Things to Not Say When Someone’s Horse Dies.

I’ve been tinkering with this essay since my Grandfather Horse died five years ago, but it would have been ungrateful to post it then. People were truly kind and part of it was my doing. I wrote a memoir about him, and strangers felt they knew him. Since then, two horses and two donkeys (including fosters) have died here. That doesn’t count the two llamas, three dogs, and two cats. Death is such a part of farm life, there will never be a suitable time to finish the essay. Is it mean to complain about word choice when someone dies?

I remember the first time I got upset at someone expressing animal condolences. When I was five, a man driving a truck hit my dog on the highway and then brought the bloody carcass to our farmhouse. My mother made me stand and listen to him. I have no idea what the man said. I couldn’t take my eyes off what was left of my dog. Then I got in trouble for not being polite to the man. I guess it was a brave thing to face a little girl after killing her dog, but I couldn’t thank this man, as my mother demanded. I like to think I’m better at hearing unwelcome news now. I also like to think I’m more polite with people, but it’s debatable.

We all have the best of intentions, and in emotional situations, we get, well, emotional. The grieving person knows you have good intentions, too, but why make her remind herself? Why tweak her feelings when all she wants is her horse back? I’m not suggesting I’m the equine Ms. Manners, but I’ve watched people stammer; I’ve heard it all. Worst, I’ve said the wrong things and caused pain that I’ve regretted later. That I still regret.

What NOT to say when a friend’s horse dies:

Don’t say you know how the mourner feels. You don’t have any idea. You might imagine but respect this sacred moment, respect her hollow place enough to let it be about her and her horse.

Don’t tell her your horse’s death story. All horses die; it’s as common as dirt. It’s just that hearing of this new loss of a horse reminds us of our ghost herd and we feel our own losses all over again. As hard as it is, bite your tongue.

The causes of death don’t matter. Don’t question her judgment. She’ll tell you or not, but if not, let it be enough that the horse is gone. Some people have necropsies done on decrepit old cats. Others know all they need to when the breathing has stopped.

Don’t say the horse had a good long life. It’s an excuse to minimize the loss and no matter the horse’s age, we are never ready. You know that.

Don’t say there’ll be other horses. We all hope so, but it minimizes her feelings today. Let her be sad, don’t try to fix it. When the day comes that she mentions a new horse, offer to go along. Give her a horse-warming gift. Until then, just listen.

Don’t say it’s like losing a family member, even if it’s what you think. The world is full of people who have watched children die and had spouses ripped from their lives. Regardless of how you define family, comparing a horse or dog to a beloved human may trivialize their loss. Besides, the one who hurts the most doesn’t win, and comparing pain is silly. There is no high side to maximizing the loss of a horse. When was the last time you were cheered up by hearing about a sad death?

“This will make you stronger.” Are you kidding? Three of us could build a barn by noon. We are already strong in every way possible, thanks to horses. Let her feel weak with loss because her horse was worthy of that.

“Your horse wouldn’t want you to be sad.” Don’t ask her to feign positivity or make her feel guilty for mourning. Dig out some tissues. If she goes into an ugly cry, take some deep breaths and let her howl to the moon, politeness be damned.

“He is in a better place.” “God took him home.” Religious thoughts might imply that a faithful person shouldn’t mourn and will not comfort those who don’t share your religion. Also, “My thoughts and prayers are with you” is a phrase said so often that the words may have lost meaning. Equal time, there are nightmares at the Rainbow Bridge. Some of us aren’t comforted by fairy tales. Unless you are certain, best to stay neutral.

“Let me know if there is anything I can do.” George Carlin, the truth-telling comedian, imagined a mourner replying, “Yeah, you can come over this weekend and paint my garage.” Horse people might quip, “Pay off my vet bill.” but for most of us, that monthly payment is a part of the mourning process.

What to say when a friend’s horse dies:

Of course, you don’t know what to say because it doesn’t matter what you say. Mourning is required to heal. Take a deeper breath and simply say, “I’m very sorry.” You can’t make it okay, so keep it simple. Acknowledge the reality, say “I honor your loss.”

Compliment the grieving person, say “What a lovely horse,” “This good horse was lucky to be yours,” or “You always did the best for him.” Then smile because you know it’s true.

