If you’ve come to The Ralph Site because you’re grieving the loss of a much-loved horse or your horse is nearing the end of their days, then please accept our deepest sympathy and support.
The worst news
According to research by Advancing Equine Scientific Excellence (AESE) only nine percent of horses in the UK die from natural causes. More often, horses pass as the result of a tragic accident or because of an illness or old age leading to a deterioration in their quality of life.
This means that you may be facing or have recently faced the heart-breaking decision to have your companion put to sleep (known as euthanasia). Many animal lovers struggle with the weight and responsibility of this decision.
A friend for all seasons
The death of a horse can be hard to process. After all, a healthy horse can live for 25 to 30 years, which means that your equine companion may have been with you for half of your life or more.
With a lifespan that long, it’s easy to imagine a horse will be by your side forever until the tragic days comes when suddenly they are not there anymore.
Horses often see their carers from childhood into adulthood or watch the seasons of their life unfold – a constant, loving companion through every high and low.
A bond over many years
As you know from experience, a horse is very much a member of your family. You may have spent years together building an unbreakable bond, while investing emotionally, physically and financially in your friend.
For most people who care for a horse, their companion shapes their lifestyle. You may be used to visiting the stable before and after work and spending hours of your leisure time riding and training.
Perhaps you competed with your horse, travelling the country together, or your horse kept you mentally and physically fit.
The chances are that your friends have horses too and that much of your social life revolves around the stables.
Your sense of loss will naturally be deepened by the huge change to your lifestyle that has been caused by your bereavement.
A disenfranchised grief
We talk about disenfranchised grief quite a lot on The Ralph Site because it is something most pet carers have to wrestle with. Unfortunately, our society doesn’t always recognise how devastating the loss of a pet can be, whatever their shape or size.
Many people feel there is some sympathy for people who lose a dog or cat (although this isn’t always borne out experience), but that small animals or larger animals such as ponies or horses pass away unnoticed.
Too often, grieving pet carers hear comments like “It’s only a horse”, “You’re not still upset, are you?” or “You can always get another one”, which can add to the sense of disenfranchisement and, indeed, of isolation and loneliness.
People often feel embarrassed about their grief as a result of societal attitudes – “I should feel better by now” or “I don’t know why I’m so upset” – but, in reality, there is no timeline for feeling better or scale for how upset you should be.
Your horse mattered and your grief matters too. It would be strange to spend years with such a close bond and not feel a massive sense of loss.
Be kind to yourself
However long it’s been since your bereavement, it’s important that you’re kind to yourself. If a friend experienced this loss, what would you say or do to support them? This is the kindness you need to show to yourself.
If the bereavement has just happened, you may be facing tough decisions about where or how to lay your horse to rest. Try to talk through your options – your vet, the stable owners and/or the other horse carers at the stable may be able to offer advice and recommendations.
Another milestone for horse carers is having to pack up a horse’s stable and belongings; if the stable is rented, there may be some urgency to this. It can be tempting to ask a friend to pack everything up on your behalf but many people who have lost a beloved horse say this task actually helped them deal with the grieving process.
If your life extensively revolved around your horse – and what loving horse carer’s doesn’t?! – then you may be waging an internal war about if and when it would be right to get another horse.
People who are passionate about horses often say that being part of the equine community is in their blood. It can be very confusing to know what to do next.
Give yourself time
If you can, try to give yourself time to grieve before you make any decisions. We appreciate that this can be hard for people who compete professionally on the equine circuit but, for most people, there isn’t a deadline on making any decisions about the future.
Try to speak to supportive friends and family about your grief. Have any of your friends at the stables lost a horse before? Perhaps they will be willing to offer you a listening ear.
If you’re finding it hard to talk about your loss, you could keep a diary of your thoughts and feelings or write a letter to your equine companion about your grief or what they meant to you.
Some horse carers find it helpful to volunteer at their local stable or horse rescue centre. This is a positive way of maintaining some of the aspects of the life you enjoyed with your horse while giving you the space to mourn their loss.
If this is too hard for you at the moment, you might get comfort from fundraising for a local horse charity or making a small monthly donation. Some people donate some of their horse’s belongings to a local charity, gaining comfort from knowing that the belongings will be used and enjoyed by another horse.
There’s no right or wrong, only what feels right for you.
Friends at the End
In case you’re not already aware, The British Horse Society has a voluntary service known as ‘Friends at the End’.
If you’re facing decisions about your horse’s end of life care or euthanasia or you’re struggling with an equine bereavement, this service is available for you.
‘Friends at the End’ volunteers are all experienced horse carers who can offer support and advice. It may even be possible to arrange for a volunteer to be with you when your horse passes so that you’re not alone. Some volunteers have held horses in their final moments if their companions don’t feel able to.
Every volunteer has received training in bereavement counselling.
You can find more information about this invaluable service at: http://www.bhs.org.uk/our-work/welfare/our-campaigns/friends-at-the-end
Bereavement counselling and support
If your horse has already passed away, whether it was hours or years ago, support is still available through a variety of sources.
The Blue Cross has a fantastic pet bereavement counselling service – you can call between 8.30am and 8.30pm on 0800 096 6606 if you need to talk to someone (or visit https://www.bluecross.org.uk/pet-bereavement-and-pet-loss for more information).
The Ralph Site is also here to support you. Our private Facebook pet loss support group has an active community of bereaved pet carers who support and encourage one another through the best and worst of times.
Some words of comfort
While writing this blog, we found some beautiful words of comfort for bereaved horse owners. This quote stood out:
"Somewhere...somewhere in time's own space
There must be some sweet pastured place
Where creeks sing on and tall trees grow
Some Paradise where horses go.
For by the love that guides my pen
I know great horses live again."
- Stanley Harrison
Whatever your beliefs, your horse lives on in the memories you made together. Many pet carers find comfort in this with time.
Until then, know that you’re not alone.
Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support