The pain of saying goodbye to a beloved horse
By Allison Fonke Blough
Photos courtesy of Allison Fonke Blough
Anyone who has cared for a senior horse knows that they have their own set of challenges. Seniors may require more expensive food, more food in general, special hay, special shoes, different turnout. Their management can feel exhausting.
But after you lose one like my Maximus, you’re reminded that you’d happily slog through the pasture to bring him in to eat or to put his blanket on, because not having to do so is the emptiest of feelings.
I met “Max” when I was just getting back into horses. I’d rented out my farm in North Carolina and hadn’t ridden in a couple of years. New to dressage, I’d begun taking lessons at a nearby facility when Max’s owner moved him there. Soon after, I began leasing him.
Within the year, I moved back to my own farm with my horses, Cole and Hobbes. When I was offered the opportunity to buy Max, he came home with me, too.
Max gave me the gifts of a new sport, a new challenge, a place of learning, and a new means of personal development. He also came with some health issues: A chronic cribber, he was prone to colic and had some bouts with choking. He was a huge, big-boned horse who had many years of sport under his belt by the time I met him, and the wear and tear always seems to be harder on the big ones. But before ringbone ended Max’s competition career, he was the horse I rode in my first championships, the one I rode while I was pregnant, and the first horse I rode after giving birth to my son.
Adjusting to retirement wasn’t easy for Max. Sometimes, when I got another horse out of the pasture instead of him, he would stand at the gate, banging away, as if to say, “Excuse me, I’m sure you meant to get me.” Eventually he mellowed into the role of greeter: He’d still be the first to meet me in the pasture, eager for his cookie and some head rubs, but then he’d either mosey on back to what he’d been doing or follow me and the horse I had haltered to the gate. Max became my “everyone can ride” horse, my “safe for my toddler to groom” horse, and the first horse my son rode solo.
When Max turned from pasture sound to not-so-sound, the looming decision felt like a weight to bear. I did not want my horse to suffer. I talked many times with my wonderful veterinarian, Dr. Cameron Boggs, about what the benchmarks are for knowing it’s time to make that hard choice to end a horse’s pain.
Eventually Max looked painful even in the walk, and Cameron and I decided that it was time to X-ray his foot again to see what was going on. Sadly, the images showed severe changes. It was obvious that there was no longer anything therapeutic that we could do to make him comfortable.
The hard part was when I fully let it sink that my friend would be leaving—that I would be choosing a date on the calendar that would be his end on this earth. Max saw me sobbing around him so much during that last week. He must have known that something wasn’t right, but he just gave me some of his peace and begged for more cookies and belly scratches.
That last morning was surreal. Max ate his gigantic breakfast, worked on hay, and then found me when I came out to the pasture and serenely lowered his face so I could put his halter on. We slowly walked to the barn at his pace, and then I groomed him with his favorite rubber curry. Then we took a bag of carrots and treats, and he went and shared some with each one of his equine friends. It was so peaceful, and again I think it’s because he gave me some of his own peace like he always did. It’s one of the things I miss the most—the giant heaping of peace that I always got from being around him.
It’s a special gift to have veterinarians who care so deeply about their clients. When Cameron arrived early that morning, he gave my husband, Scott, and me the time we needed in the last moments, and then he took care of Max through the transition to the end. It was so careful, quiet, and peaceful. Then the three of us sat with Max, and with tears in our eyes we talked about how special he was, shared stories, and thanked him for being the absolute best boy. The fact that our vet sat with us unrushed, even though he had a busy day ahead, said a lot to me about his compassion.
Many people don’t realize how much our veterinarians carry. There’s the load of the animals’ best interests, which is huge on its own, but they’re also doing this while dealing with the owners’ emotions. I’m grateful for them, and I’m grateful that Max was the reason we got to know them so well. It’s funny in a way to look back and realize that my stress over Max and his gassy stomach led to some wonderful relationships in my life.
After Max died, I knew it would be hard, but I thought the knowledge that he was no longer suffering would help me through it. But rational thought doesn’t ease the grief. I miss my horse’s presence, his soft eyes, and his gigantic head insisting that I scratch it. I miss the night checks and belly scratches, and the slow way he did everything.
Max will always be part of the fabric at my farm and of my life in general. His stall will always have his name on it; it’s a thing Scott and I saw at the Kentucky Horse Park and instantly decided to do at our place. His pictures will stay up, and his stories will be told. The changes he brought me were so profound that the six years I had with him weren’t enough—but no amount of time would have been enough. Max lived 25 wonderful years, and I cherish the time that I got to spend with him.
Allison Fonke Blough is a North Carolina Dressage and Combined Training Association member who owns Dreamalot Farm in Southern Pines, North Carolina. She lost Maximus, her first dressage horse, in November 2022. This article is an abridged version of the tribute she wrote for her blog at DreamalotFarm.com.