Death With Dignity: Why I Chose To Put My Horse Down On A ‘Good’ Day

Jul 8, 2020 - 8:01 AM

Following my rite of passage as a horse-crazed little girl, I began riding at age 11. When I was 14, my mother’s co-worker purchased a horse hastily after only a few lessons and quickly realized she was in over her head. Eager to get more time in the saddle, I urged my mom to convince her colleague to let me ride her new horse. She boarded him at a barn just minutes from our home and was happy to share him with me.

A few months later, a part-time trainer at this barn, Dara, went to an auction to pick up a sale prospect. I watched as she walked her purchase off the trailer. Down the ramp stepped a beautiful, 4-year-old, 16-hand, conformationally correct, copper-red chestnut Appendix gelding, whom she had aptly named “Dapper.” It was love at first sight.

I had already ridden Dara’s two other horses a few times, and almost immediately I asked her if she’d let me ride Dapper. She did.

Green as they came, the young gelding was heavy on his forehand and clueless to where his feet were as he fumbled around the ring, figuratively scratching his head when I asked for something he didn’t understand. But he did his best to follow my novice cues.

I rode him several times over the next few months, but then Dara moved her horses to a barn several towns away. My heart ached saying goodbye to Dapper.

Over the next two years, I rode many horses. Some I even considered purchasing, but my minuscule budget held me back. My grandfather, a realtor and developer, was building several homes and promised me that when the houses were sold, he would buy me a horse.

I was 16 when the closing on the last house was finalized. Now, five years into riding, I was overwhelmed with excitement as my dream of owning a horse was segueing to reality.

Dapper Shiny IMG_0412
Dapper was a striking fellow as a young horse. Photos Courtesy Of Nicole Symelidis

A few weeks later, my mom returned home from her Saturday grocery run. With an odd mixture of bewilderment and excitement on her face, she said, “Nicole, I just saw Dara at the grocery store, and she asked if you’d like to start riding Dapper again.”

He was now living at another barn, close to our home. Clearly, he had not worked out as a sale prospect.

My reunion with the red gelding was perfect. Now 6, he had filled out and matured. He was still green, but less so. He had a lead change (albeit sticky) and was jumping small courses. I knew this was my horse—and had been all along.

I rode Dapper a few times a week for the next two months. I heard from people in the barn that Dara had not once, but twice, rejected offers to sell the gelding, citing emotional attachment. I gingerly shared my interest in buying him with her and was met with lukewarm I’ll-think-about-its. I was about as stressed as any 16-year-old could be, and Dara picked up on it. She met me in the barn one evening and said, “I’ve given it a lot of thought. Dapper deserves his own person, and you are it. Now let’s get this done before I change my mind.”

On March 21, 1994, Dara and my parents signed a bill of sale and she presented us with his American Quarter Horse Association papers.

For the next 26 years, Dapper was my constant in life. Through ups and downs—school, job searches, love, heartache, marriage and divorce, my sweet Dapper was always there. His big personality got him dubbed “mayor” of the barn, and he even learned every car I drove over the years and would trot to his paddock gate to greet me as I pulled into the driveway.

Although not much of a mover and not particularly scopey (he was a 3′ horse on his best day), Dapper loved. He loved me. His Appendix pedigree was Quarter Horse on top and Thoroughbred on the bottom, rendering him fast and handy. So, while he didn’t have the biggest jump, he was quick and could turn on a dime, and that served us well in the small, local jumper classes we competed in. And yes, we had our bad days—quite a few of them—which left me frustrated, exasperated and on occasion even questioning whether I wanted to ride anymore.

Dapper was not easy to ride. He was a mischievously smart, hot horse that found humor in challenging me. But when he was good, he was awesome. And he understood boundaries—not once did I feel unsafe on his back. He had a motor, but no buck, rear or bolt. We galloped through trails while horses half his age tried to keep up, waded through water at the beach, and crossed busy highways when my directionally-challenged friends and I got lost in county parks. He always took care of me.

Dapper and Nicole 562124560.373033
“He always took care of me,” said Nicole Symelidis of Dapper.

The Promise

Through the years that I owned Dapper, I worked in several barns as a groom, exercise rider and instructor. I witnessed many a horse’s last day, some of which were tragic. I spoke to owners who were blissfully unaware or in complete denial of their horse’s level of pain or poor quality of life. I watched one owner look on hopefully as several men with ropes and the help of a tractor forced her old horse to get back up after it went down, day after day, not understanding the stress and pain it was causing the animal. I viewed X-rays of another horse, alongside his owner and vet, whose degenerative joint disease was so bad the vet said, “If you wait much longer, his fetlocks are going to come right through his skin.”

