Friday, January 14, 2011

When You Lose A Horse You Love

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.

24 comments:

  1. This article reminds me of something... I become frustrated when learning someone I know won't keep another dog/cat/pet because they don't want to ever again experience loss. It then makes me sad because I know that there are hundreds of animals euthanized daily because they didn't have loving homes to go to. My heart will be shattered when my beloved Tommy passes, but I'll find ways to cherish his legacy!

    Animals are awesome!!

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  2. Thank you for this. I am just at the stage of having tried everything to help my beautiful horse who has been suffering with facial nerve pain for the past year. He had an experimental operation to insert platinum coils to compress the nerves and seemed like we had beat it. 8 days ago he started headshaking again - after 6 weeks without symptoms. The vet in charge of his operation feels it could be a temporary relapse due to healing, but also it could be that the operation hasn't worked for him. My own vet came out today to give a booster vaccination and said forget the booster I'm giving him a steroid injection in case there is inflammation causing the symptoms. she has given me steroids to inject over the two days and suggested if there is no change after the weekend we put Freddie to sleep. Someone else at my yard has suggested all the vets are wrong and he's not in pain because he's not list much weight, his coat still looks good and that if he was in pain he'd be galloping round his field and bashing his head against things. So the question I am asking myself is how do I know if my horse is in enough discomfort to warrant euthanasia rather than being turned away in the field, and how much longer do I give him to see if he'll recover?

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  3. it's such a horrible situation to be in, trying to decide what's best, kindest, for your horse. My friend said that when the time comes, i would feel a huge weight lifted, my mare would go to sleep,for a horse its just going to sleep. But she died overnight in her stable, i just hope she didn't suffer, someone suggested a heart attack. She wasn't old, 13, and even the vets, very good vets, weren't sure, but a displacement was the main culprit. It happened so quickly,2 months on and i still think ' what could i have done? there was something i did wrong' i still feel responsible. In future, i would always trust my vet's prognosis, when the condition/crisis first manifested they thought euthanasia was probably our best course of action, but offered treatment as an alternative, of course i seized on the treatment, dismissing the cost as secondary to her chances of survival.Now, despite feeling at the time i had to give her every chance, had to fight for her, i still feel i let her down. I think the vets were right, they have seen countless horses critically ill, i have minimal experience.I would only use a vet I trusted fully, with an exeptional reputation, it makes sense to accept their knowledge fully.This is one thing i have learned. It's so hard to accept what you don't want to hear, but it's much worse to allow a beloved horse to suffer, they deserve the very best from us. I sincerely hope you have found an answer to your horse's problem,and he is not in pain. i fully empathise with you.

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  4. my 14yr old horse died of colic sunday evening. I was up for over
    24hrs with him and the vet came twice. We did everything we
    could short of surgery. He was a wonderful and very beautiful
    bomb proof quarter horse. I take all the blame for what happened,
    I feel I could have done more to prevent what happened. The only problem is, cannot bring myself to tell the previous owner that he has passed away. She really trusted me to give this horse a nice retirement home and felt she was putting him in the best place. I don't know how to tell her and I also don't want the feedback and questions. I don't know what to do. I feel like I want to hide. Am I wrong?

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    1. I am so sorry for your loss. I feel your pain. I was just crying like a baby because I heard a song I always played at the barn while hanging out with my horse and needed some comfort. I lost my horse in January and I wanted to let you know that if you are like many horse owners and it sounds like you are, you loved this horse and did everything you could. I would not beat yourself up. I did that and still do sometimes but you have to remember the most loving thing we can do for our beloved horses is let them go when it is time.

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  5. Thx my horse that I've had for a month just got diagnosed with a bone disease and will forever be lame. I just love her so much and I don't wanna lose her but I need to face facts.

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  6. "The dove is a symbol of the soul’s release from its earth-bound duty". Missy fell down and the vet said she was basically gone at this point. I turned away because I could not bear to watch. In the sky, I saw a single dove. I remember thinking it was odd because it was flying straight toward me and landed in the tree. For days, I have been searching for a sign that my baby made it to the other side and is ok. And then I remembered the dove. The dove was my sign. Missy 1982-2015

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  8. Today I had to take the heart breaking decision of putting Rosie down, 2nd colic in 5 yrs. she is 30yrs old, was healthy cantering trotting loving her food. Today was in absolute pain, the vet wanted to still try oiling her but I thought it was her time.
    I can still hear her neighying for food.

