Losing a Herd Member
No one likes to think about losing a horse, but it’s something we all must deal with at some point. As some of you already know, I lost my oldest mare, Kady, about a week and a half ago. She was thirty-three.
Kady became suddenly ill, and by the second day, she was progressively going downhill. We chose to ease her suffering with euthanasia. When the time was near, I kept my other horses in the barn to help put her at ease. It’s hard to explain, but there was a subdued feeling in the air that evening. They seemed to understand that something important was going on. After the vet came to help Kady pass over the rainbow bridge, I led each of my horses out to where she lay behind the barn. It was dark by this time, and they didn’t seem to see her right away, instead grazing on the new green grass in that area. But after a few seconds, they became aware of her body. Lee Lee even became startled. After several sniffs, they resumed grazing. It was odd–I thought they might be more upset, but they didn’t appear to be. But then again, none of them had been overly bonded with Kady.
My husband buried her that night, and the horses watched her body being carried away. The next day, I noticed them standing at the fence, looking out toward the meadow where we buried her. It was heartbreaking to watch, but within a couple days, this behavior stopped and now things have returned to normal for the most part. I’ve caught McCoy (who often eats in the stall next to Kady’s) looking toward her stall at feeding time on occasion, but they seem to understand she’s gone.
As horse parents, we often focus on what the horse meant to us and our own loss, but it’s important to also consider our other horses. They’re losing a member of their herd, after all. I’ve tried to be more cognizant of that this time around.
It’s quite obvious that some horses grieve when they lose a pasture mate or herd member. Vocalization, pacing, lethargy, refusal to eat, or even excessive spookiness are all outward signs of grieving, but horses may also grieve inwardly which can still affect their health.
Grief is normal after the death of a herd member, but here are a few tips to help your horses better cope with the loss:
- Allow your horses to view and sniff the deceased horse. Many people want to protect their horses from the trauma of seeing the deceased herd member, but it may actually help them process the loss if they can see the body and have a chance to understand what has happened.
- Use acupressure to help horses process their grief. Emotions play a large factor in health, and grieving over an extended period of time will weaken the immune system. Support your horses by using these acupressure points:
- Use essential oils such as lavender, lemon, chamomile, or marjoram to help support a grieving horse.
- Give your horses extra attention in the weeks following the loss of a herd member. I’ve checked on my remaining three more often and spend a little extra time petting them at feeding times now. This has helped all of us, I believe.
- Make sure no horse has to be completely alone. A while back, I kept my horses separated with two in one pasture and three in the other. When I lost one of the two that were together, I immediately put the remaining horse with my others. This can be difficult to do in some cases, but horses are prone to anxiety and/or depression especially after the death of their only pasture mate. If you have an older horse whose time is coming soon, it’s even a good idea to introduce a third horse before the death. If you can’t have another horse, consider a companion animal such as a goat.
Although the focus of this post has been the death of a herd member, remember that horses may experience the same grief process if a herd member is moved or sold. The same tips above can still be used in those instances as well.
Sources and Further Reading