoo) that someone abandoned on the road near our ranch. He was literally a walking skeleton when we found him. A year & 300 lbs later, he looks and feels like a different horse. Both these old fellows are quiet & calm with “been there, done that” attitudes. They’re the perfect mounts for youngsters & beginners and well worth the expense of their special feed. SO! Keeping oldsters around has its rewards. The downside is knowing when to let them go. – MzLin

  2. July 1, 2009.
    Today I had to put my Patches down. She too was a wonderful shaggy pony whose life was full of children. Her job was of course, teaching them to ride. So tolerent and loving a pony. My best memory of her is remembering her following her children around… after the lesson. She just loved kids.
    Thanks Patches.
    Hamel, Minnesota

  3. Patches sounds like a wonderful pony! If you read this Cheryl you have my condolences. You seem to have taken this very well from you comment because you knew it was time. You seem like a wonderful horse owner.

    As for when it is time…I think that the old horses/ponys attitude counts for a lot. I worked at a barn with a 43 year old horse. His name was AJ and he was the best…he even had a lone molar left at that age. At 15.1hh he was a great height for a lesson horse, which he did for 25 years (which also speaks volumes of his attitude). We were happy to let him keep on going because his weight was good and so was his attitude. He would happily walk (or jog) out to his field every day. He would nicker for breakfast and dinner and eat every bite (however long it took) and then look for more food. With no real health issues we couldn’t even think of putting him down. He was too happy and the only modifications we had to make were to wet his feed and give him alfalfa cubes instead of hay. One morning I went to turn him out and he was even fresher then usual, trotting and snorting like a 3 year old. He played for a bit, hung out in the sun, and then went down and never got up again.

  4. Dear friends , Today I had to send Patches to that great pasture in the sky. How lucky we are to be able to take such good care of our animals that we can help them pass without pain or suffering. My good friend Julie and her husband and of course Jack helped do this for me. Julie as most of you know has a T.V. show that I work on. She wrote a lovely article about Patches who will be missed but there will be a huge bunch of sunflowers and blue flax growing over her on the farm–a fitting happy tribute to a great pony that was well loved not just by me but hundreds of kids. How lucky we were to have found each other. Life is good. Love Cheryl

  5. Please give Cheryl my condolences. What a kind and respectable way to send Patches to heaven.

  6. Julie,

    We had two ponies (one of them my “life” horse) that lived to 43. The amazing thing with them was other than normal care niether one needed anything special until the very end.

    Ponies are amazing and I still have very fond memories of my driving pony Piper. I am sure that patches and Piper are now turned out together. Thanks for the post, brought back sweet memories of my best equine friend.

    Glenn the Geek

  7. I could barely get to the end reading through tears!! It’s tough to let go! I have an old TB that I’m keeping going, probably more to spare me the pain of putting him down. You article has made me rethink this. Maybe it’s time to let him go gracefully…with dignity.

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