One aspect of horse ownership which we all push to the back of our minds is that most of us will almost certainly outlive our equine friends and that one day our beloved horse will reach the end of his life.
It may be that your horse lived a happy, healthy life and merely reached the end of his natural life span. Perhaps, as in the case of my own much-loved Spencer, your horse may develop an illness which proves fatal despite the very best veterinary care. Or he may suffer a severe injury which results in his death. You may find yourself in the heart-breaking position of having to make the final decision on your horse's behalf and have him put to sleep by your vet.
So how on earth do we cope when our much loved horse has gone? Our whole routine is disrupted. Something in our life is suddenly missing which can never be replaced. Others may not understand our feelings. Comments like; "Oh well, he was getting on a bit wasn't he? You can always get another one when the insurance has paid out," are not only insensitive but can also prolong our grief. It seems like no-one understands just how traumatic it can be to lose a creature that you loved so much.
Fortunately, there are many helpful ways of coping with loss. There are even special organizations, such as the Association of Pet Loss and Bereavement, offering a free website where pet owners can find support and empathy in the form of counseling to help them prepare for the impending loss or deal with the aftermath.
Another effective mechanism for coping with pet bereavement is a technique used in psychotherapy called "positive framing". Rather than focusing only on our horse's death and our grief, we should try to celebrate instead all the positive, fun and joyous times we shared together during his life. Look back on happy memories of that first show; those really special summertime beach rides shared, how he used to whinny when he heard your footsteps on the yard. Get out the photo album and remember him – tears are nothing to be ashamed of and they are very often extremely cathartic.
No two people experience grief in the same way. Here are some suggestions that others have found helpful in coping with their loss.
- If possible, you may consider burying your horse on your own property – perhaps beneath a favorite shady tree in his paddock. This often helps owners come to terms with their loss as they can visit their horse's grave whenever they wish and always feel that he is still close by. Do check the legality of this first though as not all countries and jurisdictions permit this method of disposal.
- If you have your horse cremated, you may wish to take the ashes home for burial on your property. If you prefer you can have them presented to you in an urn or box and keep them in a special place in your home.
- Do talk over your feelings with empathetic family and friends. It is very important that you talk about your grief. If you bottle your feelings up, you will find it much harder to come to terms with your loss and move on.
- Take comfort in the knowledge that you loved your horse and gave him a wonderful life and a peaceful, dignified death. How lucky you were to have found each other and to have shared such great times!
Do not be in a hurry to replace the equine friend you have lost. In the future, when the time is right, you will be ready and your heart will tell you when.