An Empty Stall

The loss of a horse leads to a new landscape of managing emotions and moving forward. Here's what to expect, and how to cope.

As I look back on my horse life as a child, I lost two horses—one to founder and another to strangles. So far, as a mother, my daughters haven’t faced the death of one of their horses, but we’ve talked about their aging horses and what to expect.

No matter what, you can’t fully prepare for the loss of a horse and how it might affect your child. Every situation is different and should be handled individually. But you can arm yourself with tactics to help your child and form your path forward. Here are four things to consider when your family encounters this situation.

Seeing an empty stall after saying goodbye to a beloved companion is never easy. Learn how you can help your child through this difficult time. Photo by Iriana Shiyan/stock.adobe.com

Create a Tribute

Often, when the veterinarian euthanizes your horse, they’ll collect tail hair, clean it, and mail it to you. Other options include keeping a shoe or a lock of mane. These keepsakes can be turned into tributes that your child will keep for a lifetime. When my first horse died, a friend made me a charm from a shoe and tail hair to hang in my room. It was a way my horse could still be with me. 

There are many options for creating a tribute, from framing a special photo to commissioning a painting to hanging a braided piece of tail hair on the wall. It doesn’t need to cost a fortune, but the thought and effort can really help your child stay connected to the horse.

Talk, But Listen More

It can be tough to help a child open up about their feelings after the loss of their horse. Open the door by sharing your feelings and talking, but when your child begins to share, do more listening than talking. Encourage them to talk without seeming too pushy. But recognize that when a child holds in feelings, it can require some outside help to ensure that they’re going through the grieving process.

By that same token, talking about an older horse before you face death can help prepare the child for what’s imminent. Talk about why the horse can only handle so much work, how you’ll take the best care possible of the horse so he can live a happy life, and what you can do together to keep him comfortable. But don’t let them dwell on what’s to come; instead, use it as motivation to cherish every moment that remains.

Get Back in the Barn

This is a big one for me: Get your child back to their community in the barn. They need to feel included and like they’re still part of what happens there, even if they might not have their own horse for a time. Encourage them to talk about memories and lean on their barn friends. 

If it’s an option, get your child back in the saddle on a lesson horse or another horse in the barn. Remembering how much they love the sport of riding—not just the horses—can help them move forward as they look for a new partner, as well as keep them connected to the barn.

Start Looking for a New Horse

Going out and buying something right after losing a horse isn’t an option for all families—and it might not be the right option for your child’s grief process. It’s OK to take time to grieve, move through the loss, save some money for horse shopping, and then start looking. Be aware that your child’s feelings might resurface, even if a few months have passed before you start looking for a new horse. Work through those feelings, and take your time to find the perfect next mount for your son or daughter to partner with for a long, fun relationship. 

[Dealing with Loss from Jordon Briggs]

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