Mourning is supposed to be uncomfortable. Let the air rest. Let less be more. Trust the words will come if needed. But do mark the day on your calendar so you can remember. Check-in over the next months.

Send a card. Words on paper are a rare keepsake. Or write an email to say you were thinking about the grieving person or the one they lost. Send photos if you have them.

Say the name of the horse or write it. Grieving people love hearing it from the lips of someone else. Grief carries forward. An email a year after a death could be more meaningful than one a week later.

It’s a tradition in my circle of friends to make a memorial donation in the horse’s name to a non-profit. It is a sweet thing when the mourner receives the organization’s thank you note, along with your intention to remember the horse forward.

Above all, make sure the grieving person knows that the one who passed has not been forgotten. Ask for the story of how they met. Share your experience of the horse. Memories are precious currency.

And on good days and bad, whether you’re alone or surrounded by dear friends and good horses, make a toast of gratitude for our unbelievable good fortune. Mourning a horse is a blessing because, for a while, we share their lives. We are the lucky ones. Then smile because you know it’s true.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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46 thoughts on “Things to Not Say When Someone’s Horse Dies.”

  1. Thanks, Anna. It’s always so hard to know. Your thoughts are appreciated. I especially love the part about ‘a toast of gratitude for our good fortune.’ That is exactly the way I feel and must remember it daily. Very sorry about that experience for you as a girl.

  2. I lost a horse last week. This all rings true, though I appreciate anyone who takes a moment to carry the with me even briefly. Some are more artful with their words, or more aware of how their own discomfort with loss and the intimacy of grief affects the exchange.

  3. As always, your eloquent words are enlightening and comforting. As I learn how to use my inside reign, it is just as important that our words are also educated and refined with proper application. Thank you for providing insight into a most delicate subject.

  4. Another great one said by a friend of mine when my elderly dog passed away – “No matter how much time we have with them, it’s never enough.” That acknowledged the 13 wonderful years we had together while also validating my grief.

    • And that one truly is the best! When I had my horse put down, my friends at the barn gave me a gift certificate for a stone for his grave – left it up to me what it said. That meant a great deal. There is NEVER enough time – ever!

  5. I appreciate your essay today. Well-done ! I hope readers also note that the same guidelines apply to loss of humans, too. It’s easy to stray into “toxic positivity” when we are uncomfortable with our friend’s pain, but just keeping it simple is obviously best route to take. All the other ideas you mentioned are excellent too ( making a contribution in honor of the beloved horse, or cat, or dog) is a rich gift.

    • Thanks Sarah. It takes courage to mourn but maybe it takes almost as much to let that be okay. I am an affirmative trainer/person with a fear of the dreaded “toxic positivity”

  6. And how do we even know how to allow ourselves to mourn when it’s been pounded into us repeatedly that the feelings of other’s are always more important or at the very least to be taken into overly serious consideration? Thanks, Grandfather Horse.

  7. Having lost ‘that’ horse just a month ago, this experience is very fresh for me. I’m treasuring the heartbreak, because it’s the price of the love. Everyone has been so kind — dear friends and FB acquaintances I hardly know — they have all said or done exactly the right thing — everything Anna suggests and more. And it helps, it truly does. The worst thing someone can do is to not say anything at all, because they are afraid of saying the wrong thing. I did have that happen — people who should have acknowledged what happened to my horse in some way and didn’t. That hurt — a lot. So follow Anna’s advice — trying to say or do what’s kind and helpful and avoid what is not. But say something. Silence dishonors the horse and the person left behind to mourn.

    • Sarah,
      This is so true. I think, however, what any individual tries to do is to be kind and usually, they mean to help.
      I try to look at it this way.

      I am so sorry for your loss. I agree that our time with our horses is never long enough.

      May I ask you to send me a photograph of your horse with you?
      And his/her name?

      Please send this to:
      [email protected]

      I would like to meet both of you and hear about your lives together.

      With Love,
      Nuala Galbari, Gloucester, VA

  8. Thank you, Anna, for the “Do’s” of what to say. I never felt comfortable saying the “Dont’s” you have highlighted here. I would be comforted by Kate’s friend’s words as well, “No matter how much time we have with them, it’s never enough.”

