It wasn't until the later part of his 29th year that Mistral began to lose weight and muscle mass and this was after back to back traumatic episodes of once again being violently hazed and attacked by the younger males. He, who once was the supreme ruler of Ravenseyrie, (even though a gelding) made it plain to Kevin and me that he was ready to give up the wilderness life and take refuge in a more limited environment.
In late November, shortly after Silvestre was gelded and released back out on the range where he was finally accepted into the rag-tag group of offspring expelled by Altamiro from the family band, we moved Mistral and Zeus over to their winter quarters in the small holding pasture on the east side of the house where Kevin had built a small run-in shed inside the corral area.
And so it came to be that for the past several months Kevin and I had been pampering well the old Polish Arabian gelding (and Zeus, too.) They were fed four times a day, received warmed water, presented with numerous treats and enjoyed knee-deep straw in their shed. When we began to notice Mistral was no longer able to chew the mixed grass hay, we purchased for him ($19 a bag!) a special "complete" processed feed designed for geriatric horses with degenerated teeth. He sure loved that feed!
Given the pampering and specialized feed, I hoped Mistral (who had always been an "easy-keeper) might begin to put some weight back on, but he never did. It was astonishing to see this once well-rounded steed reduced to hair over skeleton and yet continue to be so vibrant and bright-eyed and demanding. His atrophied back showed no movement when he walked. To touch him along his back and rump was like touching something mummified--there was no spring to the flesh and unless I fluffed his hair with a brush, it lay flaccid and unresponsive to changes in weather--yet curiously he never seemed cold. Mostly he seemed indifferent to the weather, taking to his shed when he felt it was appropriate, but also standing out in wet snow if he wanted to as well.
Before his decline, Mistral hated confinement and any manner of pampering, but that changed during those last months and though Zeus would often look longingly off in the distant fields where the free range horses roamed, Mistral seemed completely oblivious to any world outside the holding pasture and shed--excepting, of course, his attention was often riveted on the house as he monitored our whereabouts in anticipation of the next meal or the next treat. We felt bad for Zeus, because in the last days, Mistral mostly ignored him, or when he did interact with his devoted friend, he did so with rudeness.
When something wasn't right in his world--at least by his manner of thinking--Mistral coped by pacing. Other horses might crib, or kick, paw or stand in stilted sullenness--not Mistral, he always had to be definitely on the move, even when he had the run of 360 acres, he would take to pacing the fence near the house when it was time for his breakfast. In the last months, he continued to pace whenever it got near to feeding times and adding to that determined walking of the fence line--back and forth, up and down, drone-like--he would pause and stridently whinny to punctuate his desire that we get on with things sooner than later.
The day that he died felt like a normal morning as Kevin and I worked in the feed shed, packing up toboggan-loads of hay and putting together twenty-two pans of breakfast for nineteen equines, however, when Kevin went over to bring Mistral and Zeus their pans (they were always fed first) something was definitely amiss. Mistral was pacing, truly drone-like this time with little recognition that it was time for breakfast, not interested in the pan of special feed at all, not really recognizing Kevin, nor Zeus or even me when I came on the scene. Mistral seemed focused outside the fence, where the others were patiently waiting for their breakfasts--but he wasn't really seeing them either--his attention was beyond all of us, somewhere in a different world, and clearly he was hoping to find a way out of the holding pasture and get to where he thought he ought to be. In addition to this not quite "with us" mental state Mistral was in, he was also becoming ataxic, stumbling and weaving in frightful ways, catching himself from falling into the fence just in time.
We began to herd him away from the electric fence that separated him from the other horses and the open range and tried to direct him toward the corral. Mistral did not seem to recognize us as his human forms who were asking him to move to a specific area, rather he moved around us as if we were some object in the way, like a tree or a fence post. Seeing his friend mentally compromised and moving in such an erratic way was causing Zeus to feel threatened and as a defense, anytime Mistral weaved his way toward him, Zeus would emphatically kick out. Thankfully, before any of those double-barrel kicks connected with Mistral and before he crashed through the electric fence, we managed to get the obviously failing, neurologically compromised gelding into the safer space of the corral. Immediately, Mistral began pacing the circumference of the corral, stumbling into its walls from time to time as he seemed to search for a way out.
