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When Your Horse Dies

For most of us, our horses are more than just “horses”. They’re friends, pals, companions, pets. Every time we saddle our favorite mount for a day’s enjoyment we become more attached to the horse. Very few of us can maintain a horse for weeks and months on end without becoming emotionally attached. Even trainers, teachers and breeders whose business it is to work with horses every day and are among the first to counsel, “horses aren’t pets, they should not be treated or considered one”, will also admit that they’ve had a favorite horse that they hated to part with at one time or another.
For some of us, the parting of an equine friend is only through death. We seldom think about that death as the horse is brushed and groomed. We fail to notice the gradual ticking of time as the horse beings to gray, the areas over the eyes begin to sink, the back sways and he begins to “slow down”. And when we do think of death, we mentally push it aside very quickly as if by avoiding the thought — we will never be faced with it.

But the matter of death is one that everyone must face. As with humans, the better-prepared one is the easier the trauma of death will be. It will not eliminate the emotional stress and tears but having a plan will help when that day does arrive!

Whether death is natural or humane makes no difference. The question of how to remove and dispose of the body must be decided.

Ideally one would like to be able to bury a deceased equine friend in a corner of his favorite pasture. By the tree under which he used to stand in the afternoon sun and spring rains. Or by that favorite trail that you both used to ride so often. Or just beyond the large rocks where the trail widens into a meadow where you used to sit for lunch while your friend stood quietly by — waiting just for you. But what we would like and what the law allows can be very difficult, impossible to achieve and heart-wrenching.

Most horse owners board horses in public stables. So the thought of a burial in pasture may be impossible unless the owner’s permission is obtained. And then it may not even be permissible with the private land owner’s permission.

For pasture burial, a backhoe and operator have to dig the grave. Depending on the site, costs can run from $250 up. Plus just getting the horse to the grave can be difficult especially if the horse is injured, too sick to walk or already deceased.

In addition to pasture burial, a lot of counties and cities won’t allow it. Local health departments can frown on pasture burials so to be on the safe side, contact them before a grave is dug. The health department can require you to exhume a buried horse and remove the carcass from the premises. Their primary concerns are groundwater contamination, whether the carcass is buried deep enough to prevent the possible spread of air-borne diseases, unpleasant odors and flies. Flies and odors are especially important if the animal is to be buried close to a housing development. People often move to the country for its atmosphere but when that atmosphere includes flies and possible odors, they can have a complete change of heart!

The quickest and easiest way to dispose of a horse is by contacting a livestock hauler. (They can be found in the yellow pages of the phone book). Or call a tallow plant — there’s one in San Jose, CA (see BAEN’s business listings). They can tell you how to dispose of the carcass. Some will only take live animals. Others will take deceased animals if notified in a certain time span.

Landfills, dumps or garbage sites will not take dead animals over a certain weight — usually only dog or cat size. and 90% of those in California will not take any deceased animal because of groundwater contamination. Landfills, dumps or garbage sites are “not designed to bury dead animals in. They accept only household trash”, one official stated.

For some owners, the thought of burial includes a funeral. There are animal cemeteries that will accept horses for burial. And then arrange the funeral complete with casket, graveside services and ground burial. The price can range from a few hundred up into the thousands of dollars but if the animal is cremated, a niche for an urn will run about $200 and up.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Oakland will bury a horse provided it has been cremated. The Memorial Gardens and Columbarium both include equine remains along with Charlie-O, the Oakland A’s famous mascot mule of the 1970s. Finding a cremation site is the hitch. The University of California at Davis may cremate with the ashes returned in an urn (Editor’s note: When we contacted US Davis at the time of publishing this article, we were told that they do not perform cremations. See notes below for contact info. for businesses that do perform equine cremation).

If one wants to remain with the horse “through time and eternity”, a human can be cremated and then the ashes buried with the animal. Human cemeteries will not accept animal remains unless placed in the owner’s casket at time of death. But a person can be cremated and buried with an animal in most pet cemeteries.

The Warm Springs Pet Memorial Cemetery in Fremont which opened in December 1972 has equine burials in what is referred to as the Garden of Noah along with three human ashes in urns placed in pet burial sites. Although there are no grave or headstones for the equine they are “remembered” on a large Wall of Remembrance which includes history, picture and dates of foaling and death. (Warm Springs Pet Memorial Cemetery is now full and a call to Information did not turn up a phone number for them. Bonnie uses them in this article as an example of how some pet cemeteries may handle equine remains).

