By Margie Sugarman
Margie Sugarman is a leading board-certified psychotherapist and sports consultant based in New York. Margie’s desire is to enhance performance through the connection between the mind and body, and her current client list includes Olympic, professional and amateur athletes across the country. Her experience employing various therapeutic modalities has helped equestrians win classics, junior medals and grand prix. Do you have a question you want Margie to answer? Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We recently had to put down my horse, and while I’m grieving, I’m having a difficult time giving my other horses attention. I don’t actually want to be in the barn, so I quickly jump in and out to clean, feed and check in on everyone. It’s no longer enjoyable, and my horses know something is wrong. I don’t want my other horses to suffer because I’m grieving. How do I put aside my pain and enjoy the horses I still have?
People’s life expectancy far surpasses that of our equine partners. The loss of a horse in a rider’s life, when there is involvement for many years, is somewhat inevitable. While some people may not understand the depth of feeling you had for your horse, you should never feel ashamed or guilty for grieving your equine companion.
As any person involved with horses knows, strong bonds develop between people and their equine partners. While the grieving process is unique for everyone, there are some common denominators that exist, known as the stages of the grieving process.
The first stage in the grieving process is denial, followed by anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance.
Denial: Grasping the loss of a horse is a challenge for most owners. During this stage of grief a person may seem uncertain or confused about the loss.
Anger: At times, grief can be expressed as anger. The “owner” might be rude or short when speaking to others. More often than not, these negative interactions are in no way a reflection of the individual on the receiving end, but rather a defense mechanism during the grieving period.
Bargaining: This stage of grief is often seen when an owner has to make the decision to put a horse down. Owners in this stage often look for alternatives in order to regain control over a situation that has no other options. They might make personal commitments that they will carry out if their horse gets better. Or, they might try things that ultimately prolong the period of pain and/or suffering of the horse.
Depression: This is the classic stage of mourning and loss. During this period, the owner might exhibit periods of crying, loss of interest in many things, appetite changes, sleeping changes and/or social withdrawal.
Acceptance: This is the final stage of grieving. The owner accepts the loss. There might still be periods of crying and sadness, but they move forward with their memories and regain their ability to function at their former level.
Everyone has a different emotional response to grief, and a different way of coping. There are many coping techniques, and it sounds like you are coping through a technique called isolation. Isolation can lead to withdrawal from the barn where the horse was stabled.
Some people feel their identity has been lost because they were so closely linked to their horse. Their sense of self has been compromised.
Grieving an equine loss is also demonstrated when some owners’ emotional connection to their other horses changes. The owner can become more attached to or withdrawn from the remaining horses. Other behaviors seen can range from neglect to aggression toward other horses. Normal interactions with people can also be compromised.
A good support system is very important during a loss. The grieving process time span varies greatly from individual to individual.
When we do lose a horse, we should take the time to reflect on the gifts they’ve given us, the lessons they’ve taught us, the experiences we’ve shared, the challenges we’ve faced and worked through, and the unconditional friendship and love, to name a few.
Below is a poem, from an unknown author, that I’ve found helpful for many clients who are experiencing loss. I hope it helps you, as well. Remember, although you are apart, your horse’s spirit continues to live within you.
In time’s own space,
There must be some sweet pastured place…
Where creeks sing on and tall trees grow,
Some paradise where horses go.
For by the love that guides my pen,
I know that great horses live again.