As soon as Mistral was in a secure place, we quickly got all the other horses fed. Zeus, however, would not--could not eat. He was getting more agitated and uncomfortable as Mistral continued to behave so strangely. When the other horses finished their breakfasts and moved off to farther areas, Zeus began running the fence line, calling to them--a sound of desperation. His frustration rose the further away they went and he began rearing and bucking making Kevin and I worry that he would soon attempt to jump or barge through the electric fence. We felt the best thing we could do was let him go and hope that the other horses wouldn't horribly haze him as they had done when he was with Mistral. He ran away from his old friend and never looked back.
Standing there with Kevin, watching Mistral pace and weave and stumble, often crumbling to his knees before regaining composure, we both knew (having experienced it before with other beloved equines) this was it--the death march, or in Mistral's case the pace against death. It was extremely difficult to know what to do. I did not want to see Mistral injure himself and suggested we call for the neighbor and ask him to bring his gun. Kevin disagreed, pointing out to me that while it was difficult for us to watch, Mistral was already in the zone, but fighting it all the way, like he fought pretty much everything all his life. Kevin felt to give Mistral an easier end would be denying him his right to face death as a fighter, to see it through in his own way. This might not have been the right answer for every horse who's bodily systems were shutting down in preparation for death, but I knew Kevin was right about Mistral. Knowing what Mistral had really seemed to want was to be out in the big wide open among the young primitive horses we discussed turning him loose--but we stopped short of that. If Mistral wanted his end to be by brutal attack from Altamiro and the others, well that was just too much for us to agree to. While this moment in time was all Mistral's and we desired to support him, our feelings deserved a certain consideration, too...we allowed him to fight death if he wanted to, but within the confines of the corral.
Mistral was in constant movement for over four hours. There was no consoling him, he was not mentally present in our world anymore, the best we could do was carry on with our chores but watch him and step in when it felt right to do so. I remained on the outside looking in, except for twice going in to pick up manure that Mistral passed--perfectly formed, but dark with the rank smell of finality...
It was incredibly mesmerizing to watch him periodically come back to a certain degree of lucidity. At those moments, his erratic pacing and stumbling gave way to a highly collected trot in near perfect 10 meter circles or tight voltes--as if he remembered his days as a dressage champion. Then he would neurologically crumple again, return to the erratic pacing and stumbling. The times he fell to his knees he would hover there, almost yielding to the forces, almost letting himself go completely down--but like some resilient prize fighter, he would groan, pull himself up and continue battling. Mistral always had an indefatigable capacity for energized movement and he was demonstrating this now for the last time. It was just after noon when he went down and stayed down.
Down, but not out. We went to him, he seemed to sense us and know us, though his eyes, glassy and unfocused were elsewhere. After several minutes in the resting sternum position, he lay completely out, his body for the first time all morning, relaxed, his breathing soft. The sky was clear, the sun had warmed our snow-covered world up above freezing and an almost springlike breeze teased Mistral's mane into a light waves. He was somewhat focused now, looking off in the distance from his prone position...what was he seeing? Whatever it was, it completely altered his facial expression, he seemed like a young boy, full of wonder, at ease and full of hope. It was an expression I never saw him wear before--not when he was a three year old youth when we first came to be in each other's lives and not ever during the nearly 27 years we spent together...It was the most tender state of beingness I have ever seen Mistral express and I found myself weeping for being able to witness the beauty of it all.
