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Do Horses Grieve Like Humans? A Bit

Jamie Cearley, PhDDo horses grieve when their buddy dies? I believe they do. It is true that their grief experience is not like that of us humans in every facet. However, the more I have witnessed the effects Twisters death has had on our herd the more convinced I have become that horses and humans share some of the more weighty aspects of grief.

Twister was the uncontested boss of our six-horse herd for years. From day one, he was so firmly in command a subtle ear flick was all he needed to impart his directives. Many times his communication was invisible to us humans, leading us to wonder if he possessed some sort of psychological telepathic abilities.

It was a beautiful fall Saturday, late in the afternoon; supper time for the herd. Earlier that day we had been riding, me on Poncho, my husband on Twister, trotting side by side in an attempt to stay close enough together to hold a short string between us. This was a real challenge for Poncho and I since Twister was always playing his mind tricks and not wanting to allow Poncho alongside. I often struggled with what I referred to as “the Twister effect” in working to establish my leadership position with Poncho.

Twister   Poncho and Twister

Later that afternoon Twister had given a young girl her very first horse ride. She was elated. He was so confident, he could make just about anyone feel like a winner.

Little girl riding Twister. 

At supper that night Twister experienced a seizure that took his life in a matter of minutes. He died in our arms. At that moment our grief journey began. What I did not realize was that Poncho was on that journey too.

How has Poncho experienced grief over the loss of his long time herd leader?

A quote from C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis in "A Grief Observed" sums it up best when he says, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” Poncho had lost his leader, the one who made him feel safe, the one who gave him confidence, the one who made him feel as though it was OK to lay down and take a nap, or continue on down the trail. With his leader now gone he was to a degree lost, insecure and afraid. He would spook at things he had seen a thousand times before, he started whinnying for his buddies when alone again, he suddenly had more go than whoa in the saddle. It was as if we had flown back in time and reversed six years of training and partnership development.

Poncho has sought to remedy his grief in part by strengthening the remaining relationships he has. Poncho and Ranger have always been play buddies. However, since Twister's death they have gone from occasional play to being virtually inseparable.

Poncho and Ranger 

Horses may not experience all of the facets of grief that humans do but they do grieve in their own way. They don’t miss many of the same types of things we miss such as Twister's snowy white rump, or his eyes so full of expression. Yet, the more I think about it the more I think Poncho misses exactly the same things we value most when our loved ones leave. He misses the deep relationship he and Twister shared. He misses the way Twister made him feel; safe, confident, settled and without fear. Indeed, C.S. Lewis was right when he said, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” For certain, Lewis was speaking about humans not horses, but he unintentionally described the grief experience for both human and horse perfectly in a single sentence.

Poncho and Twister

We also, like Poncho, seek to strengthen the relationships that remain here with us in an effort to cope. A good strategy to be sure. I too am looking for the selfsame healing in strengthening my relationship with Poncho upon Twisters loss. I often think it peculiar that when humans start to think we are so different than the animals we live with that an event like this will peel back the surface just enough to see that deeply inside, in principle, we are in truth far more similar to each other than different.

Would you like to read more stories like this? Please visit my website for more Mental Morsels with Dr. Cearley. Learning life principles from the farm.

jamie
2/24/2015 8:14:43 AM

Thank you Lee for sharing your experience with Princess. I love hearing about peoples animals, and their relationships. Your herd is very lucky to have you.


lee
2/23/2015 11:55:55 AM

Have never had horses but have a herd of donkeys. When the matriarch died about 2 years ago I watched them close ranks around Princess. Princess was a six month old that was suddenly orphaned. After going through the process of having each donkey pair with her for a period she and her gelding brother have become a pair. I call them the twins that were born 13 months apart. Since all but one of the herd is related fairly closely it is as much a family thing as a herd thing. I saw denial (pawing at the grave) and anger (stomping her hoof till it abscessed) and finally acceptance. For a while they visited the grave but that seems to have passed. Animals have grief and they seem to have other aspects of human behavior as well. Perhaps we are not as unique as we think.