Till Death Do Us Part

Q.My mare Gabriella has lived in the same pasture for about seven years with an old gelding named Bear. We took Bear specifically as a babysitter for Gabby when she came to us as a weanling. Bear and Gabby hit it off immediately and have been awesome buddies. When they're in the pasture, he won't let her out of his sight. When we take her out, he yells and paces the fence. When we bring her back, he's waiting at the gate and they run around, buck, and jig.

Bear is more than 35 years old. He's losing weight and having some trouble getting up and down. We realize that he will not be here forever. We wonder how Gabby will react to losing Bear, and what would be the best way to do it so that Bear has a peaceful end and Gabby doesn't miss him as much.

My neighbor suggested putting another horse in the pasture now so Gabby can get attached to a new friend before Bear dies or is put to sleep. But a few years ago, we put a miniature donkey in the pasture. Bear kept chasing the donkey away from Gabby. We just took the donkey out of the pasture. Do you think Bear would do the same with a horse? I am worried that it will kill him trying to keep another horse away from Gabby. For Bear, we think it would be most peaceful for him to be kept alone with Gabby to the end. For Gabby, would it likely be better or worse for her to be with Bear when he dies? Do you know how horses perceive a dead horse? Will she know that he's not coming back? As amazing as it seems, she has never been in the pasture without Bear. We would appreciate any suggestions you have.

Gayle


A. Thanks for asking all these tough questions. You certainly are not alone in your thoughtful consideration of these issues. I don't know if there are any correct answers, but I'm happy to share my thoughts and experience. Similar questions have come up over the years of my professional career, and I have spoken with colleagues and respected horsemen about their related experiences.

Judging by the behavior of wild and domestic horses, we believe that most horses are not more affected by the death of a herdmate than they are by separation without death. In other words, the horse's behavior rarely changes when a herdmate dies. I don't believe Gabby will have a concept of death. A mare which has lost a foal might continue to try to mother it (guard, nuzzle, vocalize to it) for a few hours as if it were alive, just as she would worry the gate through which her foal was taken away alive. But the mother of a dead foal soon moves on with the herd, almost immediately returning to a normal behavioral time budget. This would suggest no suffering we humans know as grief.

With what you have told me, I would do the following:

Plan to leave Bear and Gabby together as they are without a new companion until Bear dies naturally or his condition necessitates humane euthanasia. If he dies at pasture, Gabby will likely adjust quite well. I would guess she might at most stand near him for a short period, maybe just out of habit, then resume normal grazing behavior and movement around the pasture within a few hours. If the time comes for euthanizing Bear, I would do it as quietly as possible right in his pasture. If for practical reasons you must move him out of the pasture before he dies, I would take Gabby along if that keeps Bear calm and comfortable. I have seen many animals witness the death of a herdmate. They do not appear "spooked" or agitated by the dead or dying herdmate that is not struggling.

After his death, I would judge by Gabby's behavior and the available options whether to introduce a new companion. You don't know how she will be in the pasture alone or with other horses. As close as Bear and Gabby seem, Gabby will likely be okay without Bear. You didn't say how she behaves when outside the pasture, so I gather she is fine outside without Bear. If that is the case, I am confident that she will be fine when Bear leaves.

One of our greatest responsibilities in animal ownership is to responsibly help them avoid suffering. You are to be commended for your thoughtful consideration and courage in publicly asking these tough questions.


Follow-Up Q&A

Q. I am writing regarding your response to "Gayle" titled "Till Death Do Us Part" in the equine behavior column on page 26 of the March 2000 issue. Being a lifelong horse owner, your reply that, "I don't believe that Gabby will have a concept of death" interests me. I am fully aware that horses and animals in general are not capable of abstract thought and do not exhibit the same symptoms of grief when death occurs as humans. However, I am curious as to why humans assume that these animals do not "conceive" death.

With that, here is my question: If horses have no concept of death, then why do they fight so hard to stay alive? I would not assume to know how another person feels during loss. I certainly would not assume to know how a horse does or does not conceive death. But, common sense would tell me that nature has created all creatures with some kind of concept of death.

Lynn Marie Chambers


A. Thank you for your thoughtful note. Below is the text as I had submitted it to the column. Apparently, in the editing or copysetting, what I view as a very important phrase "as people do" was omitted. I agree that we really don't know how others perceive these complex concepts of life and death. My understanding is a work in progress, and I really appreciate your thoughts.

"Judging by the behavior of wild and domestic horses, we believe that most horses are not more affected by the death of a herdmate than they are by separation without death. In other words, the horse's behavior rarely changes when a herdmate dies. I don't believe Gabby will have a concept of death or even a consciousness of existence as people do. A mare which has lost a foal might continue to try to mother (guard, nuzzle, vocalize to it) it for a few hours as if it were alive, just as she would worry the gate through which her foal was taken away alive. But the mother of a dead foal soon moves on with the herd almost immediately returning to a normal behavioral time budget. This would suggest no suffering as humans know as grief."

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from TheHorse.com. Learn More

Free Newsletters

Sign up for the latest in:

From our partners