Feelings of guilt and the burden of responsibility over the euthanasia of a beloved horse can take an extraordinary toll on owners, fresh research has shown.
The work, undertaken at the University of Nottingham in England, highlights just how tough end-of-life decisions can be for riders, many of whom have enjoyed a close relationship with their horse for years.
The research by Harriet Clough and her colleagues showed that horses are usually considered a part of the family, which explains why key life decisions such as euthanasia can be such an emotional rollercoaster.
The study team set out to explore how the horse-human relationship affected decision-making by owners around key events in their horse’s lifetime.
An online survey targeted those 18 and older with previous experience of both purchase and euthanasia of their horses. The survey, which drew 938 responses, delved into not only their experiences around key decisions, but their relationship with their horse.
Professor Sarah Freeman, with the university’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, told Horsetalk the research drew attention to the feelings of guilt many owners had about making decisions around euthanasia.
“Some owners find the decisions really difficult, and can feel it is a betrayal of their relationship with their horse,” Freeman said.
The researchers termed this responsibility grief.
“There were both short-term impacts – being unable to make the decision at the right time for their horse – and long-term impacts, of feeling guilty and responsible for the death many months or years later.
“We have recently started a new project looking at shared decision-making so we can try and help people through these decisions.
“A first step is understanding that these feelings are common and ‘normal’ and reflect the relationships people have with their horses.
“We often talked in Harriet’s project about how complex the relationship is – you buy a horse for a specific purpose and have a financial value on it, and then it becomes a family member that you have to decide when to euthanise.
“I don’t think there is any other animal relationship which is quite the same, or has the same complexity.”
For the research, Clough and her fellow researchers used the data from the online survey to identify different types of owners, which allowed a carefully selected cross-section of 11 horse owners to be interviewed by telephone twice about their experiences buying their horse, and their role in euthanasia decisions.
The study team, whose findings are described in a just-published paper in the journal VetRecord, found that 870 of those 938 people who responded to the survey listed themselves as the owner. Of these, nearly 94% considered their horse to be part of their family. More than 80% of participants considered their horse a pet.
This paralleled findings from research into the relationship humans have with their dogs, where most considered them family members.
This view has a major impact on how owners make decisions, according to the researchers. Owners often buy horses for a specific purpose, but they then become a valued family member.
Ultimately, when key life-event decisions need to be made, owners can find themselves in the challenging position of having to put a financial value on an animal, in terms of purchase, management and healthcare costs, which they now consider a friend or family member.
The researchers said the nature of the relationship owners had with their horses was a key sub-theme in the interviews.
Several central themes were found to be important in decision-making, particularly around purchase and euthanasia. They included a mismatch between the horse and rider; financial considerations; time commitments; welfare and personal obligations involved in horse ownership; shared-decision making; the horse’s quality of life; and guilt and grief around euthanasia.
The euthanasia decision was, in particular, clearly difficult and traumatic. Owners interviewed by Clough revealed there were often conflicts over when they made the decision, with guilt and responsibility grief often resulting in long-term psychological impacts, at times affecting their future decisions for other horses.
Responsibility grief is unique to pet death, the researchers said, carrying with it the responsibility for requesting the intentional death of another living being. The project highlighted the strength of owner-horse relationships and the major obligations of ownership, including what may eventually be euthanasia decisions.
Several complex interacting issues affected such decision-making, they said, adding that there is an urgent need for further research to help understand the motivations and barriers to improving decision-making around equine care and welfare.
The full University of Nottingham study team comprised Clough, Mandy Roshier, Gary England, John Burford and Freeman.
Clough HGR, Roshier AL, England GCW, Burford JH, Freeman SL.
Qualitative study of the influence of horse-owner relationship during some key events within a horse’s lifetime. Vet Rec. 2021;e79. https://doi.org/10.1002/vetr.79