It’s only a horse.” As riders and owners, we’ve all been on the receiving end of this sentiment. We’ve heard it when we’ve missed a social engagement to change a poultice or when we’ve spoken fondly of our horses’ achievements, as though they’re members of the family.
But this is because to us, they are members of the family, and the emotional, physical and financial investments we put into them run deep. When they inevitably leave us, either because they’ve reached the natural end of their full and active lives or because an accident or injury foreshortens their time, it’s not ‘only a horse’ that we have to learn to live without. It’s a bond built up over time and with great patience, a reliable comfort that we’ve grown to depend on and, in many cases, the crumbling of future plans. Losing a horse can also mean a momentous change in lifestyle, as horse ownership not only takes up a lot of time, but is often the root of important friendships and social circles.
The weight of grief can often seem too heavy to lift, especially in the early stages. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel – the day will come when you can look back on the memory of your horse with fond remembrance, rather than with pain, but the way in which you grieve and how long you need to feel like yourself again is personal to you.
The grieving process
Although grief doesn’t follow a linear pattern and everyone reacts differently to loss, it can help to familiarise yourself with the five stages of the grieving process. You may experience some or all of these, and not necessarily in this order, but knowing that there’s a root cause for the plethora of emotions and that they’re normal can help you find your feet in the bereavement process.
Denial is often the first reaction to grief. You may experience it after your horse passes as an internal insistence that ‘this can’t be happening’, or you may feel it pre-emptively if he’s suffering from an illness or injury that forces you to make the final call. Denial is an emotional defence mechanism that’s used by your subconscious to block out the initial pain of grief, allowing you to process it.
Anger is how the first real waves of grief are usually expressed. Once the denial phase ends and the pain of grieving begins to break through, you may find yourself lashing out at friends or family, feeling angry at yourself, or resenting your horse for leaving you or the vet for not saving him. This is often cyclical – anger will be followed by guilt, which will turn back into anger.
Bargaining is how your subconscious deals with circumstances beyond your control. It may manifest itself as ‘what if’ and ‘if only’ thoughts – ‘if only I’d spotted the problem sooner’, ‘what if I’d done something differently’, ‘if only the circumstances had been different’. Or, if you’re coming to this point in the grieving process prior to your horse being put down, you may find yourself trying to make deals in your head, such as “if my horse gets better, I won’t get frustrated with him anymore when he misbehaves.”
Depression is the emotion most commonly associated with the grieving process. It can appear in a variety of ways – you may feel worried and regretful about the practicalities and costs related to the loss of your horse, if you own more than one horse you may worry that you’ve neglected the others while processing your loss, or you may feel as though your life is empty or lacking in meaning without your horse. Even just getting out of bed in the morning may be a struggle and you might think you won’t ever feel happy again.
Acceptance isn’t a miracle cure that will suddenly make you feel alright about what’s happened, but rather the recognition that life without your horse is the reality now. Accepting the truth means that you can start to be proactive again – you may think about reintroducing riding into your life or, if you own more than one horse, you may take steps to adjust your remaining horse’s routine so that he can cope with the loss of his companion. The positive steps you take during this stage will help you to get back on terra firma and allow you to be happy again.
The weight of responsibility
The loss of your horse can come with complicated emotions unique to animal bereavement. If you’ve made the hard decision to put him to sleep, your grieving process may start from the moment the call is made. You may feel guilty or angry at your self, or worry that you’ve made the wrong choice. These feelings are normal and it can often help to chat with your vet to help mitigate the idea that you could have done something differently.
Grief isn’t a finite emotion, which means that you won’t reach a point where you forget or no longer miss your horse. Instead, the healing process lets you eventually take the positives – the wonderful memories and happiness he gave you – and move forward unencumbered by the pain of grieving.
When you’ve reached this stage, it can be cathartic to find a way to memorialise your beloved horse. This may be a private homage, such as commissioning a portrait or having a piece of jewellery made, or it can be something that other people can share in, such as sponsoring a perpetual trophy in his name at a favourite show.
Find out more about how to cope with the heartache of losing your horse in the September issue of Horse&Rider, on sale 27 July 2017.