The Trafalgar Square Books offices are located on a Vermont farm. We recognize ourselves as pretty lucky, seeing as in between meetings and calls with authors we can look out the windows and see both horses and Highland Cattle grazing in the green fields that slope up from the barn where our books and DVDs are warehoused toward the treeline in the distance. There is something about seeing, hearing, and breathing horses throughout each work day that is integral to our mission of publishing books “for the good of the horse.”
A few equine members of the “TSB herd” are boarders, a few are training projects and in active work, and then there are a number of “retirees” that are allowed the freedom to roam, pretty much as they wish, in quiet companionship. The horses begin and end their days close to the barn, with paddocks and run-ins directly below our office windows, so we all form relationships of proximity with them—and we know their habits and rituals. We watch them eat breakfast and wander down to the stream for a drink. We see them play in the snow and nap in the sun. We notice how they relate to their pasturemates, the naughty pony, the cranky geese. We think of them all with affection, even though they are not ours to ride, train, or care for.
This past spring, we experienced a farm event that was profoundly moving; one that brought us all together, inspiring discussion and bringing questions to the fore that we had not yet dealt with directly as a collective group.
One morning, the barn manager arrived early in the morning to do chores and found one of the “old fellas,” a Quarter Horse gelding thought to be near 30 years old, in his pasture, unable to move and clearly in severe pain. The veterinarian was immediately called, and upon her arrival she determined the horse had broken his shoulder somehow during the night—a catastrophic accident without obvious cause. The decision was made to euthanize him without delay.
The gelding had long been turned out with two other pensioners, as had been arranged by a charitable owner. All three retirees had lived together contentedly as a small herd with little human interference for a number of years. As the veterinarian attended to the stricken gelding, one of his pasturemates startled her by coming over and lying down beside them, facing the injured horse, and remaining there as the old Quarter Horse took his last breaths. It was uncharacteristic of the companion to approach his pasturemate in such a fashion, and it was especially unusual, seeing as three people were present during the procedure.
The gelding’s owner wished to come say goodbye before his burial, so his body was not moved right away. Remarkably, the companion by his side remained, and when he did rise, it was only to change position before lying down beside his fallen comrade once again. The third horse in their little herd had also joined them, standing nearby, quietly, for quite some time.
The barn manager took a photograph of the scene, not to be macabre but to share what appears to us, at least by our human interpretation, to be the dead horse’s herd holding vigil over a friend’s body.
We are all horse people at Trafalgar Square Books, and as we are learning more about horses as sentient beings and the necessity of ensuring that compassion underlies all that we do with them, this incident moved us all distinctly. We discussed it with each other, and in relation to our own horses, and how the event might affect decisions we make on and around horses in the future. We also shared it with a number of our authors, asking for their thoughts and insight.
“Personally, I feel that we have gone to an extreme with our fear of ‘anthropomorphizing’ human behaviors onto animals,” said Dr. Allen Schoen, who recently co-authored THE COMPASSIONATE EQUESTRIAN with Susan Gordon. “The more we understand the commonality of neuroscience between species, especially mammalian species, the more we can appreciate that animals do grieve in their own way. I have seen this many times personally and have discussed this in my other books Love, Miracles and Animal Healing and Kindred Spirits. We see evidence of this in elephants and many other species. I have seen it in geese, sitting by the side of the road next to their mates who had been killed by a car. I feel it is time that we honor the sentience, the awareness, the consciousness of horses, and their awareness and sensitivity to the death of their companions, as well.”
“Horses use their entire bodies to communicate with each other,” explained Sharon Wilsie, co-author of HORSE SPEAK with Gretchen Vogel. “During the course of a day there are several primary conversations that they may have with each other when out in a herd. One of their favorite conversations is simply called, ‘sharing space.’ To our eyes horses who are sharing space together may seem to be doing nothing more than dozing in the sun or standing around doing nothing. However, once you understand the significance of sharing space you will begin to see the inherent bonding and peacefulness that they are participating in at that moment. When a herd member passes away, sharing space with the departed is the most affectionate and connecting conversation that the living can have, not only with the one who has passed away, but also with each other and inside themselves.
“Although we can only guess at what grief may feel like for a horse it is easy to feel the power of their hearts as they stand guard over the grave of a loved one. Those of us who have been around animals long enough will probably have experienced a horse lingering near the burial site of one who has crossed over that rainbow bridge. Unlike humans who can easily find distraction from our emotional pain, horses live in the present moment and experience the fullness of all of life, including the passing of another that might have been special to them.
“Living in the moment is not always easy for us,” says Sharon. “Perhaps that is why being with horses can feel so healing to our minds, hearts, and souls. Taking a page from their book of life may do us some good in facing what can be a very sad time for us. We, too, can mourn with the dignity, grace, and fullness that horses demonstrate so flawlessly.”
