Do Horses Fear Death?

 

It’s been an ordinary year. Animals died here. What could be more normal? Infinity Farm has an extended herd and none of us are youngsters anymore. Over the months, we said goodbye to a boney old Tabby Cat, an ancient foster horse, a young neurologic donkey foster, and a beautiful mare. Aren’t all mares beautiful though? Frigid winter temperatures hit earlier than usual this year and I was glad they missed it.

Do I sound glib? As an equine professional who’s always worked with rescue organizations, who has helped clients on hard days, and has always had a barn full of my own animals, death is part of my life. Or maybe the price to be paid for living my dream. Still, every time I write about death, I lose a friend. They don’t literally die; it isn’t voodoo. They just let me know I trivialize death, that I’m shallow for not being so destroyed that I swear off animals; that they love animals so much more than I do, that losing them is not survivable. Each time. As if it was a pain competition.

I’ve also had a dear friend accuse me of glamorizing the loss of a horse in a world where her husband was taken at a young age. She’s right; it’s hard to equate animals to people. I do know that when my parents both passed in my early forties, I was darkly comforted to have had mourned before that. I had practice with animals whose lives were shorter than mine. Pets became my training-wheels for loss. At a young age when the world was too big and cruel to understand, I could feel deeply about the loss of a pet and use those feelings to understand a small corner of the devastating effect of world issues like natural disasters and war. And perhaps be more compassionate toward other people’s losses. More importantly, I knew the value of each day loving those I shared my life with.

If death is the most natural thing, then the fear of death is a close second. Some of us fear the unknown, but all of us fear life without those we love, regardless of their species. We ponder passing from this life philosophically in broad daylight, or keep it hidden in a secret place, but the downside is our animals are perfectly capable of feeling the depth of our anxiety that they can’t name.

Do horses fear death? Of course, and not philosophically. Horses gotta be horses. They fear literal death every moment. That’s what it means to be a horse, whose best way of saving himself is to run. Not to think of a solution, just run. He’s ruled by his flight response, an involuntary reaction to survive. His primary concern is his safety. Losing control of the ground, his ability to stand and escape, is his worst fear. What does that mean to an old horse when he can’t run? Does he ponder the Rainbow Bridge? Losing his herd? I want to understand. I do know they mourn as we do, they have a profound memory, but horses are no fun to debate end-of-life options with, yours or theirs.

I recently had a conversation with a vet who told me about a horse she had recently euthanized. He was a draft horse with purple gums, she said he had such a will to live. I wanted to have the death talk with a scientist. The problem with giving horses romantic notions about death is that we already project so much of our own fear on them. I asked her if it was that involuntary will to survive, to hold the ground and not quit. It’s a lesson I’ve learned from rescue horses left to fend for themselves. Trying to stay standing is a primal instinct for a flight animal, in the same way that we can’t kill ourselves by holding our breath. We both intrinsically must fight to survive.

When we take horses out of the wild and pretend they’re domesticated, we become their only predators. It’s a grim job but we want to think they will tell us when it’s time to die. As if we do that for other humans, but okay. The oldest, weakest horse will always act tougher than they are. We know that they hide their pain. We know horses are stoic. We know all this, but we still think they will somehow tell us, their special human predator, when they can’t hold their ground.

Sorry. I just don’t believe it. I think by the time we finally think they might be telling us it’s time, what we are actually seeing could be organs shutting down. That’s what it means to be a stoic flight animal. It is an instinct stronger than any other and very hard for a loving human to even want to try to read.

At the same time, our intellectual, heartfelt fear of losing them kicks in full force and the internal fight turns hot. Fear of the unknown: Life without them. We want to fight, even knowing that all stories end the same way eventually. When looking away is preferable, but we pull our eyes back to the one we love. We fight death when that isn’t even the enemy.

It can feel like the world is a bottomless pit of grief after losing a loved one. It’s natural to hold a grudge about what is lost but we need to be careful where we hang the blame, careful that death doesn’t get a bad reputation. That loss doesn’t eclipse the living.

The art is learning to let go, to forgive them for dying and focus on love. To let the tears flow and give ourselves the credit we deserve for surviving. To learn to appreciate our own courage to spread our arms wide and welcome life because we have a choice about that. And then make use that left-over love with an old one-eyed rescue dog or a broken-down hay-burner. Can we stare death in the face, pull our scarred and half-lame bodies to full height and say, “Mares are forever beautiful and you will not have me one day early. Not while I have more love left in this bruised, stretched-out heart.”