For information on how to dispose of a horse who has died on public lands, such as a federal or state park, click here.

One of the most difficult decisions a horse owner has to make concerns the old or sick horse that has to be put down. I know, I had to make the decision with SAM (see Horsetalk Archives). If the horse dies on his own, nature has taken its course. The horse and Mother Nature made the decision. But when the human owner must be the one to make the decision between life and death, it has to be a decision made only in the best interests of the horse and not for the convenience of the owner’s feelings. The decision can be made a lot easier if one always remembers the well-being of the horse — comfort, quality of life and even future.

A horse in his own mind has no thought of the future. Tomorrow is something a horse does not plan for. He only knows the present — now. The pain. The suffering. The difficulty moving. The impossible tasks of lying down and getting up.

The human owner tends to attach memories, feelings, emotions, love and even guilt to that decision of life or death. But all those memories, feelings, emotions and love have to be pushed back and the horse looked at logically. Clinically. With his well-being as the first priority.

Sad as it is and even though we don’t want to think about it, death will be at the barn door. But if one prepares for that day it will be a lot easier. It will not be any less emotional. But it will be less stressful. And there will be no guilt. Especially if one remembers that the final decision was based on the HORSE’S well-being and is made for the horse’s future. Not for the owner. But for the HORSE. Hold fast to the thought that the future is for an equine friend who would ask no less from you, his owner, than compassion and a freeing from pain and suffering…

Pets Rest offers pick-up service; charges are based on the distance traveled. At the time of publication of this article, cremation for a horse was quoted at $1000, not including pick-up. There is an additional fee to witness the cremation. Other services include lawn burials, urns, markers, and monuments. Visit their website for more information. A print brochure is also available.

According to a BAEN visitor who has used their services, San Jose Tallow will pick up the horse’s body, transport it to their facility, cremate the horse and return its ashes to the owner in a hand-made oak box measuring 1’x1’x1′, at a cost of $800.

Eagles Nest offers horse cremation and interment of cremated remains. At the time of publication of this article, we had not received information from them regarding pick-up, pricing, or other burial services.

The SPCA’s crematorium was remodeled a number of years ago and is no longer large enough to handle equines. However, a columbarium is available for your horse’s cremated remains. Call for pricing and information.

Bubbling Wells does not perform equine cremation, but can provide you with a burial plot for your horse’s cremated remains. Call for pricing and information.

See BAEN’s directory for other businesses offering dead stock removal services, or ask your vet for a recommendation. If you know of other removal or cremation/burial providers in northern California, please send us the details so we can add them to our directory.

Disposing of a deceased horse on public lands

If a horse drops dead on a trail in a highly populated area, your only choice is to contact the agency in charge of that trail, usually park staff. Explain the situation to them and they will often haul the carcass off. Some parks will take it to an area for burial, others will call a stock hauler to remove the body but regardless of how it’s done, it will cost you money for removal, hauling and burial.

If a horse dies on National Forest lands, one has to contact the local ranger office. It used to be that any large animal including horses were simply stripped of their tack and left where they went down for Mother Nature to take its course. If the carcass was close to a campground, picnic area or trial head, the carcass would be moved back into the forest. But now the disposal of the carcass depends a lot on where the horse died.

If the animal goes down in a wilderness area, a local ranger office may take pity on you and allow it to remain where it is if the carcass does not hinder trail use. But if the local ranger wants the carcass removed, it will have to be butchered out and then packed out on horseback. Since chainsaws or mechanical tools cannot be used in a wilderness area, such a task can take a good day or two plus the thought of having to cut up one’s favorite saddle horse into chunks of meat small enough to pack out can be more than an owner can handle.

Outside wilderness areas, the removal of a dead horse differs. On National Forest lands where other trail users “may be offended by the sight of a dead animal, bears may be attracted to the site or quick removal is necessary”, the local ranger office has to be notified. That office will then contact a qualified blaster. The blaster’s job is to blow the horse up! With up to or over 100 pounds of dynamite placed on, over and around the carcass, the fuse is lit and the horse blown to pieces. National Forest Service logic, no “large pieces” to attract bears, mountain lions which in turn would endanger human life. There is one caution to this procedure. Before lighting the fuse be sure to remove the iron shoes from the horse. If not, someone could get hit with flying shrapnel.

You can read my full bio here

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When Your Horse Dies