–Rebecca Didier, Senior Editor
14 responses to “How One Horse Says Goodbye to Another, and What We Can Learn from It”
I, too, have witnessed profound behaviours from horses in the grieving process. One of the most remarkable scenarios involved the apparent pre-cognition of a small herd of aged horses. An old school horse had been brought into a paddock earlier in the day, experiencing a bout of colic. The veterinarian had attended to him quickly, and he seemed fine. I was in the riding arena that afternoon, facing the paddocks while talking to another rider. I noticed a procession of the old horses walking nose-to-tail down the long, narrow pasture. I thought they were all heading to the automatic watering bowl stationed along the fence line. All of a sudden, Charlie, the bay gelding that had been ill earlier dropped to the ground and began convulsing. By this time, the other horses had lined up along the fence, not interested in the water at all, but focused intensely on the severely distressed pasture-mate. I ran to get the stable’s owner and have him make an emergency call to the veterinarian. But it was too late. By the time we returned to the paddocks, the old, sweet gelding had taken his final breath. I was stunned at the series of events I’d just witnessed. How did the other horses know what was going to happen to Charlie? It seemed surreal. Yet, I have been privileged to witness grieving behaviours in horses and other animals time and time again. They humble us. And they make us more human, while not being “human” at all themselves.
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My husband and I are new in the horse of horses…just the last 6 years….but we too witnessed something similar. Two years ago, my senior and alpha (26) coliced and after nearly 2 days with vet, etc., we realized that we must make a sad decision. Dandy had sedatives to ease his pain until the vet could get there. Before giving Dandy his shot to let him down, the other three horses all came in the dark and each came up to him as if they knew to say a final goodby. Patti, the pony was the last to come to Dandy, and give him a special touch on his face and then walked away in the dark. It was heart wrenching. He dropped and lay down as if he were sleeping. We covered his body for burial first thing the next morning. we kept the other three in over night, we brought each of the others to him individually and wanted them to be aware of his passing. The two geldings wanted no part of it…..I could only get them 3 feet of Dandy’s body. The smell of death was too much for them. But when I brought Patti, Dandy’s soulmate and protector, to him, she was not afraid, but went right up his body and touched his face so delicately for her final goodbye. I will never forget that moment as long as I live. I will always miss that throw away, starved, pathetic broken down rescue Black Tennessee Walker that a became the alpha, leader, protector, motivator, guard, velvety coat and will always hear his hoof beats on the sod of that pasture. RIP my sweet Dandy…..you will always be in my heart.
Linda, thank you for sharing your story with such honest sentiment.
A wonderful couple in SE Oklahoma run an equine sanctuary called the Triple O Ranch Equine Sanctuary. My husband and I spend time there when possible. A few years ago we were on our way to visit and heard that one of the TB mares that was part of a three mare herd hadn’t come back one evening with her mates. We offered to help them look for her as the property covers 160 acres of pasture and heavy woods. With several other volunteers, we found her in the wooded area and she had passed away. Because of the terrain, we were unable to take her down to the cemetery right away so after saying a prayer over her and saying our goodbyes we walked down the hill through the woods to the main pasture. What happened next amazed me and filled my heart. Every horse on the property that was able came from every corner of that property to greet us as we came out of the woods. The surrounded us and nuzzled us gently and softly. They wanted physical contact with us as if to share the awareness that Willow had been found and she had passed. The only dissension happened when a horse was trying to get close and another was in the way. There were close to 30 horses around us and one little donkey. I was overwhelmed by the emotion and ackowledgment shared by these amazing creatures. Our friends told us that whenever an animal passed away, the other horses always followed them to the cemetery to attend at the burial. I felt honored.
Suzanne, thank you for giving us all a glimpse of what happened at the Triple O Ranch Equine Sanctuary. What a profoundly emotional experience it must have been, to be welcomed in and included by the herd after the sad passing of one of their friends.
I am lucky enough to have not had to deal with the death of my horses (yet), but we have our Palomino who colics on a semi-regular basis, with drastic weather shifts. It always amazes me how her best friend in our herd of 4 never leaves her side…even when we humans are doing what we can to help her, her bff is right there.
In fact, Sable’s (our Palomino) last bout went on long enough that she was exhausted and just layed down. Well, after discussing it with the vet, we just let her be, because she wasn’t trying roll, it was just clear she was tired.
The vet says to me, “Don’t you rub her back when she’s colicky? Try it now…safely of course”
So, in I go, and I’m rubbing her back, and directing the pressure from withers down to her bum, when I feel breath on my neck. I look to the side and see Sable’s pal, Astrid, standing next to me, head over us both…my first thought was “I’m screwed if anyone spooks!” and then, I realized, Astrid was lending her support to Sable. It was like she was saying “I’m here. You’re going to be okay. Mama always fixes your upset tummy.”
After things resolved and our Sable was all better, I watched the 2 of them graze in the pasture together, and marveled at the bond they have.
It’s a beautiful thing, and I’m Blessed to have seen/felt it first hand.
Thank you for sharing this experience–how wonderful you are such a supportive friend to Sable and that Astrid knows that you are truly part of their herd.