Most of us think horses are teachers, but it’s left to us to sort out what dysfunction is ours and what is theirs. Here’s a hint. It’s all ours. Horses teach us so much about ourselves and yet remain a mystery to us. We need them so much more than they need us. What if we are just a hobby of theirs, a few hours a week. Because I think we might be. Horses gotta be horses.

With gratitude to the animals who have shared their lives and deaths with me…

A book editor told me to delete a chapter about a duck in my memoir, Stable Relation, because no one cares about ducks. Instead, I belligerently re-wrote the chapter about ten times, trying to find a way to explain what mattered about my silly old drake. A very dear man I knew died that same year. In the wild run of the world, with all its war and disease and poverty, his life didn’t matter much more than a duck’s. But his loved ones missed him as if the sun went dark.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Anna Blake

54 thoughts on “Do Horses Fear Death?”

  1. Anna, Yes.
    Many of us romanticize horses. Projecting our hopes and fears on them. Expecting magic from them. “Illude-ing” magic from them. Standing with an old guy at the farm, yesterday, I wondered about his death. Noticing my need to have him communicate with me. Realizing the egocentric/anthropocenric natue of this need/fantasy. I looked down at his legs. His two front feet. So strong and vulnerable. And I realized that he would just keep standing until those beautiful, tender, now slightly pigeon-toed legs and feet could no longer hold him up. As simple and as natural as that. No big deal.
    Thank-you.

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  2. I missed a few posts lately. Something you didn’t even know. You know, life gets busy. But I jumped back into this one. Such complete thoughts, worthy of contemplation from my human perspective. And oh how I love the way you ended it with the duck story. Keep fighting for the stories that mean the most to you…because you can bet that they’ll mean a lot to those of us reading them.

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  3. Death is about losing the future. All of the infinity of possible future togetherness, our plans, events, interactions, activities, hopes and exchanges, are lost forever.

    I’ve never lost a horse. But I know I will. And I dread it. Each day I become more appreciative of their presence, the gloss of their coats, their knowing eyes, their sweet breath, the movement of their rib cages in and out, in and out, their eager expression as I throw their hay, their steady legs, their hooves so firmly planted in the grass. And I am achingly aware that someday, these images will be memories.

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  4. Horses, and all non-human animals, are far wiser than we about life cycles. I appreciate your post and that it reveals that my experiences with horses and companion animals passing weren’t one-offs. Then there’s this: How could an editor have so little understanding of your subject matter the he or she belittles a duck?

    I will always stand in the corner that supports the critters, regardless of species.

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  5. You make such poignant points regarding the love and loss of our animals. I have always found comfort in this poem by Irving Townsend. I hope you like it as well. “We who choose to surround ourselves
    with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle;
    easily and often breached.
    Unable to accept its awful gaps,
    we would still live no other way.
    We cherish memory as the only
    certain immortality, never fully
    understanding the necessary plan.”

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  6. I have so many favorites of your writings, but this is definitely my favorite. You captured something of the mystery of living and dying and the missing of those we love who have passed. Thank you.

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  7. Quite thought-provoking. I recently lost my sweet, old dog-lots of tears were flowing at my house. Of course, my horses were oblivious to my tears, only I think they could feel my sadness. That’s what’s so wonderful about all our animals, horses, dogs, cats, even chickens, they may feel our sadness but what they’re most interested in is how we relate to them. They’re definitely “living in the moment” and being around them seems to help bring us back into it, too.

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  8. Thank you for exploring the topic of death.
    I’m grateful that I have been learning about it for the past 30 years, when my best friend committed suicide when I was 40. It was her best gift to me, to teach me about death.
    People have all kinds of stories about death, that help them cope with it.
    The one I hear about the most is “the death of a child is the worst.”
    Is it true?
    I believe it is wise not to compare peoples’ pain. Just have compassion for it. Deathj feels the worst to whomever lost what they love…person or animal. Horses are horses and loss is loss. Thank you for all the wisdom in your writing, specifically this one. I’m keeping it.

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  9. Anna, I think that may be my favorite post yet. It is difficult to explain to many folk what it is like to live with death as a regular visitor. I have shared my life with many, many animals – and have said goodbye many times. Your post so perfectly hit many of the things I feel and think – especially the idea that they will tell us “when”. I understand the sentiment, but have watched many an animal fighting to the end … when they can no longer stand, but will not quit. There has never been a sign around a neck saying “Now, please” for any of the numerous animals, large and small, that I have watched age and eventually pass.

    Thank you for risking another friendship by plainly stating some very important truths about a very sensitive but important subject.