I thought he was then and there walking that "Rainbow Bridge" and I was so happy for him, that he had made it, that his last moments were so blissful--but somehow, somewhere in that storehouse of indefatigable energy my old Arabian fighter pulled back from the light, his body stiffened, his limbs began erratic thrashing and he attempted to get up. "Because I could not stop for death..." When he could not get up he fell back with a groan and began "pacing" again--this time while laying prone on the snow--his expression looked angry, his eyes unfocused, he was again somewhere in another realm, fighting.
It was awful.
The next five hours where like this, broken by periods of rigid immobility. Kevin took care of all the other things that needed doing in a typical day at Ravenseyrie and I remained with Mistral, thinking each time that his "pacing" stopped, he would go to that blissful place again. Kevin returned to join the vigil, equally disturbed as I...both of us wondering was this really the right thing--to let Mistral move toward his death as a fighter? We both admitted, this was his journey, not ours...we were here to support, but supporting the dying of one whose transition through the various planes of consciousness was so determinedly resisted was disturbingly difficult. How do the Hospice people cope in similar circumstances?
Kevin had a few more chores to complete before nightfall and as he rose to leave, I got up too, telling Mistral I was sorry, but I couldn't watch him fight like this anymore...but before I could rise completely, Mistral picked his head up and though his eyes were glassy and unfocused, somewhere in his in-between realm where he was wrestling with death, I could feel him tell me he needed me to stay. Kevin stayed as well. After that, Mistral's head fell back to the snow and I kneeled by him, rubbing his ears, stroking his cheek, weeping...
The "pacing" ceased and his legs remained rigid, with intermittent spasms. His breathing became less laboured, slower, softer, his eyes, no longer angry, simply looked altogether absent. A few gulps for air, the jaw opening and shutting, one last exhale and off Mistral went to those greener pastures.
One nameless reader left a particularly important commentary after reading Mistral's story, and while it is often difficult to receive criticism that is especially condemning, I am taking it as an opportunity to reflect upon the points of contention and to offer additional observations and information for those who find themselves faced with a similar end of life drama.
After Mistral's death, I knew I would do what I always do when processing the joys or the sorrows that I have experienced--I knew I would write about it. However, I seemed faced with a "writer's block" and this story was a difficult one to let unfold. I "went with" the "writer's block" and gave myself the opportunity to fully "go into" the internal recalling of the many experiences Mistral and I had together. Also during this time, it happened that I only told a few people about his passing and did not relay much of the details. Because of how deeply connected I felt to Mistral, our long history together and the way his last day played out, his story is obviously very intimate and emotionally charged, and I suppose I was reluctant to share it, knowing that to the majority of people in my life he was "just a horse".
Something a friend wrote to me (whom I had not yet told of Mistral's passing) served as a catalyst to begin typing the the story, which I sent to him and him alone. His deeply moving reply gave me the courage to publish the story in the Journal of Ravenseyrie...knowing full well that there would be individuals, like the anonymous commentator, who would perceive the events of Mistral's passing from a different concept of what life & death, humans & animals and pain & suffering represent and find fault with how we handled the events.
I chose to share the story and welcome the criticism when it came because I knew, in addition to provoking knee-jerk criticism there would be a good number of people who would actually benefit from reading about how Kevin and I chose to support Mistral's natural death process. End of life and death are inescapable things for all of us and there are times when it is better to open a dialogue about it that encompasses supporting the positive aspects of allowing a natural death process, while also recognizing that euthanasia is just as acceptable depending on the situation and the people and animals involved.
We don't know what caused the ataxia and aimless pacing Mistral experienced, though we know it was one more symptom of an aged body in natural decline and to stress him with a battery of veterinary tests at that juncture seemed to us an needless invasion of Mistral's "space"...and knowing him as we do, having the freedom to keep his own space and have room to move was vitally important. Whether he had a stroke over the night and the ataxic pacing was the after effect, whether his liver was shutting down (also suspect when aimless movement is observed), whether some other factor was the culprit, one thing was undeniable and that was that mentally Mistral was not fully lucid--his mind was elsewhere. Was there pain associated with this mental disruption and physical agitation, both when he was upright and pacing or prone and gesticulating with his limbs for so long? Who could say what a horse feels better than those who have shared such a long history with him?
