surreality_200(Opening and obligatory reassurance: The horse in the photo is very much alive. She’s having a nap, and the human disciples are learning a lesson about relaxing and letting go.)

This past week saw the departure of an old and cherished equine friend. It wasn’t one of mine, but she had lived here for a while, and she and Capria, whenever they met afterward, picked up as if their friendship had never been interrupted. We loved her very much. We miss her very much.

But it was time for her to go. Her body had failed her. In the wild, a predator would have done for her what her human, with veterinary assistance, had to do. She was ready; she wasn’t afraid. We felt she knew, and she was glad to shed the space suit.

This is the obligation every human takes on when she shares her life with an animal. All too many will abandon their aged or injured animals rather than face it. It is hard–and what makes it even harder is the ongoing debate and dilemma: Is it time? Am I rushing it? Am I waiting too long? What if I’m wrong? What if I’m not?

The animal can’t come out and say, “It’s time. I’m done.” It’s up to the human to read the signals and hope she gets them right.

With cats and dogs, whose lives are shorter, it’s very difficult. We live with them in our space, they’re our companions and friends. For many, they take the place of human children, or human family. When the end comes, they leave a gaping hole in house and heart.

Horses live outside, and often away from where we live. Especially if we board the horse elsewhere, they’re not a part of our daily lives in the way a pet will be.

And yet, while they’re alive, they’re a strong presence, a constant  undertone to everything we do. They’re so big and so vital; they wrap us around with warmth. When they go, they leave such an absence.

It doesn’t matter where they go, or whether they go anywhere. Maybe it’s just an ending. Maybe the whatever (soul, self, spirit, vital energy, choose your own term) leaves the body and goes–somewhere. Or everywhere. Maybe it dissipates. Maybe it comes back to inhabit another body.

We don’t know.

What we do know is that this animal, this person whom we knew as companion and protector (and protected) and friend, is gone. Even if she does come back, she won’t be the same. This is an ending. A gap in the fabric, that may become less obvious with time, but never goes away.

We tell ourselves stories to make it easier. Some of them may even be true. We comfort ourselves in whatever way we can. We remember; we shed tears. We often move on, or share ourselves with other horses. Or we decide that’s it, we can’t do it again. We do whatever we have to, to make it through.

Life ends. Human exceptionalists will insist that only humans understand this, but I think animals, if anything, may have a better sense of it than we do. If they’re not ready, they fight hard. But if it’s time, they act as if they know. There’s no fear.

When my friend’s horse stopped breathing, two of her stablemates watched in perfect quiet. The third called and called. Her friend was gone, and she was not in favor.

And they say animals can’t feel “real” emotions.

As for me, I went home and stood for a long while with one of my oldest horses. She’s been with me the longest, and she’s well up in years. Sooner rather than later, it will be time.

She’ll let me know. I won’t like it. In fact I’ll hate it. But it’s part of the deal I made when she came into my life.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reminded, strongly, to get out my damned human head and into the moment. Be with her. Enjoy her. Be glad of every day I have with her. Her sweet sarcastic personality. Her little lean ears, shaped like oleander leaves. Her thistledown-soft winter coat. All the things that she is, that make her herself.


In Memoriam: Ch. Winbucks Triplet, October 21, 2001-November 13, 2015. She was a Good Dog.





Passages — 9 Comments

  1. Each of us has our own stories about gallant or silly, smart-as-a-whip or dumb-but-dear companions, always loved, always missed. Hearing stories like this is like lighting a memorial candle–it makes us feel for your loss and makes us remember our own. Thanks for reminding me just how much I loved mine.

  2. If the fates are kind, we get to say goodbye, to hold them or stroke them and tell them what a good dog/cat/horse/hamster they were and how much we love them.

    If we don’t get to do that in life, we can still do it in our hearts. We honor their gifts with our grief.

  3. “It is hard–and what makes it even harder is the ongoing debate and dilemma: Is it time? Am I rushing it? Am I waiting too long? What if I’m wrong? What if I’m not?”

    I went through exactly this with my sweet mare back in February this year. All I could add to your inner debate would be: “Am I doing this strictly for her, or to put a stop to the strain and uncertainty for myself?” or even worse, “Am I doing it to stop other people [not the vets] yammering at me?”

    One other difference from making end-of-life decisions for house pets: if your horse is boarded, you have an opinionated audience all around you. Friendship and support are helpful and welcome; unsolicited advice not so much…