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  9. Tonight has been a week since we had to put down my beloved Sedona. She was almost 29, and we had had her for almost 15 years. She was my first horse and we learned so much together. She had some chronic conditions (cushings, laminitis, navicular) but they were all well managed and she had been an incredibly healthy horse for the 15 years we had her. Last Wednesday, while I was cleaning stalls, she stopped eating her breakfast and layed down. I also noticed her respiratory rate was very high. Vet (it was the on call as our vet was oot) came out, dubbed it as colic, and went on her way. 3 days later my poor Doonie was still very sick. Vet (ours) came out, took temp (103), and noted her resting HR WAS very high. Have her dipyrone and banamine along with baytril (all iv). Checked her 2 hrs later and her vitals hadn't changed...vet wasn't comfortable with leaving her in pain over night and we couldn't justify hauling her 2+ hrs away to be monitored at the hospital so we had to say goodbye. At the time it seemed best, but now I'm having doubts and it's breaking my heart. I have a video from less than a month ago of her playing and racing my young mare...how could she be gone now? She was doing so great...so sassy and full of life. Now she's not even here? I had her for more than half my life. I'm having a hard time functioning without her there to demand her breakfast. I have 2 other horses that need to be cared for every day, twice a day, and I dread going to the barn and seeing her empty corral. The barn used to be my happy place; now I go, do my chores, and leave as quickly as possible. I just want her back.

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  10. Tonight has been a week since we had to put down my beloved Sedona. She was almost 29, and we had had her for almost 15 years. She was my first horse and we learned so much together. She had some chronic conditions (cushings, laminitis, navicular) but they were all well managed and she had been an incredibly healthy horse for the 15 years we had her. Last Wednesday, while I was cleaning stalls, she stopped eating her breakfast and layed down. I also noticed her respiratory rate was very high. Vet (it was the on call as our vet was oot) came out, dubbed it as colic, and went on her way. 3 days later my poor Doonie was still very sick. Vet (ours) came out, took temp (103), and noted her resting HR WAS very high. Have her dipyrone and banamine along with baytril (all iv). Checked her 2 hrs later and her vitals hadn't changed...vet wasn't comfortable with leaving her in pain over night and we couldn't justify hauling her 2+ hrs away to be monitored at the hospital so we had to say goodbye. At the time it seemed best, but now I'm having doubts and it's breaking my heart. I have a video from less than a month ago of her playing and racing my young mare...how could she be gone now? She was doing so great...so sassy and full of life. Now she's not even here? I had her for more than half my life. I'm having a hard time functioning without her there to demand her breakfast. I have 2 other horses that need to be cared for every day, twice a day, and I dread going to the barn and seeing her empty corral. The barn used to be my happy place; now I go, do my chores, and leave as quickly as possible. I just want her back.

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  11. Today I had to set two horses free to run to the Rainbow Bridge together. Smokey was 43 years old and had been my friend for 30 years. He came into my life only 3 years after I arrived in Australia. We have grown older together and he'd been retired for 10 years and shared his paddock with Mini Whinny a bay roan pony who was riddled with arthritis although only half Smokey's age. Mini came to retire and become my boy's friend and they were always together. I have suspected for a few weeks that Smokey's great heart was beginning to fail and this morning he collapsed, got up again but needed the vet, who confirmed that to try to make him stay any longer would have been cruel. I always said his pony would go with him because some days the little fellow only walked because his friend made him and although regular "bute" eased his discomfort I felt he would give up without Smokey. So with our wonderful vet's care they both left me with no fear or struggle as peacefully as one day I hope to pass myself.
    I feel like Smokey took most of my heart with him and Mini took the rest and I can't help looking towards their favourite shade trees (under which they were buried this afternoon) and expecting to see them both ears pricked forwards looking back at me.

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  12. This is so beautiful to read and whole heartedly reasurring. I lost my beautiful special pony a few days ago. It was so sudden. So unexpected. My heart goes out to everyone who has commented...I know you must ache inside as I do.

