Dealing with the loss of a horse.
Warning: This subject may be difficult for some to read. But this story needs to be told. I feel it is important for us as stewards of the magnificent horses of the world to honor their emotional needs as much as their physical.
I have witnessed horses dealing with death and grief a few times in my 56 trips around the sun. It is never easy and touches my heart permanently. When I hear people discussing the loss of their beloved equine partner, I wonder often if there were pasture friends that also felt the loss.
It was so cold that day, the winter wind here in VA is intense. When it comes from the north it goes right through any attempt at layering coats and clothing. Since I was only going to be out for a short time as I turned my small herd of horses out to their pastures, I had just thrown a light jacket on and grabbed some gloves. The horses were all bundled up in blankets and after finishing dinner were making it known they were ready to get out and stretch their legs. Just like any other day, I put my older gelding Respekt out first, followed by his pasture mate, a young playful gelding with energy to spare. They tossed their manes in the frigid wind and trotted off along the fence towards the giant oak they loved to hang out under. I turned my attention to the ladies. Three lovely black mares, it is hard to tell them apart if you don’t know them. As I turn the second one out, I notice Respekt standing under the oak watching me, his playful companion was trying to entice him out into the large field where the grass was still thick and green, but he was not following as usual. Daylight was quickly fading so I hustled to get the last mare out and turned to walk out towards the big oak and my tall dark and handsome gelding. By now I could see something was very wrong and he was in distress. He was moving in a circle with one hind leg held up and the other firmly planted as his front legs walked in circles around it. The planted hind leg drilling a hoof sized hole into the soft dirt. Quickly getting a halter on the other gelding so he would not pester his friend, I led him back towards the small paddock by the stalls and called the vet.
Respekt, a name he now lived up to, became very agitated as I led his pasture mate away. I closed the gate and hustled back to calm him. As long as I stood next to him, he stayed rather calm. Although he was still not placing any weight on one hind leg. I have seen many lame horses in my day. Normally even if it is something bad the horse will hobble on 3 legs to get back to a stall. He would not move at all. I could see that as he set the toe of his hoof down, it rolled off to the side in a very abnormal way and he would wince at the pain it caused. It appeared either the tendons or ligaments had torn, or he had broken something. I did not ask him to try and move, zipped my coat up further and stood with him while we waited for the vet. At times he would swing his head around and touch the injury then poke his nose into my chest as if to say it hurts right here. My sweet old guy knew I was trying to help him, but I felt helpless other than to try and comfort him. I knew in my heart it was not going to be a good outcome.
The vet was fast. 30 minutes at the most and she was walking out to the field. We had discussed x-ray, but we both knew by the way the leg was rotating that it was not something fixable. Fully torn ligaments or tendons in this region would take surgery and a good year of stall/rehab. He was turning 19 this year and the weight bearing leg had already had some challenges. There was no way the good leg could support him for a long recovery. A broken bone here, well, there was just nothing that could be done for that. Aside from that there was the fact that we could not get him to a trailer, he was still unable to move even after she sedated him and gave him pain medicine. The decision was made, as I could not stand here and watch him suffer, and he was in a great amount of pain. As the sky faded to dusk, he quietly lay down and took one last breath.
It had all happened so fast, and unexpectedly. The adrenaline of the event and the cold wind helped keep me somewhat numb, and I was able to stay calm and rational throughout. But my heart was heavy as I stroked the beautiful kind face one last time. I covered him for the night as by now the light was gone so there was nothing more I could do until morning.
I was up early the next day and headed outside to feed the herd and assess the situation. I had made arrangements to have him buried atop the hill overlooking the field he had spent the last two years roaming. Stepping out into the cold sunny morning, my first thoughts were with my young gelding, who had spent the night in the paddock below the big field. Approaching the fence and looking out into the paddock my heart was overwhelmed with sadness for my young horse. He had apparently been standing all night along the fence line right next to the covered form of his friend. I gave the mares big piles of hay and set one out for him as well. He had no interest. He stayed resolutely standing next to his friend. It was so sad and touching at the same time. It was impossible to stop the tears that day, I was grieving for the loss of one horse, and hurting for my young horse’s loss as well.
I did not force him to leave his friend, instead I opened the gate and led him back into the field with the friend he had spent the last 2 years annoying and playing with. I pulled the cover back from the beautiful face and watched as his young friend dropped his nose down and breathed into the stillness of the lifeless form. He spent a good half an hour with his muzzle touching and smelling the face and mane of Respekt, then quietly walked out to the big field and started grazing.
Horses grieve in their own way. I believe they need the opportunity to say goodbye or somehow accept that a companion is deceased, and not just removed from their life by humans. They are much more peaceful and calmer if they get this chance. Removing a companion without letting them see and accept that the loss is death can create stress and anxiety. Eventually they do get passed it, but there is a difference that I see. Something that is important in the long term. They seem to become grounded, or calmer.
This is not the first time I have witnessed this connection. When you spend your entire life in the world of horses it is inevitable that you will have to deal with losing them. The times I witnessed the deceased horse being removed without the herd mates knowing I saw the companion horses become very distraught. Those times I experienced a loss, and the herd or companion horse was able to spend some time with their deceased friend, there was not the same stress or anxiety. There was acceptance instead.
My young gelding still looks for his friend now and then. For several weeks he still would walk out to the spot under the big oak tree and smell the ground where he last saw his friend. It is less often now after a month, but I can see he still remembers. He was depressed at first, and hardly ate. I felt the need to spend much more time with him as his sadness tore at my already blue heart. I would take him out and hand graze him at times, or just take him for a walk in the woods. His relationship with me has changed. We have filled the void for each other. I had contemplated finding him a new friend, but at this point in life, I need time to heal as well. And the connection I have now developed with him has been a positive thing in his growth. We will see what the future holds. My heart gets lighter by the day, and now I am able to look back at pictures of the tall dark and handsome Respekt, without tears. I often wonder though; will the horses remember him. I think they will.