Pictured above: Bask Motif • April 12, 1990 - April 17, 2014
The loss of a horse, no matter what the circumstances, is a difficult time. After recently going through the death of one of our personal horses for the first time, I felt it was important to share some of the insights I gained.
The Immediate Aftermath
Every horse passing is unique, as there are many factors that could cause death at any given time. Horses may pass naturally and unexpectedly, they may need to be euthanised following a severe injury or lameness, or you may have to make the difficult decision of when to help them pass peacefully as the discomfort of ageing takes its toll. Their passing may be expected or unexpected. In our case, Mo was an older horse who had to be euthanised following the very sudden onset of a severe colic. Due to our circumstances, we were unable to make it to the barn before he had to be put down, as he was in a great deal of pain. Everyone’s situation will be different, and I couldn’t possibly cover all of the possibilities here.
If you are in a situation where you know your horse may pass soon, there are some steps you can take to be prepared when the time comes. Even if you aren’t anticipating the death of your horse, having a plan in place can help you cope while dealing with a tragic loss.
- If your horse has a degenerative condition (Mo had Cushings), work with your vet to understand your horse’s condition, how to monitor how much pain or discomfort they may be experiencing, how to manage the symptoms, and signs that it may be time to help them pass.
- Develop an understanding of the euthanasia process, in the event that it is necessary. Do some reading and ask your vet any questions you may have so that you are fully educated and know what to expect.
- Decide what you will do with the remains. Check with your vet and local regulations on burial and cremation and understand all available options so you can make the choice that’s right for you and your horse. You may wish to donate your horse to a veterinary school or order an autopsy. Contact the appropriate parties and understand the costs and logistics associated with your wishes.
- Find a reputable transport/rendering service if you decide to cremate your horse’s remains, order an autopsy, or bury off-site. Because horses are large, heavy animals, preserving their dignity in death can be difficult. But knowing who to call to help with the sensitive process of transporting your horse’s remains is important, because it may be one of the first calls you make following your horse’s passing. We were lucky to be referred to a very compassionate and prompt individual, who even said a prayer for our departed friend.
When a Horse Loses a Friend Too
Our equine friends are smarter than we give them credit for, and can understand the loss of another horse. Though research and opinions on the topic are varied and controversial, it certainly doesn’t hurt to allow a pasture or stable mate to visit with the recently-passed horse, so that they can understand their friend is gone. My horse, Zoom, has been Mo’s pasture buddy for seven years and they were often stabled next to each other and ridden side-by-side (even in a pas de deux!), and our vet made sure he had an opportunity to say goodbye to his friend. Zoom sniffed Mo’s body and pawed the ground. He has not since called for Mo or looked for him, and seems to have bonded with a new pasture buddy. Horses are herd animals, and if possible, the best way to help them move on from the death of a friend is to give them a new one.
You may notice behavior in your horse comparable to sadness or depression for a time, depending on how attached they were to the horse that passed. The day after Mo’s passing, I went to ride Zoom and noticed his usual energy and personality missing from his eyes. After a really good lesson where he got a lot of praise and plenty of carrots afterwards, a bit of that spark came back. If you had more than one horse, be conscious of their needs and allow them to help you grieve and heal from your loss.
Healing and Grieving
Especially if you had a long-term bond with your horse, moving on from their loss is sure to be a difficult process. The journey from the hurt immediately following your horse’s passing to eventually accepting the loss and enjoying fond memories with your partner is not a linear one. Some days will be easier than others, and one day might be harder than the last. It’s of utmost importance to go through this process at your own pace and reach out for support and help when necessary.
Personally, it helped me to share the news of Mo’s passing with those who knew him, because going through the story multiple times helped me process what happened. We opted to order an autopsy, and getting the results reassured us that we made the right choice in helping Mo pass when we did.Memorializing your lost friend may also help. A unique option is to have a bracelet made from a clipping of your horse’s tail hair, but photo albums, urns, and memorial stones are also ways to pay tribute to a special horse that has passed.
Horses are different
Losing any companion animal is very hard for us humans to go through. We usually enter these special relationships with our equine (or canine, feline, etc.) friends with the knowledge that we will outlive our beloved companions. But there are circumstances unique to horses that raise some difficult questions following their death. You might find yourself completely “horseless” and faced with the decision of whether or not to invest in a new horse in order to continue riding, which may complicate the grief you are experiencing for your lost partner. Horses are also a business, and especially if you board at a training facility, you may be pressured into looking at new mounts mere weeks after your horse’s passing. Everyone’s situation is unique, and varies greatly between horse professionals and those of us who enjoy riding as an amateur sport or hobby. Here are some questions to ask yourself when faced with these difficult decisions:
- Do I want to continue riding/training/working with horses?
- Can I financially afford to invest in another horse?
- Are there horses available for me to lease or school horses available for me to ride in my area while I decide whether or not to buy a new horse?
- Am I ready/when will I be ready to form a bond with a new horse?
Hopefully this article has given those dealing with the loss of a horse or expecting the loss of a horse some ideas on how to cope with such a difficult time. Though I had to generalize, never forget that every situation will be different and will come with its own challenges. I find that since many of us end up selling horses prior to their passing, this is a topic that isn't discussed enough.
Do you have additional advice for those dealing with the loss of a horse? Please share in the comments below to keep the conversation going.
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