Fliss Gillott answers:
Losing a horse or pony can be immeasurably painful and difficult to come to terms with. Until you have been through the experience, it is impossible to imagine how hard it can be to adjust to the loss. Although they do not share our lives in the same close way as a cat or dog, a horse draws on every ounce of your being – physical, mental and emotional.
For an animal big enough and powerful enough to inflict serious physical injury on any one of us, to give the trust, companionship and compliance that a horse can give, is nothing short of a gift. We take responsibility for their welfare and their lives, and put our lives in their care whenever we are around them. We take this so much for granted that often, it isn’t until we lose one that the full impact of that relationship really hits home.
Grief is a strange emotion – one day you can feel fine and believe you are moving on, then another day, the sadness comes flooding back. There is such a range of other emotions that ride on the back of that sadness, including guilt and anger, which can be just as difficult to come to terms with.
However, the sadness you feel is just a reflection of how much you gained from life when that pony was with you. It is just as true of losing a pony as a friend or a family member, that in time you will be able to celebrate the life of that pony, rather than suffer the ongoing agony of the loss.
The first year is the hardest, as there will always be a succession of ‘anniversaries’ or significant events that shaped the life of your pony. Once you have got past the awfulness of what to do with rugs and tack and so on, there are those days when spring is in the air and you’ll remember the excitement of spring turnout. Or perhaps it is an annual show that you always went to or the start of the event season. Maybe it is something as simple as a particular plant starting to grow that your pony especially loved to eat.
The first time that each of these markers comes round is always the hardest, as each one acts as an emotional trigger. This does get easier after the first year has passed, when you will see these moments as time to reflect with pleasure, rather than going through the pain all over again.
Earlier on, I mentioned guilt and anger as part of the complex emotions that come with grieving. It is very unusual to lose a horse or pony and be able to have no regrets at all regarding how they departed. We often fantasise about how lovely it would be for them to pass away in their sleep after a happy retirement, but this rarely happens. For those of us who have to make the decision to say that the time has come, there is the guilt of having been responsible for bringing the end to fruition and we can be left wondering if we did the right thing.
Did your pony really want to go? Had he had enough? Would it really have got worse if he had been left to battle on? There is one big difference between horses and cats and dogs that I think has to influence that final decision, and be a part of our coming to terms with the outcome. They are the hunted, not the hunters.
A weak, injured or sick horse knows its time has come. Once it has become incapable of using any of its natural instincts for survival – sharp sight and hearing, combined with the ability to run – it’s game over.
The final gift…
By becoming a part of that process, we ensure that the end is painless and without fear. This is the final gift we can give them and while I’d never suggest taking the decision lightly, it needs to be a consideration in how and when we take that decision.
I’ve shared my life with horses and had to make that choice more often than I care to remember. It never gets any easier at the time, but I can console myself with the knowledge that if I make the decision for the horse I know better than anyone else does, I will have done what I truly believe is right for that horse. This makes it easier to get past the prolonged guilt, anger or grief and to feel some small joy in having helped to the end.
Although it is impossible to replace a lost pony (there never will be two the same!), the experience you gain from ownership can be put to good use in providing a home for another. Even if you decide to call it a day and not replace one that has gone, nothing can take away the memories you have and the richness that a horse or pony brings to your life. Any future contact you have with equines will be coloured by that experience. It is a privilege which even now, not many people can enjoy, but you have.
Time to reflect
If you feel you got some things wrong, the time of grieving will also become a time to reflect, so that any guilt you feel will go towards doing even better with the next pony. You may be angry with yourself or someone else for things that happened to your pony, but again, it is through making mistakes that we learn and none of us can get it right all the time.
The fact that you’re still so sad after almost a year, tells me that you had a very special relationship with your pony. Would you have missed a single day not to feel the way you do now? I didn’t think so!