I wrote this article in 2006 and it was originally published in my monthly column called "The Couch In the Barn" on Equestrian Network Magazine (www.equestmagazine.com). Since I wrote this, DreamPower has lost Starbright and T.C. and three weeks ago I lost Nick. For everyone who has ever lost a horse they loved, I thought it was worth running agin.
If you love horses, the time will eventually come when you lose a horse you love. There are many reasons you might lose a dearly beloved horse. Financial changes, divorce, moving or personal circumstances, all may separate you from a horse you love. But today I am going to write about what happens when a horse that you love dies.
The average horse lives between 20 to 35 years, more or less. Ponies and smaller horses often live longer than the larger breeds. But if you own or love a horse, the chances are good that you will out-live your horse.
Losing a horse you love is painful at best and a heartbreaking and devastating loss at its worst. There is something special about the partnership between a horse and a human. Working together, learning how to read and trust each other, bonding as you take risks and overcome challenges together, all weave an incredible bond between a horse and a human who love and trust each other.
Your horse may die suddenly and unexpectedly, from a freak accident or a severe illness. Colic is the number one cause of death in horses. Your horse may colic and you may have to make the gut-wrenching decision of weighing your finances and the age and general condition of your horse against the economic burden and risks of colic surgery. Your older horse may have a chronic illness and you watch his health gradually deteriorate over time. Laminitis (and its associated conditions) is the second leading cause of death in horses. Because horses cannot speak and tell humans exactly where they hurt and exactly what is wrong, the horse owner and the veterinarian work together try to figure out what is wrong, and how to help.
Euthanasia or "putting the horse down" is a sad reality that all horse owners must be aware of. The decision to put your beloved horse down is a difficult, gut-wrenching, heartbreaking decision. Sometimes a horse is too ill or too old or too weak to fight off an illness. Or the injury may be too severe and the prognosis too poor. Or the costs of surgery or extended veterinary care may be more than you can afford. There are many circumstances where putting a horse down is the kindest and most loving thing you can do for a beloved friend.
If you decide to put your horse down, you may be filled with doubt and guilt. You may wonder if that is really what is best for your horse. You may feel very guilty for not putting more time and money into trying to make her better. You may feel overwhelmed by sadness, grief and confusion. But remember that ending the suffering of a horse in pain is a final gift of love. Your decision can give your horse a comfortable, painless and dignified end to a wonderful life. You can help him all the way to the Rainbow Bridge. If you think about your horse's quality of life and suffering, it will help you to make the right decision.
Horses are big animals, and they take up a lot of room in our lives and our hearts. When a horse dies, it leaves a huge, aching hole in our hearts. Working through the loss of a dearly beloved horse can be a painful process, but it is necessary if we are to be whole and healthy human beings. Those who love deeply also feel the loss deeply. Loss is a part of every person's existence and everyone will respond to a loss in a unique, deeply personal way.
How a person responds to a loss is determined by a combination of factors. Some of these factors include: the relationship you had with the horse (or person) who died; the circumstances surrounding the death (How did the horse die? Was it unexpected or a long-term illness?); the kind of support you have from others; your individual personality and coping style; and other losses you have experienced.
When a horse dies, you may miss the physical closeness of the horse, grooming and petting and riding the horse. You see an empty stall or paddock and your heart breaks. There is no friendly face peering out at you, looking for food. You smell an old saddle blanket or look at a favorite saddle and burst into tears. Depending on the circumstances, you may also grieve the loss of hopes and dreams. Death may have prematurely ended a partnership where you had great hopes for the future, and those hopes have now died, along with your horse.
The grief process is different for each person, but there are some common things that many people experience. When you grieve, you may feel guilty for not having done more for your horse. You may feel incredible sadness, emptiness, loneliness and despair. You may feel anger at the vet or a family member or someone you feel let you down. You may have difficulty concentrating and paying attention. You may feel numb or want to avoid anything that reminds you of your horse. All of these feelings are completely normal when you have experienced a significant loss.
The stages of grief have been widely studied and written about. These "stages" happen in any loss, including the loss of a horse. Every person will experience their loss in a unique way, but these are common feelings. The first stage is Shock or Denial, usually upon first hearing bad news. You may feel numbness, shock and disbelief. You may walk out to the barn and expect to see your horse standing in her paddock, even though you know she is gone. The next stage is Anger. You may get angry at the vet, the barn manager, your spouse, or anyone connected with your horse. You may be angry at yourself or angry at your horse for dying. These are all normal feelings.
The next stage of grief is often Bargaining. You may try to negotiate with God, the situation, or your horse. But this is a kind of magical thinking that does not change the reality of the situation. When you realize the loss really happened and your horse is not coming back, you may feel Depression or Sadness. You may feel deep sadness and unbearable pain. You may feel guilty over many different things.
Over time, healthy grief turns into Acceptance. This does not mean you do not feel sad and do not still miss your horse, but that you are able to move on with your life. You can still love and appreciate and miss your horse, but you have more things you want to do with your life. Acceptance does not mean forgetting, but using the memories to create a new life for yourself. At this point, you may feel ready to find a new equine partner!
People who are not familiar with horses may not understand the significance of losing a dearly beloved horse. If you have not experienced the gift of love from a beloved horse, or the thrill of mastering a skill together, you will probably have difficulty understanding the depth of love and connection between a horse and its human. But those who know horses, do understand.
There are many ways horse owners can memorialize and honor a beloved horse. Roy Rogers had Trigger stuffed and with him for the rest of his life. You may not want to take it that far. But you may want to cut off part of your horse's mane or tail and have a piece of jewelry or a keepsake made. You might want to frame a lock of hair with a favorite photo of your horse. You might want to give a donation to a favorite horse or animal charity, in honor of your horse. You may want to have a memorial service with family and friends who knew and loved your horse. You might want to join an online support group or website that honors beloved horses who have died.
When you lose a horse you love, it hurts terribly. That is the price we pay for loving these beautiful, magnificent creatures. They honor us with their love and trust, and we honor them by taking care of them all the way to and across the Rainbow Bridge. What a privilege that is.