Horse Quality of Life Assessment

Courtnee Morton, DVM
By Courtnee Morton, DVM on Oct. 6, 2022

When it comes to being a pet parent, the hardest part is trying to decide when it’s time at the end of a pet’s life. Whether in an emergency, or as your horse ages, there may come a point where you wonder if they are still comfortable and happy. Measuring quality of life (QOL) in animals can be quite difficult, as they can’t verbally tell us how they’re feeling or about their comfort and happiness levels. Luckily, you and your veterinarian have some tools at hand to help evaluate.

What Does Quality of Life Mean for Horses?

Quality of life is defined as “the standard of health, comfort, and happiness experienced by an individual.”  As a horse’s owner and daily caretaker, you can gauge these factors by a horse’s attitude, wellbeing, and behavior, which you will know best.

The current average lifespan of a horse is approximately 25-30 years–much longer than it used to be, since many horses are now provided proper veterinary care, good nutrition, and aids to help with comfort for arthritis and other medical issues.

Some conditions that may shorten either the lifespan or the comfort level of your horse over time include, among others:

  •  Arthritis

  • Navicular syndrome

  • Poor dental health

  • Inability to obtain nutrients from food

  • Metabolic diseases

Arthritis, decreased energy, and weight loss in the summers and winters are not uncommon in geriatric horses, even with appropriate care. While these may lead to a gradual decline in health or daily comfort, major injuries or severe illnesses should be considered for QOL long-term.

If your horse has suffered a catastrophic accident­–consider if its’ fair to prolong their life or if they are suffering and unlikely to recover. Should your horse experience such an illness or injury, your vet will discuss your horse’s prognosis. They will discuss the likelihood of a smooth recovery or if attempting to treat them might be a long, uphill, expensive battle during which your horse is experiencing significant pain or stress.

We must remember to always include the emotional as well as physical well-being when we are considering a horse’s quality of life.

Questions to Ask

Some questions to ask yourself when determining your horse’s quality of life in chronic health situations or as they age include:

  • Is my horse in pain that is not being managed appropriately with medications and routine changes?

  • Is my horse able to rise?

  • Is my horse able to move around comfortably, and obtain access to food and water?

  • Is my horse able to keep an acceptable body condition throughout the year?

  • Is my horse lying down for extended periods of time– do they have decreased mobility?

  • Does my horse have a disease that is treatable– are there options to help keep my horse comfortable and symptoms manageable?

  • Does my horse still get excited about daily activities such as food, grooming, exercise, etc.?

  • Is my horse uncomfortable or suffering? Will this be exacerbated by oncoming changes such as winter, change in location, etc.?

Some questions you and your veterinarian may discuss in an acute or emergent situation include:

  • Is this injury/illness treatable with either medical or surgical management?

  • Can my horse recover from this illness or injury in a reasonable amount of time with minimal pain and suffering?

  • Will my horse’s comfort and health be affected negatively long-term by this issue if they do recover?

If the answers to these questions lead you to believe your horse is no longer living a healthy, comfortable, happy life or is unlikely to return to that state, humane euthanasia may need to be discussed with your veterinarian.

You may wonder, “how do I prepare for this process?” This is one of the most difficult discussions and decisions you’ll face as a horse owner however, we have the great privilege of letting our four-legged family members go with as little discomfort, fear, and stress as possible.

Geriatric horses are most often euthanized in emergent situations such as colic or being unable to rise which may mean having to face this decision unexpectedly. If your horse has been declining in health, you may be able to say farewell on a good day–before a stressful situation occurs.

Planning for Euthanasia

The sheer size of horses does require some planning before taking on this unfortunate task. Call your veterinarian to schedule an appointment and in the meantime try to make your companion’s last few days as pleasant as possible. Join them for grazes, grooming, and give cookies if they’re interested, and try to create some lasting bonding moments for you to hold onto.

Based on your location and local regulations, it may or may not be legal to bury your horse on your property after euthanasia, so a company who can pick up your horse’s remains may need to be contacted. Trying to schedule this shortly after your veterinarian’s final appointment will prevent your friend’s body from being bothered by other animals or inclement weather.

If you do have other horses that are attached to this individual, you can allow them to come visit after they’ve been put to sleep. Horses are very emotional and intuitive creatures, and often can recognize what has happened, take their time to grieve, and then move on when they are ready.

Some positive ways to remember the bond you shared with your long-term companion include saving their shoes or a section of mane or tail, which can be braided or incorporated into a keepsake. Should you elect to have your horse cremated, a memorial urn or jewelry made from the ashes can help keep your horse close to you.

How Do I Give My Horse the Best Life?

Luckily, with the advances of modern medicine, there are many things we can do at home to prolong the health, happiness, and comfort of our horses. Starting these practices early in life prevents more potentially serious issues down the road and helps keep your horse as healthy as possible in the meantime. Things you can do at home to promote your horse’s wellbeing include:

  • Yearly wellness examinations: veterinarians can help catch dental, health, and other abnormalities sooner than waiting until there’s a noticeable issue. As your horse ages, yearly wellness bloodwork may be recommended to monitor their overall health.

  • Vaccinations: core vaccinations help protect your horse from potentially deadly diseases carried by parasites and bacteria they can contract from the environment such as tetanus.

  • Deworming: lack of or improper deworming protocols can lead to a high internal parasite burden, which can lead to weight loss, diarrhea, and other chronic health problems.

  • Dental care: during your horse’s yearly wellness exam, your veterinarian will perform an oral exam and determine if your horse needs a dental float performed. Appropriate maintenance dental floats will help prolong the life of your horse’s teeth and ensure they are obtaining optimal nutrition from the food they’re ingesting and not in any pain when chewing which can occur with sharp points.

  • Proper nutrition is essential for every life stage.

  • Daily supplements or medication as recommended for joint health, arthritis, metabolic, and other conditions.

  • Allow grazing and turnout as much as possible, as horses are naturally continual grazers.

  • Ensure your horse is mentally stimulated daily with exercise, turnout, or interaction. If appropriate, keep your horse with others they get along with; horses are herd animals and thrive in a well-matched group.

We are very lucky to have horses as companions for such a long time; they can promote emotional wellbeing, stress relief, and provide daily exercise and companionship. Luckily, we can allow them to pass, when the appropriate time comes, with as much grace and dignity as possible.

Featured Image:

Courtnee Morton, DVM


Courtnee Morton, DVM


Dr. Courtnee Morton is a 2017 Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine graduate. Since graduation, she completed an equine internship...

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