  9. Using the deceased name and sharing treasured memories is a gift. Remembering and acknowledging the death date or season is another gift. Thank you Anna for this particular essay.

  10. Just perfect advice. My circle of friends does the same, a donation to a nonprofit.

    In the past I have made a memorial for especially close friends.

    I try to imagine and remember what consoles me in a tragic loss, and comments and memories of the one I’ve lost mean the most.

    Years ago a friend told me that when having to make that dreaded decision of helping our critters across: “It is the final act of grace we can bestow upon them.”

    That rings true for me. I’m not religious, so the grace is not a religious term here. But it rings true.

  11. Grief is such a process, that it’s hard to write about it. If you reminded me I was lucky to have had them in my life, I might feel consoled or I might bite your head off if I’m in the hard raw stage. I think in that stage, for me words don’t help. Just presence and maybe a hug if you know me well enough. And things that help me hold onto the loved one (pictures, memories, mementos). Later words and perspective are nice. But everyone is so different. And we travel differently through the process of grief. But even if someone says the “wrong” thing, the intention matters. And I’d rather that than those who disappear because they don’t know what to do or say.

    • I appreciate this comment so much. I think there are times when any word is wrong, personally, I can’t imagine ever wanting to be hugged (so I didn’t mention it but in hindsight I should have.) It is so individual. There are things that will always be wrong to say, but saying the right thing is so elusive. Thank you, Therese

  12. Anna,
    We have always taken wonderful images of our close friends’ horses.
    When three of these horses passed over a period of two years, they all
    said they were very thankful for the lovely photographs of caretakers and horses.

    David is always running around with his camera, and sometimes I felt he overdid it.
    Now, I am glad he has contributed to their mourning (and to mine, when I lost Strider in 2017)
    by taking images that we can keep forever in print, CD and electronically.

    These are the gifts that helped my friends, much less than attempts at supportive words.

    And I agree with all you say, here.

    Thank you,

  13. My girl is doing well but she’s 27 now. So I have some anticipatory grief.

    It makes me completely crazy when people ask how old she is and then ask (non-horse people) “How long do horses live?” This is because they’re doing the calculation in their heads about when it will be “OK” for her to die.

    People: So I just told you how old she is. Then you’re going to ask how long horses live. Doesn’t it occur to you that I’m also doing the math?

    • Oh, so true for me, asking the question and doing the math, with me. I ask their age and scare myself. Great comment, Rebecca. Scratches to your good mare.

  14. Anna…some much of your essay could apply to people too. When I lost my husband of 47 years last October I heard it all. Said with good, sweet intentions, but most of it so wrong.

    “Chin up”, “you’ll be fine” and the worst “aren’t you done grieving yet”?

    I found this in some of the material the chaplaincy sent me from the hospital and I will keep it in my heart forever — “Grief is not a problem to be cured. It is simply a statement that you have loved someone.” Doris Sanford

    • So many times people say things meant to let us know we make them uncomfortable; what they say is more about them than us. Wonderful quote and best wishes, Sandy.

  15. Your essay “ Do Horses Fear Death?” was both a comfort and instruction manual as I faced the decline of my much loved Riff Raff ( Riffi). She passed on the day after Valentines Day of this year: I saw this date as as a special tribute to this once fiery Arabian mare. I also , as a professional Pet Sitter, am careful to use the term euthanasia. “Put down “ is too graphic for me. The term euthanasia or “peaceful death” implies the final gift, the love and respect, that we have for our beloved creatures. You helped walk me through this process/ thank you again Anna.

    • Thank you for this comment, Barbara. I always know that these are hard essays… and I agree. My least favorite term is “put to sleep” which seems to trivialize the pet as well as our intelligence. Best wishes to you and I do love a fiery Arabian mare!

  16. When I lost my Morgan, Gryphon, who had been with me for 20 years, I really wanted to hear what other people who had known him remembered about him. He was an impressive being and had been loved and admired by many. Hearing what they were holding in their hearts and minds about him was extremely comforting to me. Thank you for mentioning that as a good thing to do. It truly is.

    • Memories are the best… a friend sent me a video link (of someone else) and said the ride reminded her of me and a horse that had died a few years earlier. I see that video from time to time, it’s a famous one, and always smile! Thanks, Susan


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