In the past few months, I’ve had two horses that meant a great deal to me pass away. The first was Sparkles, a 391/2-year-old Morgan pony mare who belonged to friends of my family and had been retired at my parents’ farm. The second was Sully, a 21-year-old Thoroughbred gelding I had the privilege of leasing in 2016 and 2017.
Sparkles, the oldest horse I have ever known, was sprightly right up until the end. The day before her last, she’d cantered up the hill in the pasture with her three best horse friends and shared a flake of alfalfa hay with her six best sheep friends. We were so sure she was going to make it to her 40th birthday in June 2021, but unfortunately nature had other plans. It was a sunny day in her giant, grassy pasture when the time came to say goodbye, and she was surrounded by people who loved her.
Sully was a rare jack-of-all-trades who was good at everything he tried. He was a successful race horse, a raiser of weanlings, a one-star eventer, a hunter derby horse, a jumper and a second-level dressage horse. Since 2018, Sully had been living the luxurious retirement he deserved, but his arthritis and other health issues had really gotten the best of him (at 17.2 hands, these things take an even bigger toll). He had become clearly uncomfortable, and while his owners did everything and then some to ensure his quality of life and happiness, they made the responsible decision to euthanize him.
Needless to say, the loss of two really special horses in a four-month span has been difficult and emotional. Sparkles and Sully both meant a lot to me, and in reflecting on my time with them, I hope they knew that. I’m most comfortable expressing myself through my written word, but unfortunately, summarizing my sentimentality to these horses wouldn’t do as much for them as it would for me. So how do you adequately say goodbye to a horse that touched your life so profoundly?
You say goodbye by forging a bond with your horse that extends beyond just riding and training. You spend time hand-grazing them and grooming them and finding their itchy spots. You give them treats and sometimes show up to the barn just to hang out with them. You let them be horses and enjoy time in turnout.
You say goodbye by maintaining your horse’s body. You feed them a proper diet for their workload and their lifestyle, and you monitor their weight and make changes accordingly. You ensure your tack is properly fitting and comfortable and that their joints are properly lubricated and functional. You provide necessary vet care and heed the advice of equine medical professionals.
You say goodbye by always striving to ride softly and compassionately. You listen to your horse and adjust your training plan if need be. You take steps to mitigate their anxiety and to bolster their confidence. You continue your own education as a horseman to find ways to achieve the most harmonious connection possible under saddle. You respect them when they tell you they physically cannot do the job anymore.
You say goodbye by providing your horse with the best retirement you can manage. You continue to visit and care for your horse, and you prove to them that the bond you’ve formed extends beyond the riding career you once shared. You continue the standard of care you provided when they were your active teammate. You keep them as comfortable and as happy as you possibly can, and when the time comes, you make the tough but responsible decision to let them go with dignity. You stay with them as they take their final breaths, no matter how emotional it is for you.
Saying goodbye cannot be final words you say to your horse aloud; eulogies don’t pack the same punch when the recipient can’t comprehend the complexities of language.
The most effective goodbye you can provide your horse is a lifetime commitment to the best care and the most love you can give. You demonstrate your love to your horse day after day. And if you do, when that dreaded day inevitably arrives, you’ve already said your adequate goodbye.
Laura Adriaanse is an amateur equestrian and USDF bronze medalist based in Philadelphia. She started out in the hunters, rode for the University Of Mary Washington (Virginia) IHSA team, then switched to dressage after college. She is the proud owner of Dixie Rose, a Hanoverian mare, with whom she hopes to make it to the FEI levels.