Trying To Move Forward After The Loss of A Horse

Last post, I announced the death of my 27-year-old horse, Bear. After seventeen years with him, I must say it is strange and sad to come out my back door every morning and not hear his nicker or see his face.

One thing about horses, though, is that routines must go on. I still have Shiloh and Piper (pictured above) to care for.

I still need to feed, water, muck, groom, etc . . . The grass still grows, and I still need to mow it. Still.

It is hard to do when you are mourning. This getting on with life. Yet it is also comforting. Sometimes just putting one foot in front of the other, even if your heart isn’t quite in it, is good medicine.

Whenever a horse dies, I always wonder about how my remaining horses will cope with the changes. And I have a process that I go through with them, starting with allowing them to view the body of their former companion.

I’ve witnessed everything from a horse being indifferent to curious to scared in these situations. Some horses will not want to approach. Others will walk right up and muffle the body with interest.

I use a lunge line or extra long lead rope so that if they don’t want to get close, they don’t have to. I will go up and touch the body so as to imply it is safe to approach, but I won’t demand that they do so.

In most cases, they usually end up grazing somewhere near the body. I’ll give them a minute to do that and then take them back to their paddock.

My purpose is to give the horses a chance to absorb what happened. I don’t really know what a horse is thinking/understands in these situations, but I’d rather let them have this experience than not.

I’m always so focused on the horse being euthanized that I’m never sure of what my remaining horses have seen of the process. I personally feel like showing them the body helps them settle.

In this recent case after Bear’s death, Piper was more bold in approaching Bear than Shiloh was, but they were both somewhat alarmed. Piper briefly hovered and sniffed but Shiloh keep his distance and just grazed.

Back in the paddock, I noticed for the first 24 hours or so that Piper and Shiloh stayed in closer physical proximity than usual. Piper normally maintains a wide personal bubble, but I saw that he allowed Shiloh to stand quite close to him as they took standing naps. Within a couple of days though, Piper was back to shooing Shiloh out of his space.

The next issue I generally tackle is getting the remaining horses gradually used to being separated, especially if I only have two horses left. I know that the downside to keeping just two horses is that they can get quite attached.

They can become so anxiety ridden at being separated that they can become difficult to handle and/or impossible to ride. This has big safety issues for me and welfare implications for them.

I can’t make a horse not feel anxious, but I can show a horse through consistent handling that a separation is not necessarily permanent. The left behind horse can develop the expectation that the other horse will return.

The first day I took Shiloh out for a ride after Bear’s death, I decided to turn Piper out in our north pasture but without a grazing muzzle to provide a distraction. Unfortunately, Piper still displayed major signs of anxiety and frustration at the situation (running around while whinnying, pacing, pooping, head twirling and bucking).

I guided Shiloh in and out of our round pen and around our barn area so we could appear and disappear repeatedly from Piper’s view. I wanted Piper to see again and again that when we’d go away, we would also come back. After about 20 minutes of chaos, Piper finally settled enough to graze.

Here is a sample video of what Piper was doing during that ride (my husband acted as the resident media taker on this day):

To Shiloh’s credit, despite Piper’s behavior, Shiloh never did anything worse than raising his head on occasion. He never answered Piper back or became otherwise difficult to ride.

But I found Piper’s behavior worrisome and distracting. I felt bad for him and bad for myself as I was still quite emotionally exhausted from Bear’s death. The ride was kind of a wash.

I just let Shiloh plod around, going in and out of the round pen and circling around the outbuildings. Nevertheless, it was an important first step in trying to move forward, and you know, do something other than cry every time I came outside to see my horses.

Shiloh did finally got the chance to cut loose after our ride though. Piper was sweaty and lathered from feeling upset and running around. I wanted to hose him down to lower his temperature and get the sticky out of his coat. While I gave Piper his shower, my husband released Shiloh back into the paddock.