I've been scouring a wide variety of articles about end of life and death and have gleaned that if there has not been a prior diagnoses of painful illness or injury leading to the decline toward death, dying isn't, on its own, thought to be a painful process--is actually thought to be less painful for the body than birth is. We did not once get the impression that his actions were resulting from pain, though of course it was a question we visited because viewing this type of activity and knowing your horse is dying is not an easy thing to take in and one wants to assure oneself that the right support is being offered.
We believed Mistral was not in physical pain--he may have been mentally distressed or he may have been feeling nervous excitement as a result of the end of life processes he was experiencing. I interpreted his actions as a horse's own fight against death and that it was something he desired to experience in his own way...but as mentally absent as he was, he may have been beyond all that and his body was acting involuntarily on its own...I cannot imagine how one would ever know for certain. If he was feeling pain, it was of the sort that he would meet head on as a rival--he was never the sort of horse to let pain set him back, even if it was something we as humans were repulsed by.
How long do the end stages last before death occurs? It might be "weeks, days or hours" according to one hospice article. In Mistral's case it was less than ten hours.
I have subsequently read that there is an actual term for the type of agitated movement we witnessed with Mistral, which is: "Terminal Restlessness" and it can occur alone or in conjunction with delirium, as seems to be the case with Mistral, and may or may not be a response to physical discomfort or pain, and, depending on each individual situation may or may not be remedied by administering drugs. Each situation is unique and even more difficult to interpret when one is observing a horse rather than a human. One source relayed:
"It has been reported that as many as 10% to 20% of patients experience delirium at the very end of life requiring heavy sedation using narcotics, tranquilizers, or sleeping medications, but that percentage seems high to the author. Looked at from a different viewpoint, many practitioners suggest that delirium should be considered a part of the dying process which does not produce suffering and need not be treated at all unless required for the comfort of the family." [emphasis is mine]
Depending on the situation and the patient, elements of the non-pharmacological approach to coping with "terminal restlessness" and delirium are to "assure a safe, loving, supportive environment and avoid the use of physical restraints, catheterization or other impediments to ambulation" and "encourage activity if a patient is physically able."
This is precisely what Kevin and I tried to provide for Mistral. If the weather had not been so lovely, we may not have been able to support him in the manner we did, but thankfully it really was a "good day to die" as the saying goes. Having secured Mistral in a safe environment where we could monitor and support him, though at times what was going on with him made us uncomfortable (well I think I wrote that "it was awful"--just as it always felt awful when he would pace to relieve anxiety as a young and healthy horse) we truly felt that there was not pain involved for Mistral, that he likely was mentally coping with the unfolding of his death process by physically fighting it--which had been part of his method of coping with certain situations all his life. And we felt allowing him to work through this process, rather than intervening by hastening death with euthanasia was in deference to his desires. This choice was made based on our own perception of life and death and our many years of understanding Mistral and his way of living life.
For other people, who have their own particular relationships with their animals and who perceive life and death according to a different philosophy, the choices they would make in a similar situation would be in keeping with what feels appropriate to them. There is no hard and fast rule on these matters and one set of beliefs isn't more right or wrong than another...each situation is unique for the animals and people involved.
I hope this helps those who would have euthanized Mistral straight-away understand the choices we made to support him through the end of life process and subsequent death.
This is a painting I did of Mistral almost twenty years ago. I had attempted to paint him numerous times and always the result was an attractive grey Arabian, but never "him". This painting, however, captured him perfectly--there is nothing about it I would alter...and when I married Kevin, he thought it so well represented my fiery equine friend that he decided I could not sell the original, and suggested we make limited edition prints of it instead and keep the original for ourselves. It hangs prominently in our home and has even more meaning now than ever before. The verse this painting and Mistral himself inspired says, "Search the Wind for your highest dream, then let your heart fly free...With courage and faith unwavering, be all that you can be."