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  10. Having “known” quite a few memorable ducks – their story is as important as any others! Between ducks, rabbits, dogs, cats AND horses – they were and are ALL important and worth grieving over. Now with a 12 year old dog who battled lyme disease this year and a 12 year old cat who didnt (!) – all 3 of us are approximately the same age – of course, I’m the only one who is that concerned about it!
    As it should be, right?

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  11. I’m at a loss for words. Thank you, Anna, for this beautifully written post. Having lost our precious Darby Dog prematurely to kidney disease, this post means so much to me.

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  12. Anna, all I want to say is I love your words. I lost a good dog last month and I have a good old mare that I just take care of. I chose to let my little dog go before her organs shut down. She loved me for 17 years. I vowed to not be selfish this time and let it go longer than it had to. I lost both of my parents in the past four years. Death does teach you a lot about life and love. Thanks again for your words and wisdom.

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  13. This may seem a stretch, but I am thinking climate change and the ensuing chaotic environmental changes are something of a “predator” also to our horses. In the flash flood in Austin in 2013, 29 horses perished. One of them was my beloved gelding, whom I had in my life only 19 months. It was generally agreed by all that development in that area had changed the flow of a powerful creek/river in that area, plus drought conditions prior to the deluge. That area and the ranch where I lived had never flooded before.. It was clear the horses perished from crap that was in the water ( cables, 1000 gal tanks) rather than drowning alone.

    The evening of my mother’s memorial service, as I was sleeping, the flood waters rose suddenly in the middle of the night, no warning, and I lost my horse, and all my belongings including my car. The next morning when the waters receded I walked down a driveway with horse corpses, one a lovely mare named Leah who had been my lesson horse at one time. I was too numb to even cry. But I felt we humans were responsible to a large degree.

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    • What a horrible, unforgettable experience. I am so sorry, I can’t imagine… We’ve had major fires here that have killed horses running from it. I think the environment is definitely a “predator” and it seems to be getting more so and not less. Thanks for sharing, to have an entire barn lost… devastating.

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  14. I don’t think it’s so much of “valuing an animals life over a humans” but more valuing what that animal brought into our life that we are losing. The love the gave us, the lessons they taught us, the camaraderie that some people can’t find in other humans, and just everyday joy. Some people just can’t understand that and choose to make others feel badly for loving an animal so much and grieving over their loss. Animals are instinctual. They don’t talk about you behind your back or make you feel like you are less of a person like some people can do and that is why we love them more sometimes. You know where you stand in their eyes. Either they like you or they don’t. There’s no second guessing or playing stupid games. I think we should all be free to grieve any loss in our life as we choose. I’m sure your friend is very sweet and I can’t imagine ever losing my husband and the immense pain that comes with that, but I don’t think it’s fair for someone to make light of a loss in your life no matter what it is just because it doesn’t equate with them personally. People need to just be more kind in my opinion, especially when they don’t understand. You are a hero in my eyes!

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    • Wonderful comment, so well articulated. I need to say that it was the other way around. She didn’t minimize my lose, she felt in a sense that I had minimized hers. And I understand that feeling. We march around bearing our loss of a horse like a cross to Calvary. I agree with her. And I have never had that kind of love or loss as my friend had. I don’t know what she lost. Thanks Misty.

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  15. Beautifully and thoughtfully written, of course. I gave so many times known of animals that it was time for, but in some cases the vet would refuse, saying “there are more drugs we can try”. I have taken in animals who”s expiry date had past, very hard, for me, not for them. Bless you Anna, hard topic.

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  16. Thank you for addressing this difficult but important topic, Anna. It is so hard to tell if or when a horse or dog is “telling” us it is time. By the time they do, it is often past time. And it is so hard for us to stop rationalizing one more day, another drug or whatever. It is much better to end on a good note, or day, than not. All animals are wired to keep on living, it is just how we and they have evolved. I just wish I had a looking glass that could help me make the decisions. Thank you again for your insight into our and our animals’ worlds and minds.

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  17. Thank you, Anna. Your thoughts in this post mirror mine in many ways. When a loved one dies, human or critter, it is natural to cry and grieve for a time. But you need to be “strong” for the living who depend on you. I lost my father at the age of 5, my mother in my mid-forties, as well as many beloved pets and close relatives. Knowing what the “deal” is with this death thing, I strive to take a moment each day to enjoy life with my boys – horses, cats and husband (not necessarily in that order!) Of all the uncertainties of life, one thing is for sure: None of us is getting out of it alive. Not trying to make a joke; it’s just the way it is.

