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Decisions, Decisions

As horse owners, we are faced with a lot of tough choices during our lifetimes. What saddle should I purchase? Is it time to move up a level, or does my horse need more time where he is? Does my horse need to step down a level for their emotional or physical health? Should I move to a new barn for my or my horse’s well-being? Do I need a new instructor? Do I need to call the vet or get a second opinion about this mysterious lameness? And then there are the really big ones…Is it time to consider euthanasia? Should I sell my horse?

These last two are the topics of many a social media rant, either in support of someone’s heart-breaking, life-altering decision or railing against it. Any time I see a post scolding someone who has made the very hard decision to either euthanize a horse or sell one, I feel immediately defensive of the person making that decision. No one can know all of the circumstances behind that choice – all of the hours of going back and forth, over and over the options and possible outcomes, the restless nights and guilt-ridden days, the curve balls that life has thrown that made the decision for them. For anyone to simply assume that the decision to lay a horse to rest or sell them is a selfish choice made without consideration of the horse’s well-being is inexplicable to me.  

I have known several horses in my career that I would absolutely say euthanasia was the right choice for, considering the safety of both the horse and the humans in its life. If keeping a horse alive might result in them harming a human or in a human harming them to “manage” their behavior, the kindest decision is to euthanize that horse.  As a practicing Buddhist, I try VERY hard not to take the lives of other sentient beings, even insects, but I also live by the philosophy of doing the least harm. So, if I need to take on the karma of playing a part in ending the life of a horse in order to save that horse from further harm or to save the humans in its life from harm, then I willingly do so. It’s no one’s business to judge that decision…it’s my karma to bear. 

My trainer growing up, Steve Milne, used to chide me when I would worry over a horse being sold to a new owner, asking the question, “Who’s to say that the horse’s new owner won’t take better care of him than his last one?” 

He would rightly wonder why humans assume that they, and only they, can take care of a horse in the best way and that anyone else will surely do a lesser job. I have thought of that often as I have taken in the many ways in which horses are cared for all over this world. I know how I think horses thrive best, and I also know there are people out there who would argue that their methods support horse health better than mine.  Maybe we are both right…maybe the best rider match and daily routines that allow a horse to thrive change over their lifetime. I know that to be true for the people who care for them.

These things have been on my mind over the past few months as I have wrestled with the decision to sell Lila, my wonderful gray mare. There were some signs that we weren’t the best fit for each other in the show jumping phase of eventing as last year’s show season wound down. Thankfully, this was not due to any sort of medical issue, as assessed by multiple vets and bodyworkers, so that was great news.  

It seems to be that the way Lila needs to be ridden to get the job done above training level is not a way I feel confident or comfortable riding her, and I am grateful for the consultations and guidance of other professionals who helped me to this understanding. It happens. Not every horse is a match for every rider, and it often takes time to figure that out.  It’s not right or wrong, good or bad – it just is. 

Once I came to terms with the situation, I began weighing my options.  Keep Lila and pursue a dressage path. Keep her and breed her. Sell her as an event horse. Sell her as a dressage horse.  After much soul searching, I realized the bottom line for me is that I am not done jumping, and I want to have a horse who willingly and confidently wants to jump bigger things. It sucks that it isn’t Lila because I love her so much for so many reasons, and it sucks that I don’t have a bottomless pit of money that would allow me to keep Lila just because I love her and also purchase my next eventing partner.  

Thankfully, though, Lila is the kind of rare magical creature who will become the teacher that her next dance partner needs and will inevitably settle into her next adventure with the grace and calm that she showed when she came to me.

I have ridden the roller coaster of guilt, sadness, regret, second-guessing, confidence in my choice, and excitement for future possibilities that come with making big decisions about a horse.  I am sure I will continue to ride the roller coaster, even now that Lila has found her new person. I will keep riding the roller coaster as I eventually begin the search for my next partner. Every person who loves a horse will ride it when they make a big decision like this because that is just part of the human condition.  

Change is hard.  I just hope we can treat each other with empathetic kindness as we see others navigating their changing path, knowing that we have been or will be there ourselves one day.


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