"When Your Horse is Not Your Horse : End of Life for the Beloved Lesson or Therapy Horse"
Recent events in my world have gotten me thinking deeply about this subject. I've been in the situation a few too many times, and watched others navigate it with trepidation. I'd like to demystify this important topic. Many of us Therapeutic Equine Professionals (substitute in riding instructors, barn managers, riding stable owners, owners of deeply beloved older horses with a fan club of local barn brats etc) have been in this position or will be in this position:
You own an older, experienced, amazing, tolerant "unicorn" horse. You lease or share your horse to a local Therapeutic Riding Center, local barn, the neighborhood kids, your family....you name it. The time has come and the horse is starting to decline. It could be sudden, as in a colic or severe injury, or slow, as in inability to eat well, disease progression, or arthritic changes.
But how can you possibly manage this situation gracefully, tactfully, and in a way that honors your deep personal feelings AND the feelings of riders, participants, families, coworkers and friends?
Talking about grief and loss is HARD. Like, really hard. It takes emotional intelligence, poise, empathy for all involved, including yourself, and grace. Grace for those who stay stoic, grace for those who break down, grace for those who act out, grace for those who disagree, and mostly, grace for yourself as you navigate an incredibly tough situation the best you can.
And guess what? Sometimes, the best thing you can do is ask for grace. Most people are at a loss as to how to help the person experiencing grief, and may not even offer assistance due to their own deep feelings about the situation (or may offer way too much support when you need space). By simply saying: "I know this is a really tough situation for all of us, and I personally could use a bit of kindness and grace as I attempt to help you and your child", you can pretty quickly develop parents, coworkers, bosses and participants who come to you with an empathetic frame of mind, as well as modeling good boundaries and self kindness for your students.
Everybody experiences grief differently, but the pain remains the same. And that sort of pain for a child who isn't developed enough to truly process it can be crippling. As Professionals in the equine industry, we often fear that we are saying too much or that we are harming our participants (especially those who may be there due to grief from a tragic loss of a family member) by really having a deep discussion about the end of life of our Therapy Equines.
While discussions need to be age appropriate, empathetic, and kind, as well as honoring that participant's feelings, deeply held personal beliefs, and potential denial of the situation, these discussions are so so important!
It is important to be with your participants in whatever way you can. If that means honoring your own feelings and sadness by taking time off and having a superior or coworker who is equipped and knowledgeable handle the tough talks while you take time to yourself, then re-engaging with your students and having the discussions again, but with some distance and processing time in between, that is ok. If you want to be the one who tells participants and families, that is ok. Personal is always better, but modeling good self care and boundaries by asking a willing and highly emotionally intelligent coworker to be your liaison who can explain to your students that your way to grieve is to take time to yourself, is ok as well.
I have personally worked in barns where the death of a horse is treated as if it was the worst event imaginable. We were told to lie to our students, and forced to say that the horse had simply left for training or to a new home when the students actually could see the horse under a tarp behind the barn. It was awful. The students knew I was lying, nobody could grieve, and it created mistrust. I regret following those directions in order to keep my job. But that sort of abusive treatment of employees is pretty rampant right now in the horse world unfortunately. That's a whole other discussion for another day.
Some people may want to create some sort of organized ritual to help those who are going through the loss. Especially in larger barns where people may come and go at different rates and be involved at different levels of engagement, having some sort of picture book to sign or a momento area/shrine to honor the horse and leave thoughts for them or their owner can be encouraged. This sort of less personal way of honoring the horse can be left up for a while to allow everybody to see it and honor that animal in their own way. I've seen facilities have an artist in their community paint pictures of the deceased equines on the barn wall, and allow them to fade slowly over time. Some stables will have a framed picture of each equine they have lost along with their halter up on their barn wall or in an office. A lot of riding stables do have a page on their website that will honor the equines they've lost over time and have a short blurb about each one and how special they were. There are a lot of creative ways to honor those that we have lost.
