Coping with Your Horse’s Death

In this excerpt from her book The Rider's Edge, equestrian sports psychologist Dr. Janet Edgette helps a rider cope with the death of her beloved horse and move on at her own pace.

Illustration by Cindy Revell
Illustration by Cindy Revell

Losing any animal that's been an important part of our lives is difficult. No matter the personality quirk, the variable obedience, the funny look--in having cared for them and in having let them care for us in their own imperfect ways, we grew attached. We miss them when they go, we mourn, and, after a while, we move on.

But once or twice, maybe more if we're lucky, our paths cross with an animal who's pretty special. He's not so easy to let go, and it's not so easy to move on. That's what happened to Valerie:

...A few months back, my horse, with whom I had a very special bond, colicked. He didn't make it through surgery. Now, no matter how hard I try, I cannot seem to get past this. I miss him terribly and am unsure what to do now. Riding now just doesn't feel like the same activity. ... The more time that goes by, the easier it becomes to skip the barn altogether. My trainer feels I should get another horse. ... My worst fear is that the very thing that made my horse so special--the love and commitment and bond--is the thing that will never happen again.

You miss your guy, Valerie, and will for a long while. He was a friend, and his loss, just like that of a human friend, has left a big empty ache.

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What now? Maybe nothing for a little while, maybe something different. Riding won't be the same as long as that's what you're waiting for it to be. Let riding be whatever it's going to be now until you recognize how you can love it again, even if it is different.

You wonder, too, if the time has come to look for another horse. Again maybe, maybe not. One way to discover how ready you are is to begin looking and then see if your heart's in it. If you go out looking and feel dull about the whole thing, put it off for a month or two and try it again.

If you go out looking and feel sad about it but excited about the prospect of finding someone new, that's OK--keep looking. When you're bereaved, you must give yourself permission to feel sad about what's lost and to be excited simultaneously for a future that you are lucky enough still to have in front of you. We don't have to finish with one feeling in order to go on to the next.

There's something else I want to say to you. And it's that you were a major part of making that relationship between you and your horse so special. It didn't "just happen," and it wasn't all him. He may have brought his own magic, but you recognized it, and you made room in your life for it, and for him. If you were able to do that once, Valerie, you can do it again. With someone new. The thing is, as with the riding, to allow the new relationship to be a different one. Just as strong, just as special--but different. In our more philosophical moments, John, my husband, tells me that were I ever to lose him, I must allow myself to fall in love again--just as richly, just as intensely--but with someone I would love for reasons different from those for which I love him. We are each an original.

Take your time to mourn. You'll know how long that time needs to be. Don't let anyone else pressure you into shortchanging yourself because your loss was "just an animal." Don't delude yourself into thinking that doing something (anything) is a better option than simply doing nothing for a while and feeling sad. At the same time, don't think that you must wait until you feel "all better" to begin adding new pieces to your life. Use this period to learn more about your personal needs in times of crisis and loss, and to respect them. You owe no one an answer about what you are going to do. If people ask, tell them honestly that you don't know yet, and that you're trying to figure it out.

Most important, Valerie, always remember that your contribution to that special bond with your horse is something you still carry with you. When you're ready, you can share it again. When you're ready, you'll want to.

This book excerpt comes from The Rider's Edge by Practical Horseman's "Heads Up" columnist, Dr. Janet Edgette. For more information or to order this book in which Edgette helps riders overcome the psychological challenges of riding, call 1-800-952-5813 or visit HorseBooksEtc.com.

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