I could see out of the corner of my eye that Shiloh had a good roll in the dirt not long after my husband took off the halter. After Shiloh scratched his back in the dirt, Shiloh jumped up off the ground quickly. Seeing the gate to the north pasture was still open, he cantered off with great glee towards the grass.

At the start of the following clip, you can see Shiloh in the background, running happily past Piper and me. That was the only part caught on video. The whole thing struck both my husband and me as comical. It was a needed moment of levity in an otherwise sad and tense experience.

I was also pleased that Piper didn’t try to pull away from me when he saw Shiloh zooming off. I’ve found that usually the horse that is being handled/ridden is calmer than the horse in the paddock/pasture. But not always. I’ve had some horses really act up when being led away from their pasture mate for the first time.

A few days later, my next ride went much better. I again gave Piper the opportunity to graze again in our north pasture without his muzzle while I rode Shiloh. But this time I rode in their paddock area just for a change of pace.

After I climbed up on Shiloh, Piper whinnied once and pushed on the paddock gate with his chest, but then went to grazing. He stayed right near the gate and would occasionally pop his head over the fence to intently watch Shiloh. But Piper didn’t pace or run around or even break a sweat this time. Progress.

Shiloh was quiet to ride as usual. We practiced doing figures around cones to give us something to focus on other than Piper. I was mentally able to ride with more concentration. In response, Shiloh was able to carry himself with more life as we practiced gaiting while doing large circles.

For our third try at separating to ride, I left Piper to hang out in the paddock while I took Shiloh to our South pasture. It was about 55 degrees and super windy. Really not the best riding day. So I opted to stay closer to their paddock area rather than stroll around the edge of the fence line like I often do.

While Shiloh and I got in some more practice doing figures in the middle of the pasture, Piper stayed by his hay, happily munching away. More progress.

Going forward, I hope to keep repeating much of the same. Winter is around the corner, but even when I’m not riding at home, I can take each horse out individually for hand walks to keep these brief separations within their routine.

It’s all part of restoring some sense of peace and normalcy for the horses and me after Bear’s death, even as I am still mourning him and still adjusting to the change of not having him in my backyard. Still.

7 thoughts on “Trying To Move Forward After The Loss of A Horse

  1. Hello, I read your previous post about losing Bear and didn’t have a chance to give you my condolences. I can’t relate on the horse level but as a dog owner I do. I rode as a child on rented ponies and always thought I’d have a horse someday. Reading your posts is my next best thing and I thank you and hope your heart is eased as the days go by and as you work with your other beloveds. I love reading about your approach with them all. With Sincere Sympathy, Mary

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Aww, my heart goes out to you and your sweet ponies. You definitely made progress with the separation anxiety! YAY!! And I’m so happy you have this time to get some riding in before winter sets in as even though you are very sad I think the connection and wonderful time spent with your horses is healing for your soul. I know you will gain back a nice routine and your horses will be fine too. Sending big HUGS your way and here are some carrots for Shiloh and Piper! ❤️🐴🥕🥕🥕🥕

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Shiloh and Piper send their thanks for the carrots! 🙂 It’s a weird time for all of us, I think. Bear was a little horse (14.1), but he took up big space in my life. There’s just a different feel to everything now, but that’s a part of the grief. I’m thankful to still have two horses in my life and the opportunity to ride. Hopefully we’ll continue to make progress with the separating, and both horses can remain settled even when they are apart. Thank you for reading and commenting, Diana!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I do know that is a good idea to allow horse companions to see the departed horse and realize they are dead. Separation anxiety is a difficult one to deal with and I think it sounds like you are doing a good job with your horses.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for saying so. That separation anxiety really can be a beast of an issue to tackle. I remember when I just had Bear and a foster mare from a local rescue. She never did really like my taking Bear out to ride. There was always at least some calling, running or pacing, though the amount and duration varied, even when I rode right across the fence line and within her view. Bear never paid attention to her, but it was difficult for me to know she was upset. As it turns out, Bear ended up being retired from riding during the year timeframe that I fostered her. That probably made her pretty happy!

      Liked by 2 people

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