That finally got the owner to agree to euthanize the horse, but not without her saying—several times—“I think he’d like to go for a nice run first.”

Run? The horse could barely walk.

I’ve held the end of lead ropes for vets administering that final injection more times than I care to remember. The sound of a horse hitting the ground is not one you’re likely to forget. Those experiences resulted in a promise to my horse: I would do everything in my power to give him a peaceful and happy last day, one free of prolonged suffering, tragedy or a frantic get-here-now call to the vet.

Shortly after Dapper turned 27, I retired him. Although recently diagnosed with Cushing’s and equine odontoclastic tooth resorption and hypercementosis, he was still sound and certainly suited for light work, so onlookers at the barn questioned my decision.

“I know my horse,” was always my reply, “and he does not want to do this anymore.”

Dapper had soured to riding quite dramatically as he hit his mid-20s—even trail rides and light hacks. I had vets comb over him for pain; we played with his feed, supplements, turn-out routine, and I even moved him to a different barn for a while, hoping the change in environment would revive at least a bit of his work ethic. It didn’t. He was as close as a horse could get to mastering an eye-roll as I walked toward him on crossties with saddle in hand. And that was OK—this horse had worked his whole life for me. He owed me nothing.

I chose not to send Dapper out of state to a retirement facility. Boarding, even in backyard barns, on Long Island isn’t cheap, but I was lucky to be in a financial position that allowed me to keep him close by. I moved him to a lovely private farm, just 10 minutes from my home, where he was impeccably cared for by the property owner, John. Dapper spent his days grazing in a large paddock under a shade tree. In the evening, he and the other five equine residents came into the barn, where they lounged in huge, well-bedded stalls. I visited him several times a week, and he stood like a statue on crossties, relishing a strong currying, stretching and quivering his lip when I hit those all-important spots on his withers and belly.

Nicole and Dapper IMG_3472
Nicole Symelidis stayed active in Dapper’s life after his retirement.

Seeing A Sign

Father Time eventually found my horse. Now 33 years old, his body was failing him. He walked with obvious soreness, and a “pain wrinkle” had developed above his eye. His immune system was weak, and something as simple as a tick bite immediately resulted in massive swelling and infection. His EOTRH was heavily eroding his mouth, making it increasingly difficult for him to eat even the softest of foods. His ACTH levels, which we tested regularly to manage his Cushing’s, were no longer controllable, despite being on the maximum dose of Prascend. The promise of the peaceful end I made to him years earlier was staring me in the face.

My evenings at the barn often included conversations with John, who told me stories of working on the backsides of racetracks and as a groom at high-end dressage facilities. That day—a Sunday—I told John about my struggle with making a final decision for Dapper. He pointed to his mare, a 34-year old Thoroughbred, as she stood quietly in her stall.

“That mare has not laid down in three years,” he said, “because she knows she can’t get up.”

I looked closely at the little dark bay horse that I had walked past and patted on the nose each time I made my way down the aisle to Dapper’s stall. She was in good weight and appeared healthy overall. She had a large, ugly knee – the result of an injury at the track early in her life – which was now keeping her from getting any rest.

“If it weren’t for my wife, I would have put her down a year ago,” he said. “But she’s not ready to let her go. One of these days, that mare will lay down for the last time.”

The look in the mare’s eye was a mixture of exhaustion and tension. It matched Dapper’s. That night, I decided it was time to fulfill my promise to my beloved horse.

I awakened Monday morning and reached for my phone to text my vet of 20 years. I had been in touch with her over the last few weeks as things had begun to deteriorate, so I didn’t need to provide any detail.

“Wednesday morning possible?” I wrote.

“10:30,” she replied.

Dapper In Snow
Dapper enjoyed a happy retirement.

I went to the barn that evening and stood in Dapper’s stall, crying into his neck. The stoic horse, his once gleaming red chestnut coat now a fuzzy, dull shade of orange, breathed into my ear and stood quietly as I began the process of saying goodbye. I took everything in—how he smelled, how his hair felt, the sound of his low, quiet nicker.

Tuesday evening was a repeat of the night before, but this time I sobbed the whole drive to the barn, knowing it was my last night with Dapper. I walked down the aisle to his stall, oblivious to my surroundings, and began the ritual of the night prior. Moments later, John walked in. I quickly wiped my face, cleared my throat and muttered a hello.