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  18. Loved the article. I have friends who I have had the “when to let a horse retire or to cross the Rainbow Bridge and what to do about a chronically lame horse. When should you say “enough” when faced with very expensive treatments or surgery; how much money can you spend on horse care vs caring for human family and paying monthly bills. It is hard and different for every person. One thing I have learned from experience is do not put yourself in debt by taking a loan to pay veterinary bills. As much as I love every horse and rescue dog I bring into the family, I have been forced to look at the long term reality of my financial status. Veterinary bills can escalate to thousands of dollars in a heartbeat. Whether the horse was free or cost you many thousands of dollars, the difficulty of the decision to euthanize one is still heartbreaking. With my dogs, I have come to a comfortable place. As they have been, all but two, adopted dogs; I look at “when a door closes, a window opens” and there is always another homeless, needy dog needing the love and care I can give it. I also foster dogs for a Rescue and am a 3 time foster failure and looking at a possible 4th failure.
    When one of my horses becomes chronically lame, I am in a good position to retire them on my property; but even then, I must think about and weigh the pain factor. Am I keeping this horse in pain without quality of life because I can’t face making the life or death decision? I also come to realize that we can give one last gift to our animals that we can not do for our human family; we can let them go peacefully and pain free through euthanasia.
    If you are boarding a horse and have to retire them due to lameness or other health limitation, finding a place to retire them to is expensive and hard to find one, you think, offers quality care. Most people want to continue riding or competing, so you have the new added expense of buying a new horse that you can afford the two board bills, two farrier and two vet bills etc. It would be nice if horse nuts all had trust funds just for the care of our beloved animals.

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    • Kathleen: As an add-on to your “window” perception, I like to think that the one who passes on does so to make room for another in need of my care. Thanks for the rest of your thoughts, too.

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    • Amen to the trust fund. These days many vets will not euthanize an animal that is treatable, even if the treatment costs thousands. It’s going to create huge problems for people like you and me who take in rescues, if we need a 20k trust fund for each of them. Thanks, Kathleen

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  19. Oh, how I hate it when people tell me my old or ailing animals will tell me “when it’s time”! I have NEVER had one send me that message; that has had to be MY decision for all but one (an 18-year-old cat who curled up under a bush and went to death after never being sick or slow a day in his life). One of the greatest gifts you’ve given me is the reminder to BREATHE, to transmit calmness instead of the utter heartbreak I feel, when it’s time. We had to put one old dog down eight days ago; treasuring moments while I can with the other old-man dog….

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  20. It’s hard to distill my plethora of thoughts to a cohesive comment. I want to say so much, but surprisingly I have very little to say. My responsibility to insure my animals don’t suffer is one of the heaviest burdens that I carry. I have taken in 12 horses over the last 19 years. Each of these animals was someone else’s throw away. I suspect that the physical and emotional scars, and advanced age of the herd has played a part in the 8 losses thus far. I do my best to intervene with a good death, but I never really know if I have been successful. Thank you Anna, as always, for your heartfelt and thought provoking writing.

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  21. Pet loss was my first teacher of grief and loss as well. As a child I would be devastated each and every time, and I still am . But when I would see others swear off loving and sharing their lives with creatures as a result I could never understand that. I was and still am more than ready to pay the price of loss in order to share my life in this extraordinary way. I learned during my mother’s death that death is a fact of life. To turn death into a dark enemy is to create more pain and gaping, lifelong anger. We hurt and grieve because we love. That’s a deal I’ll make every time.

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  22. Age and experience have combined to remove some of the emotional excess surrounding death. The deep grief is still there, but the acceptance of biologic reality curtails the regrets. I chose to care for animals who have a shorter lifespan than I do. Part of my job as a good caretaker is to make the best call I can about when to euthanize. I have had to make that call for 2 cats and one beloved 29 year old horse this year. I miss them all. But I do feel a steady pride in the fact that they were loved and cared for as well as I could when they were in my care, including choosing to end their lives when all they faced was a prolonged suffering prior to a certain natural death. To have done otherwise would have been bad care taking.
    I am at the age where I can only hope to outlive my charges. There is no one else to pick up the mantle of caretaking. In order to achieve the goal of providing for them as long as possible, I have to accept that this comes with the hard cost of watching them pass in their time. If I can meet my goal of giving them a safe, secure life, the pain of loss will be worth the it.
    I love how your writing deals with the hard stuff. Thank you.

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  23. I’ve always loved my pets. But the whole “deep connection” thing was lost on me. Until 25 years ago when my beautiful black lab laid next to me, locked eyes with me and told me, in no uncertain terms, that it was time for her to go. It happened to me again with my mare last month. On the flip side, two years ago I ignored what my gelding was telling me and consequently only days later he died a terrible death that I will carry the guilt for the rest of my life.
    So I think that yes, sometimes some do tell us it’s time to let go and sometimes some of us can hear it.

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