I've said it so many times and it’s beginning to sound like a cliche, but whether you consider yourself an equestrian or a horseman–the loss of a beloved equine friend can be one of the most distressing events in a horse owner’s life. Regardless of riding discipline or lifestyle, we all have something in common when it comes to the loss of a horse. It’s called grief.
According to Doris Worchester, a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker and Certified Cognitive Behavioral Therapist who specializes in performance coaching for equestrian clients, “the bereavement process will be influenced by many factors: the nature of your relationship with your horse, the length of time you were together, your age, your horse’s age, the circumstances surrounding the loss (sudden death or euthanasia, retirement, sale), the meaning and significance you ascribe to the relationship, cultural norms and your personal beliefs about death. All of these factors will play some role in how you experience grief and resolve your loss.”
My reading on the subject has taught me there are stages of grief, a kind of structure or set of responses including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. My personal experience with horse loss and grief has shown me we encounter these responses in non-linear fashion.
David Kessler, one of the most well-known experts and lecturers on grief and loss, co-authored two best sellers with the legendary Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: On Grief and Grieving and Life Lessons. An article, “The Five Stages of Grief,” on Kessler’s website states, “They [the stages] are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or in a prescribed order. Our hope is that with these stages comes the knowledge of grief ‘s terrain, making us better equipped to cope with life and loss.”
In many cases we experience these responses because we’re focused upon a loss in the past, but sometimes we occupy ourselves with the impending loss of a horse. And in these cases, it can be said we are experiencing anticipatory grief. According to Kessler, “Anticipatory grief is generally more silent than grief after a loss. We are often not as verbal. It’s a grief we keep to ourselves.”
When I lost my horse Skip On A Star, the stages lasted sometimes for minutes and at other times for hours. I flipped in and out of one, and then another, and then back again to the first one.
Denial – Within moments of giving our vet permission to proceed with the euthanasia, I experienced what I can only describe as shock. I went numb and small tasks became overwhelming. My work seemed meaningless and I just wanted to get from one appointment to the next. As I dragged myself through the day, I started to ask myself questions and all the feelings I was denying begin to surface. And chief among them was anger.
Anger – I began to feel feel anger and it seemed endless. There were many other emotions in play, but anger is the emotion I remember the most. I blamed our veterinarian for not doing more to save my horse. The truth is my anger had no limits, as it extended not only to our vet, but also to me. I blamed myself for overfeeding my horse. This anger was soon joined by guilt and a bizarre negotiation ensued.
Bargaining – I wanted to go back in time and recognize the colic symptoms more quickly. I soon become lost in daydreams about “If only I had fed her less” and “What if I had done a final welfare check the night before.” These daydreams caused me to find fault in myself and what I thought I could have done differently. When I realized what I was doing, I returned to the present and was left in a fog of sadness.
Depression – After bargaining, I withdrew from our remaining horses. I didn’t want to spend time with them. I hired someone to clean the stalls and hurried through feeding time, ignoring their basic needs of daily hoof care and grooming. I experienced an intense feeling of longing for my horse, recalling our camping trips, trail rides, and other happy times together.
Acceptance – I don’t think I’ll ever feel better about the loss of my horse. I’ve accepted the reality that she is physically gone and I realize the situation is permanent. I don’t like it, but I accept it and I’ve learned to learn to live with it. I can never replace Skip On A Star, but I’ve made a connection with a new horse. I’m investing in our friendship and in my relationship with our other horses.
I managed to move on. I eventually settled into my old routines and developed some new ones. My life resumed with a semblance of order. Although I was saddened by the loss of my horse, I was no longer held hostage by my emotions. I was resilient. However, some horse owners remain depressed for long periods of time—developing what’s called “complicated grief.”
In my work operating a large animal removal service, I’m often surprised when negligent owners mourn the loss of their horse. Conversely, some of the most conscientious equestrians seem to transcend despair and distress altogether. Why do some people recover more quickly than others?
A pilot study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, demonstrates how some bereaved individuals are able to overcome grief. But more importantly, the more resilient mourners have something in common. Following a loss, they engaged in what Harvard Business School researchers Michael I. Norton and Francesca Gino have called “rituals.” Results of the study suggest that performing rituals reduces the severity of grief by improving feelings of control that often decline with loss. Here are five personal rituals that may help you cope with the loss of your horse:
Create A Ceremony – Conduct a funeral or memorial service upon your horse’s death. You may wish to invite family members, friends and acquaintances who know your equine companion. I’ve attended a few of these ceremonies and have found them to be extremely positive, providing comfort for the bereaved during a difficult time.
Write About Your Loss – In my work, I come in contact with people who are suffering from the loss of a beloved equine friend. After looking through the their comments on my facebook page, it occurred to me that writing about the loss of a horse may very well be the key to acceptance.
Preserve Memories With A Keepsake – When my horse died unexpectedly, I collected her tack, keeping it with me as a treasured remembrance, inspiring me to write a poem about her black leather bridle. Many of my clients find comfort in a custom horsehair keepsake, while others turn to online resources, preserving memories with a photo book.
Create A Lasting Memorial – Pet cemeteries offer equestrians a place to lay their horse to rest and somewhere to go and remember them. Others prefer equine cremation and may keep their horse’s ashes in an urn as a remembrance. For horse owners who are unable to afford private equine cremation or burial in a pet cemetery, the Internet offers online memorials and other ways to create a fitting memorial for your horse.
Donate To Charity – Honor your equine friend by donating to charity in his memory. It's a meaningful way to pay tribute and show how he lives on in your heart. A memorial gift to The Humane Society of the United States is a personal remembrance that honors the life of your horse. And a pet memorial donation to the Helen Woodward Animal Center helps provide for pets in need. With a memorial donation of $100 or more, you may add a personalized gold leaf to their beautiful Tree of Life mural in memory of your beloved equine companion.
The five stages of grief, is a series of responses experienced when faced with loss. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The model was first introduced by Swiss-American Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, and was inspired by her work with terminally ill patients. The stages aren’t meant to be a complete list of all possible responses, and they can occur in any order. And while we all tend to deal with grief in different ways, research suggests personal rituals can help you deal with grief. As horse people, we can’t travel back in time and change what has happened. However, we may–by performing our own equine-specific rituals–recover more quickly and be inspired during this difficult transition.
Gatto, Kimberly. (2005) Beyond the Rainbow Bridge: A Thoughtful Guide for Coping with the Loss of a Horse. Boonsboro: Half Halt Press.
Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. (2005) On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss. Simon & Schuster Ltd.
Norton, Michael I., and Francesca Gino. "Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers, and Lotteries." Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 143, no. 1 (February 2014): 266–272.
Pavia, Audrey. & Gentry-Running, Kate. (2008) Horse Health & Nutrition for Dummies. Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing, Inc.
Smith, Emily. (2014) “In Grief, Try Personal Rituals.” The Atlantic. Retrieved 05/10/14 from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/03/in-grief-try-personal-rituals/284397/
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