Horses and euthanasia

We must all be aware of the sad but somewhat bizarre article in Horse and Hound and elsewhere all over social media sites about the wrong horse being euthanased. Basically, there were three horses in a field, two of which were to be euthanased. The latter two belonged to the same owner, the former to a different owner. When the vet arrived, he was presented with two horses which he assumed were those to be euthanased and duly did the job he had been asked to do. Unfortunately, the actual owner of the two horses to be euthanased was not present at the time and she had left her mother to bring in her two horses for the vet -but her mother brought in one correct horse and the wrong one. The owner was understandably devastated and said it "felt like a member of the family had been murdered".
We are only human and mistakes do happen, but rarely with such dreadful consequences. I have had the wrong horse vaccinated when I left my partner in charge of meeting the vet and they weren't even similar in colour, plus one was a mare and one a gelding! A friend of mine left her husband in charge of waiting for the farrier and ended up with the wrong horse shod. But these could be remedied. A death cannot. I am sure that owners, vets and those in charge of the care of horses will be wondering if this could happen to them and how could it  be avoided?

The vet does not have to ask for a passport before euthanasia, nor is it his or her job to notify the passport issuer of the horses death by sending in the passport, except in limited circumstances usual relating to euthanasia due to certain diseases. In "normal" euthanasia, due to old age, inoperable colic, broken limbs etc it  is the  owner's responsibility to send the passport to the  issuers to notify them of the death within 30 days of  the death. It is an offence not to.

But would a passport have helped in this situation? You might have three similar sized grey geldings in a field. A passport may be of little help in identification, though it is possible that an astute vet or knackerman might spot two different owner's names on the passports, having only been instructed by one person, if there is more than one horse to be euthanased. This could raise a query. Similarly, even if there is only one horse to go, the passport seen may be in the correct owner's name, but the horse that is brought in is still the wrong one. So that may not provide a complete answer.

There are many owners who just cannot face being there when their horse is euthanased. It is certainly not  the most pleasant part of horse ownership, but  is one most of us will have to  face, some of us several times. However, I do believe that owners need to take some responsibility if they can't or don't want  to  be there.They could bring the horse in the night before with a clear note to the vet that this is the horse, for instance., having told the vet this is being done. The potential problem there is if  you don't know which vet is coming out - it would be very easy for a message not to be passed on. They could bring the horse in at the time once the vet has arrived and then leave if someone they trust has offered to be with the horse.  They need to  explain to  the vet that they will not be there, but X will be and if there are any queries or doubts, then the vet should call a given contact number to  clarify.

If the horse is at livery, it should not really be left to the yard owner or manager to arrange and see through the euthanasia, unless they know the owner and the horse very well and offer to do the job of staying with the horse. The owner really needs to arrange it, except in an emergency.

It might be wise to notify the liveries of what is going to happen, in case they want to bring their horses in or put  them out, or be out  on a hack somewhere if they don't want to be there. As someone on the Horse and Hound Forum said "There will always be someone who 'didn't get the message' and will grumble about it", but you can only do your best at a difficult time.

If you are having the horse put down at hunt kennels, as many people do, then the owner should at least make sure the right horse is sent off to the kennels, even if they don't take them there themselves. The passport should go with the horse as it is travelling, but the kennels advised to keep it for the owner to collect and send off, which should be done as quickly as possible after the event.

There is no 100% foolproof answer to this, but it must be exceedingly rare as an accident, though there are cases of deliberate "horse-switching''. Passport legislation is notoriously lax in its enforcement and there are those willing to take the risk that they won't be found out.

But now this case has brought the potential problem to light, then it is something that yards and owners should at least have a discussion about to try to put some safeguards in place.

Brenda Gilligan

+44 (0)1403 790294