“Girl, life is spooky,” the old man said, looking at me from under the brim of his baseball hat.

“What?” I replied cluelessly.

“The mare,” he said as he pointed to a now-empty stall, “she laid down in her paddock today.”

I scanned the stall in disbelief, then quickly looked back at John. “She’s gone?”

“She’s gone,” he said. “I tried to get her up, but she wasn’t having it. Sent my wife in the house cause it wasn’t pretty. Had to call the doc to give her the shot.”

Our conversation 48 hours prior sped through my mind.

“John, I’m so sorry…”

He only nodded in response.

“The vet is coming in the morning for Dapper,” I said.

Another nod, this one with an approving look.

“The mare is still in her paddock, covered with a tarp,” he said. “Don’t let it scare you when you walk by in the morning. Bobcat coming tomorrow to dig a hole.”

I knew his matter-of-fact tone was covering pain, and he was trying, in his way, to comfort me at the same time.

I could only manage a nod in reply. John left the barn so I could resume crying into Dapper’s neck. This time, however, a wave of calm washed over me, and any doubt I had about my decision was dissipating. What happened to John’s mare was exactly what I wanted to avoid. Talk about a sign.

 

Dapper old IMG_2957
Dapper’s health problems worsened as he got older.

“He Spoke And You Listened”

At 10:30 a.m. on March 11, 2020, my vet’s truck pulled into the barn driveway. I stood in Dapper’s paddock and curried him while he attempted to pick at some hay. It was an unusually warm day for March in New York, and the sun shone brightly over the quiet little farm.

I walked my old horse slowly and carefully to the truck, a large piece of his tail that I had cut earlier tucked safely in my pocket. John quietly slipped into the barn. Dapper passed as easily and peacefully as I could have asked for. He had a good last day. His routine was the same as any other until that moment.

My vet squeezed my forearm as I sat on the ground with his lifeless head in my lap and said, “What a gift you’ve given him. And yourself. Now you don’t have to worry about him anymore. I know how much you worried.”

Her compassion was so appreciated in that moment.

A short time later, the crematorium truck arrived to pick up Dapper. The “haul-away” was something I had assisted with for other horses over the years too – it’s not something most owners can stomach watching, nor should they.

“Please be very careful with him,” I sobbed to the two men as they lowered the flatbed.

I started walking up to the barn to avoid witnessing what was to come. On the way, John passed me. He walked briskly toward the men. As I entered the barn, a boarder hugged me, keeping my back to the truck. She told me John did not take his eyes off Dapper until they were down the road and out of sight.

John walked back into the barn. I was halfway down the aisle, dragging my small tack box behind me. He stopped me before I could lift it into the back of my Jeep.

“Wait, don’t put it in your car like that,” he said as he reached for a corn broom. He proceeded to sweep the dust off every crevice of the box, carefully and methodically, until it was almost spotless.

I thanked John through my tears. He had not only been Dapper’s caretaker, but also a friend and someone whose opinion and experience I valued greatly.

“You listen to me,” he said. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you did the wrong thing. Most people only look at a horse’s body. You looked at Dapper’s face. You know your horse. He spoke and you listened. Most people don’t listen.”

His words echo loudly in my head today. I lost part of myself as Dapper took his final breath. I miss him immensely, and I miss who I was when he was here. I am simultaneously overwhelmed with gratitude, not only for the time we had together, but also for being able to keep my promise to him.

The end for many horses is beyond human control. I was blessed to have been given the end I had with Dapper. If you too are blessed to have a horse in your life, I implore you to listen to them. Learn to be silent so you can hear what they are saying. Learn to be selfless. Value quality over quantity. Only people are future thinkers. Horses—animals of all kinds—live solely in the present. They don’t consider what tomorrow brings or how much time they have left. We should be so lucky.


Nicole Symelidis is a lifelong hunt seat equestrian and horse owner who began working at age 14 to barter for lessons and extra ride time. While she never had a great desire or budget for horse shows, she did dabble in the eq and jumper rings and rode on the intercollegiate circuit for Stony Brook University (New York). Over the years she has worked as a groom, exercise rider and instructor alongside a full-time “day job” in the market research and data analytics industry. Her favorite pastime is heading to the barn after a long day at the office to ride her 5-year-old Thoroughbred mare, Kopela.  

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