For those equines who need to be euthanized due to old age, the ones that don't outwardly look to be in pain, but you know really need to be put to rest due to arthritic changes or other illness and injury that will affect them slowly over time, having a discussion with your vet and researching what is going on with that horse in order to have a well-rehearsed dialogue for all staff to be able to use on why it is important and a gift to give our animals euthanasia can be an excellent idea. Being able to prepare your students for what needs to happen ahead of time and being able to discuss kindly why this is the very best gift we can give them at the end of their life, to be able to let them go on a good day, is imperative. Sometimes having some sort of ceremony to honor those horses while they are still alive, allowing them to have the best grass possible the day before or the morning of the euthanasia, bringing them handmade treats and giving them a spa treatment, grooming them in all of their favorite spots can really help people feel that they are giving back to an equine that has given so much to them. This sort of activity is a double-edged sword because it can be very triggering for participants, so choosing who is going to be involved in this sort of activity wisely can make or break it. If you feel that there are too many participants who love the equine to do an activity like this, then just keep it between the staff and the horse, take lovely pictures, and share it with participants later. Notifying participants in their families that are euthanasia is about to occur ahead of time can allow them the time to come out and say goodbye if needed. Depending on the way your barn is set up and how many participants you have, you might want to make specific times to come and say goodbye to the horse so that you are not overwhelmed with participant showing up at all hours. Be certain that whatever you are doing to honor the horse and the participants is amenable and happy for the horse. Doing something that makes your participants feel better but irritates the horse on their last few days, should not be done. It can be explained that this horse enjoys certain activities, and maybe having a more hands off approach would be happier for that horse. That perhaps bringing them out to hand graze or just enjoying watching them in the pasture could be a much better experience for the horse, and ultimately, we need to be empathetic and kind to the horse foremost, since that horse has given so much to us. It is important for the learning and growth of our participants and families that are part of our communities that boundaries are created for the animal as well. You are their caretaker, and it is your responsibility to create that for your horse. Making sure that their last few days are fantastic can involve telling people no. That's okay. If people can say goodbye at a distance from the fence, and that is all, you can explain that there is a reason behind it and leave it at that. It is good for all to learn grace and empathy towards the horse in their final days, although one would hope that such feelings and the resulting actions would have been cultivated beforehand as well. That, is a whole other topic and a whole other essay.
Most facilities will clip either mane or tail in order to save it as a memento. Being able to give your students a few wisps of hair with a small hair band attached in a little plastic bag you can really mean a lot to them. And it's easy to give this sort of thing out to quite a few participants.
If you have large vet bills associated with the euthanasia or the care of the horse up to that point, setting up a fund where participants can help by donating to cover the costs of that horse can also be away in which participants can feel good in honoring their memory.
There is no perfect way in which to approach grief, death, suffering, or the loss of a really beloved horse. Such is true with all losses, there are beautiful and graceful ways to handle them, and there are not so graceful ways to handle them. It isn't easy to create a situation that both honors you as the owner or manager of the horse as well as all of the people who are attached to the horse and love them very deeply. When you are in the moment, experiencing your own grief and sadness, and having feelings come up that you didn't expect, traumas from your past that resurface, how can you handle both yourself and your participants and co-workers? Ideally, having a plan of how you will handle things can help, and sharing that plan with all who are involved in the management of the situation can also help things be more effective and move more smoothly. You can always change your mind, so long as you allow others the communication to know what your wishes are. Sometimes, having a plan A, B, and C depending on how you feel can be a good way to handle changing emotions. Prepare yourself, as these might be sort of difficult talks to have with your co-workers or superiors. Bring kleenex.
And lastly, remember, it's your responsibility to handle your own emotions. For your health, for modelling good emotional intelligence for your participants, and for the happiness and culture of your stable, you taking care of YOU in a way that works for YOU is of utmost importance. Seek counseling if needed, take a short vacation to unwind, do something special to honor your equine's memory. Do something that helps you become more fully 'you' again. And realize it takes time. Lots of it. You will not feel ok again overnight. Neither will your community that loves your horse.
And all of this...is ok.
It will be ok. I promise. You've got this, even if you feel like you don't.
With much love,