Rider Health

How to Cope with the Loss of a Horse

Dr. Shelley Goodwin explains that grief is an individual process, and offers suggestions for coping with the loss of a horse.

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By: Shelley Goodwin, PhD. |

The death of a horse can leave us lost in our thoughts, and our barn. Since often times our daily routines centre around our horses’ needs, those routines, which might have offered comfort for other loses or difficult times, only seem to accentuate the loss of our dear friend.

What can you do to cope?

Take the time to acknowledge the wide range of emotions you may be experiencing, including sadness, anger and guilt. Your horse was not just a ride, but a safe ear to whisper your secrets to, who gave you a feeling of freedom. You may have had goals with your horse, such as to ride in a show this summer, or a trail ride in the fall. Further, your horse may have been the key to a social network of fellow riders that you may feel you have lost as well.

Tears and talking are common components of grieving, and this is for good reason – they help. Crying when you need to and talking to someone who understands will help you feel better and a little less burdened.

Ultimately, we all grieve a little differently, but each of us can use some of the following techniques to make it easier.

  • Physical activity is one of the best ways to get rid of stress hormones that frequently accompany a grief response. Take a walk, or try a yoga or aquatics class.
  • Practice deep breathing, meditation, or guided visualization.
  • Listen to music – instrumental and nature sounds can be particularly soothing.
  • Use the artistic side of your brain to release your sorrow and sadness. Try different forms of art, music or poetry to express your emotions.
  • Talk to someone who has lost a horse before. This can give you an idea of how others have coped with a similar loss.

There is no “right way” to grieve

Some people may be familiar with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grieving, including: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It is important to know that you do not have to experience all of these stages, or go through them in any particular order. In fact, these stages may even overlap for some people. Grieving is an individual process and it is important to allow yourself this individual experience and not try to fit yourself into a mould – that just adds extra expectations and pressures at a time when you do not need them.

Research has shown that family members who have had a say in the end of life decision of a loved one experience increased levels of guilt, and may have an increased grief response. Because you may have been the one to tell the veterinarian to euthanize your horse, you need to be prepared for this increased response. Knowing that it will occur will actually help you understand its presence and respond in a healthier way.

There may be people in your life who don’t understand your loss. They may say things that are hurtful, such as, “It was only a horse,” or “You can get another.” These comments suggest that your loss should not be as sad as a human loss and that human losses are more important. Fortunately, we are becoming more knowledgeable about grief and the loss of our animal partners. We know that for some people, animal loss can be as heartbreaking as human loss, and requires similar grief coping strategies.

Moving on in your own time

If you have experienced a loss before, and coped well, think about what strategies you used to navigate the challenges you now face with the loss of your horse. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What helped the last time?
  • What did I learn from the previous loss that I can use now?
  • Who and what was a good support for me?

Time will tell when you’re ready to move on

There is no set time for grief to depart. There is no magic time when you will be rid of the sadness and sense of loss. For some, it is weeks and, for others, several months. If your grief symptoms are not improving within several months, however, you may benefit from seeing a therapist who has experience in grief work and who can help you move through your grief.

If possible, marking the grave of a loved one is a good idea. If it’s not possible, find a private place to make a memorial. This could be a quiet spot in the woods along a favourite trail, in your home, or in your barn. It gives you a place to go and mourn your loss and reflect on your good memories, and also provides a space for mementos. This, of course, is a personal decision and reflects your individuality in this process.

Frequently, common wisdom (and vets and therapists) does not suggest getting a new horse right away, as it is important to properly grieve the loss, but that is, once again, an individual decision. I recommend doing a personal check on where your grief is at and how you are personally coping. If you believe you are doing well in your grief response then trust your instincts. If, however, you are struggling and not coping so well, maybe waiting a bit longer would be a better choice.

People tend not to talk about the death of a loved one, yet death is a part of life. It is important that as we honour our horses, we take care of ourselves. Then we will be able to, in a healthy way, mourn the amazing creatures who let us into their lives and gave us so many gifts.

Nicole Fowler of Nine Mile River, Nova Scotia, always knew that her Standardbred, Bugsy, had her back. When he died, she felt it was important to remember him in that way. She took his horseshoe to a tattoo artist, who made it smaller and put the image on her back. “Bugsy left a stamp on my soul, so it felt right,” she quietly reflected.

Bugsy came into Nicole’s life and stayed for 15 years. “He always took care of me and he was so responsible.” After a long illness, Bugsy, 19, died last year. “I think he’d just had enough,” she said.

Nicole has many pictures and mementos, which eases her pain. Her father, before burying Bugsy, saved a piece of his mane and tail for her. “The mane is what I held on to when I rode, so I have that now.”

Nicole knew it was important to keep riding so Magnum (Stoneridge Bayard Magnum), a magnificent black Canadian, is now her riding partner. “I love Magnum equally as much – just different.”

When Cheyenne, a spunky Anglo Arab mare, passed away, her owner Sharon Card, of Pender Island, BC, ‘”cried a lot of tears and had such overwhelming sorrow.”

Just five months before, they had celebrated Cheyenne’s 40th birthday with lots of attention and treats. “Our decision to euthanize was difficult. It is an enormous responsibility and even when you know there is no alternative it’s hard to play God. Emotionally, it was traumatic, but rationally you need to let her go.”

Sharon found talking to people about Cheyenne’s life helpful, but also made sure she spent time with people who understood. “I would pick and choose whom I spent time with. I made sure that they were people who would provide space and comfort. I guess it was self-preservation.”

Vicki Milnes of Ottawa, Ontario, found comfort in routines when her 16-year-old Canadian gelding Du Coteau Remi Bishop was euthanized. She cleaned his tack and organized his gear. “It all helped me to grieve him. I have a book of pictures that my sister gave me that I appreciate and his leather halter. It has his name on it and I wasn’t going to use it again, but then I thought it’s all part of the process. Abracadabra (her current horse) wears it now.”

Also helpful was remembering the good times and his unique personality. “Realizing that he was the horse for me at that stage of my life and now Abracadabra is the horse for me at this stage really helped too,” she said.

Lyra, an Arabian mare, has been gone five years and still Phoebe Kingscote of Powell River, BC, tears up when talking about her. “She was just special,” Phoebe said.

Lyra was 20 when she died of cancer. Phoebe received numerous phone calls and cards when she died. She was part of Phoebe’s trail riding business and lesson program and people the world over had ridden and fallen in love with her. “Having this many people express their sorrow was very comforting. We held a memorial ritual and we planted flowers for her.”

Phoebe also finds comfort in her belief “that when my time comes, they’ll all be there to greet me at the gate, and we’ll have a fantastic reunion. Of course, I have no way to know if that’s how it will really be, it is just something that helps me cope (with) the loss while the grief is still so raw; and the empty space they’ve left seems so huge and hollow, on this plane as I know life now.”