    Xxx Millymayamelia.com

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  13. I just had to putmy beloved Aztec to sleep rhis past Thursday. The whole situation has my world turned upside down.

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  14. Tonight we said goodbye to my daughter's horse Cinnamon. She had colic about 6 weeks ago and we took the dreaded trip to the hospital and found she had an infection in her belly. She was treated with IV antibiotics and after 9 days, she was sent home with 10 more days of antibiotics. While at the hospital, she somehow managed to pull her IV line from her IV port and got air in her vein. This caused her to collapse and hurt her leg. Then, as a result of the air in her vein, the next day she had a seisure. As a result of the hurt leg and seisure we were told we had to stall her for 2 months. She's been home for 5 weeks and we've been struggling with her colicing off and on the entire time. We've had the vet out twice, aside from the trip to the hospital. This morning I could tell she was feeling crummy so I gave her her probiotic and banamine, I got home tonight after playing volleyball, and she was gone. This horse was only 8 years old, and my daughter is only 9. I can't even explain the amountil of grief I have right jow, not only for the loss of this amazing horse, but for my daughter who has just lost her best friend in the whole world. I don't know how we will ever get through this. :(

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  15. I am so glad that I found this site I can't believe other people feel almost exactly as I do. two days ago my beloved first horse of 15 years suddenly got very sick and died within 24 hours I am beside myself with grief;my stomach hurts I feel like there's a giant hole in my stomach I'm dizzy I can't concentrate and I can't imagine how I'm going to go on without him. he was my everything my parent my child my sibling my best friend my partner we've been through so much together and he had a heart of gold he would do anything for me and we've built such an amazing Bond of trust over the years I just couldn't imagine I would ever be without him. I know there's nothing but time that will help heal this pain but I must say that reading all the posts of other people who've been through this does help a little bit,although of course I'm not happy for your losses at least I know I'm not crazy and I'm not alone. anyway my horse's name was Indy. he was half quarter horse and half Thoroughbred he was 16'2 beautiful copper-colored with a silly white partial Blaze on his face and he was a goofball and a love bug and just incredibly all-around talented horse. I will miss him forever- in the 15 years we were together I continued to love him more every single day until the very last and he was 19 when I got him and 35 when he went on to the Rainbow Bridge. the hardest part was that I had to watch him be lifted and buried and see him lying there lifeless I've never seen any horose die let alone my own and I never dreamed it would happen but I guess that's part of the cycle of life I've lost cats and dogs before but this is a whole other level of loss horses are so spiritual and Indy and i were soulmates I love you Indy. I will never ever forget you I know we'll always be together one day I will see you again and I know in my heart that you're already up there whole healthy sound and happy running around bucking and prancing with all the other horses up there. God bless you Indy and thank you for 15 years of joy . until we meet again xox

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  16. I am so glad that I found this site I can't believe other people feel almost exactly as I do. two days ago my beloved first horse of 15 years suddenly got very sick and died within 24 hours I am beside myself with grief;my stomach hurts I feel like there's a giant hole in my stomach I'm dizzy I can't concentrate and I can't imagine how I'm going to go on without him. he was my everything my parent my child my sibling my best friend my partner we've been through so much together and he had a heart of gold he would do anything for me and we've built such an amazing Bond of trust over the years I just couldn't imagine I would ever be without him. I know there's nothing but time that will help heal this pain but I must say that reading all the posts of other people who've been through this does help a little bit,although of course I'm not happy for your losses at least I know I'm not crazy and I'm not alone. anyway my horse's name was Indy. he was half quarter horse and half Thoroughbred he was 16'2 beautiful copper-colored with a silly white partial Blaze on his face and he was a goofball and a love bug and just incredibly all-around talented horse. I will miss him forever- in the 15 years we were together I continued to love him more every single day until the very last and he was 19 when I got him and 35 when he went on to the Rainbow Bridge. the hardest part was that I had to watch him be lifted and buried and see him lying there lifeless I've never seen any horose die let alone my own and I never dreamed it would happen but I guess that's part of the cycle of life I've lost cats and dogs before but this is a whole other level of loss horses are so spiritual and Indy and i were soulmates I love you Indy. I will never ever forget you I know we'll always be together one day I will see you again and I know in my heart that you're already up there whole healthy sound and happy running around bucking and prancing with all the other horses up there. God bless you Indy and thank you for 15 years of joy . until we meet again xox

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  17. One month ago my 7 year old mare died from an accident with a tractor. My mare and gelding were running and playing alongside the tractor my mare reared up and came down on the blade at the end of the tractor.It was so sudden I still cant believe it happened I wasnt there to see it I was at school.She didnt have time to suffer she bled out before she could really feel anythin.

