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
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
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.