My boys, my first two rescues, we’re an Appy with cancer in his sheath, and a morgan with with navicular. The Appt was blind and hundreds of pound underweight. We knew that he did not have long of this earth, but floated his teeth, did his hooves, and feed him til he was back up to weight. Our vet let us know that had would be comfortable for about 6 months to a year, and then due to the growth in his groin area and a shaft cancer, it would be uncomfortable. We loved that old appy, probably like he never been loved before. As we did the little morgan, who we quickly got on meds for the navicular. The Appy and the morgan had lived years in a 12×12.full of manure with out proper food, care or water and had built a remarkable kinship. The morgan would walk with the blind appy and make sure that the appy was always in touch physically, since the appy would freak if he could not hear or touch the morgan
Towards the end of 8 months the morgan began to drag his back leg intermittently and we knew it was time. Preperations were made and as the Appt increasingly got uncomfortable the morgan never left his side. Taking to sleeping next to the appy, allowing the appy to place his head over the Morgan’s back and just rest there for hours. The day that the appy was Euthanized, we had to give the morgan anesthesia, due to him screaming for the appy as we lead him out of their pen. Even though the morgan never acted like that for any other examinations etc that the appy had done previously. The morgan refused to eat but tiny amounts for a week after the appy was Euthanized and refused any interaction with the other horse with him.. the morgan passed several months later due to severe colic, but he never fully regained that spark of life he had before his “friend” passed. So yes I believe horses know when the time is near and mourn.
Michelle, thank you so much for sharing your story. These two horses surely exhibited a bond that ran deep and true.
I would also like to share my very personal story about how one of my horses showed me compassion. I had a mare who was breed by my late Mother who stayed in the family for years and she was, by all intend always my girl. My Aunt ended up with her for the majority of her life but in her late teens my Aunt was looking to rehome her and her son who was then 14 or so. I found some land and threw together a nice 2 stall barn, got some fencing up and she brought them both to me. When my girl came back to me and my Aunt was gone, I grabbed my lead line and halter and headed her way. I jumped up on her bareback, as we always use to ride and it was like we never missed a beat, I finally had my girl home with me. Well, to put things mildly, my Aunt was not a very nice person and the reason she was getting rid of my mare was due to the fact that she started throwing her. Well, the deal was that I had to take her son or the deal was off, so I was more than happy to have both. The Gelding ended up being my main ride and he Mom was basically retired to live out her live with me. Well a few years when by and my Aunt asked if she could stay at my place while I was on vacation and I didn’t think a thing about it but I should have never agreed. It stressed out my mare so bad that she colic ed over the next three days and I was up and down with her every step of the way until her poor little heart finally gave out and I had to ask my Aunt to leave. As I held my girls head in my lap crying my eyes out, her son came over to me and started wiping my tears away with his muzzle trying to comfort me. I will never forget his tenderness and him showing me compassion over our loss. To this day this one event has changed the way I view my rescue horses and I try to teach everyone who comes to walk with me at Spirit Heart that it is all about the heart and soul of my late boy Steppenwolf.
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My daughter and I had to send our 37 yrvold guarter building over the rainbow bridge last Monday 11/05/18. We owned him for the last if jus 17 yes. We lived him greatly as he did us. The last 18 months we had him boarded with three other horses one of which was a 30 yr old building. They bonded. When the vet sedadated Pete just before we were ready he let out a whinney not a troubled one just soft as if to say goodbye. The vet said it was cause he was out if pain comfortable. The other two Mason and Colby were in their stall s and Pete was in the turn out. I just want to know what you think he was doing by winning. I remember Mason was calling for Pete too but not anxiously. Please help me to understand what or who Pete was. Talking to..I realized later that night we should of let Mason in the arena to say goodbye. I went back the next day to hang Pete’s blanket and fly mask in masons gate so he could smell him. He calks for Pete like he thinks Pete went down the street for a ride. Wgat else can I do for Mason ?
Hi Beth, We are so very sorry to hear that you had to say goodbye to Pete. We asked Sharon Wilsie, founder of Horse Speak, to share her thoughts regarding the herd’s behavior after Pete’s passing. This is what she said: “In my experience, horses are aware of death in a similar way that elephants are. They do not fear death in the existential way we do, and I believe they understand it better than us. If I were to put human thought to the way horses perceive death, I would say they call it ‘walking out’ of the body. Horses see in ultraviolet, and energy, electrical and magnetic variances can be detected in ultraviolet as well. It is possible that they can perceive these changes in the body as it passes. Animals mourn; this has been well documented. However they also serve as touchstones for us… I believe the horses were simply saying goodbye as best they could. My advice is to share your own mourning process with them; do not try to make them feel better per se–just let yourself breathe quietly and deeply together. Horses know the way back to peace… Let them guide you. Blessings.”
If you would like to ask Sharon further questions about your experience, you can contact her via her website https://www.wilsiewayhorsemanship.com