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  18. Another thing is I dont recommend putting a buch of pictures of your horse up I know you might want to but It will just make you more upset in the long run

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  19. I just had to put down my 16 yr old QH mare on Thursday because of colic. I found her down in her run in the morning and spent all day trying to save her but in the end the best thing for her was to let her pass onto the Rainbow bridge. I am just so sad that I can't stop crying every time I think of her or have to go out and feed our other mare who is now so lonely. This article is spot on in describing what I am going through. Thank you

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  20. Thank you for sharing your article. It rings very true to me. And I'm comforted to read I'm not alone in my feelings.

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  21. Yesterday, my mare was unable to get up in the pasture and had apparently broken a bone in her shoulder. We finally got her up but she couldn't walk. There was nothing to be done. She was just shy of 24. I miss her so much. I am still in shock. This blog post helped me and reading the posts of others who have lost beloved horses. It's hard to think of anything positive right now, but I am trying to celebrate the special bond we had and see it as the gift we gave each other. Love mustn't stop. We have to have the courage to pay its price.

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  22. I had my boy for 24 years. I got Maverick my 17h T.B. when he was 4 years old. He was such a goofball and so sweet. He was sound until about 18. Then he started to have a slight limp at the trot. After vet visit he said "I can't believe he can even walk". I never jumped him and only used him on flat. The vet said his injuries were prior to me owning him. He had ring bone, navicular and a fracture in his neck that was pushing on his spinal cord and said he most definitely had a big fall before I owned him. This poor horse was jumped heavily before he was even 4 years old. It make me so angry to think they did this to my poor baby. My horse lived in the lap of luxury and wanted for nothing. He had a dentist, annual injections for his hocks, stifles, etc.... to keep him comfortable and he also had his 6 month chiropractic adjustments, supplements, monthly shots for arthritis and great food he got. He was my #1 priority and family and would be with me until the end of his life. Gradually it got to the point where I could only walk on him but he was happy and I was glad to have my buddy with me. One day I went down to the stable and he was limping vet thought it was just everything acting up and that I should stay off of him from now on. I then was just hand walked him and he was getting worse. Vet thought he might of injured his suspensory in front, so we did laser therapy and bandaged up the leg and he was stall bound for a while. He started to improve and thought we need to get him out of here sooner or later because those hocks can be sitting still or he is going to have a real problem getting up. He started to improve and we were going to get him out to shoe and on the road to recovery. Well my worst fear happened. I was in the stall one day and he was doing his little happy dance as he always did and he slipped and fell. It was a really bad fall and he was groaning and the position was bad. We tried with 6 men assisting to get him up. My boy tried so hard to get up and was groaning from trying so hard. I was beside myself. After a shot of adrenaline nothing happened. He kept trying to get up but the legs would not work. He started having a seizure and then another. I was praying for God to help him get up and then the vet said he is not able to get up and the best thing is to put him down. I just sat on the ground with him kissing his face telling him I love him over and over again and not to be afraid and he was covered in my tears. It was very hard but peaceful which was a blessing. I could not leave. I sat with him in his stall with friends until the truck came. I started to doubt everything I did and thought I should have done more but then friends and family said "are you kidding me?" He had the best life a horse could ask for. You still doubt yourself but don't. It is normal to think that and part of the grieving process. I could not have done more. The vet thinks the fall caused paralysis in the back end. He is with me at home in a beautiful box with his tail. I feel a massive hole in my heart and feel lost and out of sorts. I have owned horses for 41 years and now I need to figure out how to function without them. I guess I just need to let myself grieve but it is very hard. It really helps to get this out there and hope it will help me heal and maybe someone else out there.

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