Making decisions today
To more calmly face an inevitable future


We are blessed beyond words to live our lives with horses. To share time, space, breath or a cool morning ride with them is truly a gift. And, so, the thought of a horse’s life ending can feel painfully difficult on many levels.

None of us wants the day to come. Most likely, we neatly push aside any thoughts of that final goodbye.

Yet, what if preparing for an unavoidable end could lessen the pain of that ending? Facing the truths of preparation is tough, yes. Doing so may well bring some calm in an even tougher situation, though. Since we have no idea when the end may come, this is a worthwhile consideration.

A kind endeavor than, could be making decisions today. By specifying how to handle such arrangements well ahead of time, you do so while you stand upon emotionally solid ground. Many of us in the urban area of Tucson have horses that live at a stable or on smaller residential horse properties. So, the discussion here is set in this context. General considerations could apply to any town, too.

Listed below are a few potentially difficult, yet helpfully proactive, questions to consider when drafting end-of-life arrangements for your horse or horses:

If you have a barn manager or owner, does she or he have written instructions and notarized authorization for handling an emergency while you are away?
Do you have written wishes for how to treat your horse in the event of severe colic?
If possible, would you be willing to be with your horse before and during those final breaths? Or would you rather have someone be there for you?
On death, either during emergency or euthanasia situations, do you have specified resources and contacts for removal of your horse’s remains?
After death, do you know how and where you would like to handle final disposition? (e.g. burial, cremation or rendering)
Would it assist your grieving process to hold a remembrance or memorial ceremony at any point in this process? What might that look like?

It may be comforting to know we do have options for a horse’s arrangements after death. Not many, though. (Decidedly one more reason to plan ahead, when the resources are so few.) The simplest approach seems like burial in place, where the horse dies.

In Arizona, however, state law requires 40 acres minimum for horse burial. And for a hole big enough to hold a horse, a backhoe operator is necessary. As a practical matter, you need a backhoe to dig a grave that six to eight feet deep, three feet wide by seven feet long, if you have an appropriate location. Some states require a deeper grave or specify the distance from water or other boundaries.

Rigor mortis typically sets in within two hours and stays for up to 24 hours. It is optimal if burial happens within that window, yet not mandatory. Deciding on a burial place ahead of time can be a tremendous relief, in addition to having a backhoe operator at the ready if burial is the chosen method of disposition. In Pima County, the Sahuarita landfill will accept large animals (not taken after 3 p.m.) and the Maricopa County landfill does as well. In Pima, the remains are placed into the same area as all of the refuse, however.

Cremation is also an option, with two locations in Arizona that perform the service for horses and cremate the animal whole. One is Animal Cremation Services in Glendale, Arizona, and the other is the University of Arizona Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory. The U of A Lab does not publish this service, but will cremate a horse upon request on a case-by-case basis. They require customers to provide their own containers for the average 50 pounds of cremains. (There are other service providers in the Phoenix area that will cremate a horse, yet the chamber is not large enough for the remains to enter intact.)

Rendering is one of the oldest forms of recycling there is. There are a couple of local services (Tucson Tallow Company being the most widely known) that pick up large animals and transport the bodies to a rendering company in the Phoenix area called Baker Commodities. The byproducts from the horse become ingredients for fuel, animal food and so on.

There is a service in Morristown, Arizona, called Trail’s End Large Animal Disposal, (see update below) run by a woman named Jan Neitz. She is wonderful to speak with and very helpful. She will come to Tucson to haul a horse or other large animal to Phoenix disposal alternatives: Maricopa landfill (where burial sites are located apart from the refuse) or the Our Pals crematorium.

When an equine companion’s life comes to a close, so does a love story between human and horse. So often we share our life with a horse for not only five to ten years, but decades. (Longer than some spousal relationships!) Regardless of the amount of years together though, horses and humans can become so close. It is no wonder! We share deep ranges of experience and emotion with our horses. Their scent, their sounds and their very beings become etched into our souls.

As a result, the grieving process people experience when a horse is dying or has died is widely varied, much like it is with humans. Sometimes it is a relief. Shock, denial, anger, bargaining – all the stages of grief may ensue. Recognizing the loss with a ceremony that feels right for the situation may initiate the healing process of grief.

For example, a small goodbye ritual before or at the time of death could help bring simple beauty to a time that is otherwise frightening for humans or horses. Just smudging the space, the people present and the horse with sage or cedar and saying a prayer or kind words could comprise a gentle goodbye ritual. A blessing with essential oils before cremation or burial and then removal of mane or tail sections, might help ease the shock of departure. At Sweetgrass Ceremonies, I assist people with highly individualized end- of-life transitions and memorial ceremonies. The ceremonies I co-create can be for people or horses or any beloved animal companion.

Even though it can easily feel like pulling out our own toenails would be a better use of time(!), we owe it to our horse companions and ourselves to be prepared for their eventual end.

Update 1/13: Trails End Large Animal Removal & Disposal, now located in the Desert Hills area of Phoenix, is under new management. A reader reports that Jill Varichak and her husband Ken continue to provide quality compassionate service for area horse owners.

  Kristine Bentz loves her horse Bianca and her cat Biggles, plus she is a Life Cycle Celebrant in Tucson, Arizona. She composes and leads ceremonies for people and their animal companions based on their own stories, beliefs and values. She helps people acknowledge new life, love and loss with a calming and genuinely creative spirit. Through her practice called Sweetgrass Ceremonies, she brings peace and healing into her clients' hearts and minds.




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