Have Empathy In The Face Of The Hardest Choice

Apr 18, 2022 - 7:59 AM

Eddie was never quite right. He was perfectly sound, with an exceptional pre-purchase exam. He was sweet and generally polite, and he took pressure well under saddle. But he was just a little weird, a little aloof. There were a few bizarre instances of explosive behavior (inevitably always with me in the tack, if someone was in the tack), but I found ways to justify them, and I figured out a system. But I never felt good about it. I never felt confident about it. And I figured the reason those explosive events made me panic was that I wasn’t good enough to do right by him. 

It got so bad inside my head that I ended up seeking out therapy about it. Why, as an experienced rider and trainer, was this horse haunting me? Why couldn’t I get myself to a place where I trusted him? I cut my teeth on naughty. I’m pretty good at it. And this sweet-natured but complicated horse clearly didn’t want to be testy. I kept coming back to this: Horses aren’t evil; horses don’t set out to do harm. So I blamed myself.

EddieKTBCreativeGroupFeb9-17
Eddie was a sweet, talented and usually polite young horse, until he began to demonstrate bizarre and dangerous behavior, sending blogger Lauren Sprieser down a difficult road. KTB Creative Group Photo

Then came the curious behavior on the ground. It started slowly but over three days came on like a hurricane, to the point where, out of seemingly nowhere, he became dangerous. That wee reptilian voice in my brain kept murmuring that this was something I could fix if only I was a better steward of my horses, but my logical brain knew that healthy horses don’t just start exploding one day, with no precipitating factor. About 75% of me believed that he was unhealthy; I shoved that 25% deep down and called the vet.

My phenomenal primary vet put together an extraordinary team of experts who ran every diagnostic under the sun: Back pain. Ulcers. EPM. Lyme. Wobblers. Brain tumor. Negative, negative, negative.

We found ourselves with only one option left: equine degenerative myeloencephalopathy. 

EDM causes lesions in the brain and spine. The cause is unknown, but it’s possible that there’s a heritable predisposition, and a vitamin E deficiency at a very, very early age may increase the risk. Over time, it causes behavioral changes and ataxia—symptoms of all those things we tested for. It’s fatal, and it’s terrible, and it’s only diagnosable post-mortem. Eddie was put down, and sure enough, after an extensive necropsy by fantastically qualified people, it was diagnosed. The 75% of me had been right. The gut instinct, developed from a lifetime with horses, that he was unhealthy—not a rogue—was correct. And I’d given him a peaceful end and spared him a dangerous decline into hurting himself or others.

But that process took weeks, from initial behavior catastrophe to final necropsy results. And because EDM is, for all intents and purposes, a diagnosis of exclusion, where you have to spend time ruling out everything else first, it is an expensive and exhausting period of time where every day I faced the possibility that he wasn’t actually sick, but rather just a complicated soul who needed more time to thrive. That 25%, that reptilian brain that told me it was all my fault, for not being a better rider, better trainer, better advocate for my animal? It wasn’t screaming. But it was whispering, all the time.

In my years of writing for you all, I’ve found a passion: showing people that, even amongst experts, even amongst very experienced horsemen and women, striving to play at the highest levels, we all struggle with the same things. Death. Correct training. Illness. Self-doubt. And so I wrote about my journey with Eddie up to that point, because I know I’m not the only person to ever have to face that horrible choice. I didn’t want others making that choice to feel alone.

I also knew that such a piece would attract all sorts of chaos in the comments section, so I wrote it anonymously. I wrote it for Noelle Floyd, knowing I have a distinctive writing voice and that if I’d written it for COTH someone might have traced the breadcrumbs back to me. (That didn’t stop some of you, super sleuths.)

And I am glad that I did it, because it was really uplifting, how many readers left comments about having lived through similar scenarios, including some very, very famous people. I actually took a lot of comfort and healing from the comments section on Facebook—unusual, for the Facebook comments section, for sure.

But there were a few devastating remarks:

“Who in their right mind uses crossties when saddling a girthy cold backed horse?”

“Wonder if they ever checked the horse for issues like kissing spine ulcers etc. Cheaper to just put them down!”

“Why is a horses life only worth paying for if it can be ridden?”

“No horse is dangerous with out a human making them that way.”

It’s naive to think that there’s anything that can be done to make all humans kind, compassionate and understanding. Ain’t no way, no how, that we’re all going to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya.” So I’ll just say this: I hope that none of you, who leave comments like this, ever feel the way your words made me feel.

Because I was already there. Because I was wracked with guilt. For weeks I was terrified that the necropsy would reveal nothing wrong with my horse—but a great, great deal wrong with me. My golf-ball sized hematoma, still there from the first time he unloaded me; the concussion from the second? They are nothing compared to the wound I reopened over and over and over again, wondering if I was just too chicken, too impatient, too unkind, too unfair, for a horse who might simply have been misunderstood.

As it turns out, he wasn’t. He was broken. He was dying. And I spared him an even more horrible decline, along with sparing myself and my staff the possibility of more injury. And I wasn’t. I wasn’t a wimp, or a jerk, or blinded by my own competitive ambitions. I was dealt a bad hand. So was poor Eddie. 

I tell this story so that others who are experiencing similar troubles don’t feel alone. Horses are so, so fragile, but so are humans. I hope you hug yours, I hope you err on the side of kind, and I hope you make the most of every opportunity, even when the best that can be done is the least bad thing.


Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis and her own string of young horses with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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