Paul T. Haefner Ph.D., of Leesburg, Va., is a clinical psychologist with numerous equestrian clients and is himself a horse owner and lifelong equestrian. In this article, Haefner offers advice on how to cope with the death of a horse.
Q: What emotional preparations might an owner make ahead of time to help ease the pain of putting down a chronically ailing horse?
A: There’s a lot of variance in terms of the way people respond emotion-ally to events like this and in terms of what will be helpful for them. Some of the commonly helpful ways to prepare are to spend extra time with the animal; also to gather mementoes and discuss with others the history you’ve shared with the horse. We recently had a family horse that died, and one of the things my kids did was to draw pictures and write stories about the things they’d done with her.
Q: What range of emotions can an owner expect to experience when a horse dies unexpectedly?
A: Often, they’ll experience everything from disbelief to denial to anger to very deep sadness. Again, it’s the type of thing that hits people very differently, but it can include all of the stages of human grief–because people tend to develop very intimate and powerful relationships with their horses.
Q: On the day an owner’s horse is scheduled for planned euthanasia, should she take the day off from work?
A: Some people definitely will want to set aside time for themselves so they won’t have to face the regular demands of their day. They may want to spend that day with close friends, or at least to give themselves the flexibility to take that time off if they feel they need it. But some people find it helpful to have something they can throw themselves into. They might welcome having work to provide a distraction [from their sorrow] and something to focus on.
Q: Should an owner save a lock of mane or tail, a set of pulled horseshoes or that sort of thing?
A: A lot of people benefit from having some kind of ritualized remembrance of their horse, and that type of thing can be very helpful. Other people might want to put together a small scrapbook.
Q: Is it better for an owner to be present at the time of euthanasia, or to have someone stand in for her?
A: That truly is a matter of personal choice–I don’t think there’s a right way or wrong way to proceed in this circumstance. For some people, it’s important to them to be with their horse through the very end. For other people, it’s very difficult, so they might want to entrust a good friend to go through the process for them. But the important thing is to avoid feeling that you have to do something because someone tells you that’s the right way to do it. People need to appreciate that they can make their own choices.
Q: At what age should a child be allowed to witness the euthanasia, and/or view the post-mortem body of the horse?
A: A lot of that has to do with the child’s life experience and their developmental stage, which doesn’t necessarily track evenly for everyone. Children who grow up on farms tend to see life and death all of the time, so they might view the death of a pet as more of a natural rhythm of life. Younger children who’ve had that experience might not see the event as quite so traumatizing. And in general, very young children [under 6 or 7] don’t have an understanding of death as being permanent; they don’t have the intellectual and emotional maturity to process it as an adult does. As children evolve into their teens, they become more mature at processing things like death, and you can feel safer in trusting them to make a judgment for themselves. When our mare died, it happened overnight in the field next to our house, so there was no way our children wouldn’t see her on the drive to elementary school the next morning. Obviously, it would have been better if they had been older before they had that type of experience. But it just shows you that you can’t always protect children from these kinds of things.
Q: Does it help for closure or peace of mind to conduct a ceremony for the deceased horse, such as a funeral or memorial?
A: Rituals are very important for many people in creating a sense of closure, so a simple ceremony that might reflect something like a memorial service is often wonderful. Other people might plant a tree, or display a memento that they’ve saved, such as framing a lock of mane. Getting together with people to whom that animal was important can be terrific.
Q: If the horse has been cremated and the owner is in possession of an urn full of ashes, do you recommend the owner keep the urn in her home or try to find a local pet columbarium?
A: I think it’s totally personal choice. Often, with an urn or ashes, it becomes an easier proposition for people who own property in that they can set up a memorial area where they live. Some people might want to scatter ashes in an area where they spent a lot of time with the horse, such as a ring or trails. Other people may want to retain an urn in the event that they might someday have to move, which allows them to take the urn with them.
Q: Do you recommend burial of a horse on the owner’s property, if her county allows burial?
A: I think for many people, it’s really helpful to process through something that’s concrete. It can actually be comforting to be involved in the act of the grave being dug and the remains transferred there. After-ward, those people have a tangible gravesite that they can attach their memories to. If they feel this process is helpful to them, then I recommend it.