Bereavement in Horses


Just how does death affect horses? This year, I’ve unfortunately had the opportunity to observe the herd when they lose one of their number. It’s quite strange to witness the different effect it has, depending on the horse.

The first we lost was Puppet, overnight colic and found dead in the morning. Cali was affected so much; she loved Puppet, which was odd, because she tends to not be much in love with the other horses in general, apart from Delphi, Puppet’s mum. Delphi seemed almost relieved when Puppet left us. Is that because Puppet was a youngster and in the wild would, by that age, have been making her way away from her dam? The saddest thing about the whole episode is when we buried her in the field. Little Pedro stood on her grave and didn’t move for two days. The whole herd was subdued.

It happened in early January, 2016, so the weather wasn’t doing much to give any cheer. But the general sadness was palpable, and I wondered if the horses felt it as much from me as I did from them. When a horse dies they’re so big that a certain amount of indignity is unavoidable. When the tractor picked up Puppet and took her to the grave it had just dug, the horses followed along with me, a group that was as aware of what was happening as any group of human mourners. It was the most funereal thing I had ever witnessed to be fair, and apart from Pedro, after the burial the horses just turned away, like they understood it was over.

Later in May when Delaney died, arguably the worst day of my life, the reaction was the same. He had a badly broken leg from a kick and had to be PTS. The vet came and as she did the deed and I held on to Delaney’s head as he fell, the other horses gathered in a circle and sniffed at him. Again, it was clear that they understood. As with Puppet, I left the body for 24 hours for the horses to come to terms with it. They stayed close to his body all night, and the next morning when the tractor came again they did exactly as they had with Puppet. They followed his body, with me, us all in a line, and the herd watched as he was covered with earth.

Delaney had always been the link between the Baywatch crew; Cali, Delphi, Puppet, and the reject, Raggy Dolls; Fray and Tycho. Smurf, Pedro and Trotsky also functioned as go betweens, Smurf, because he was an original, like Delaney, and Trotsky and Pedro, I suspect, because they were entire and liked hanging with the chicks. Delaney though was the true go between. He seemed to control the herd and have it all together. He never acted like herd leader, but it was so apparent after he died that he had been just that. The herd completely fragmented, and it took some time for order to be restored.

Eventually peace resumed, until the day before Christmas Eve, Trosky also succumbed to colic and we lost him too. The biggest impact was on Tycho. He completely regressed into his earlier madness, to the point that when people came to the field he would really kick off. I had to save the lady from the Woodland Trust from him, as he tried his best to eat her. It was difficult even for me to keep him talking as she legged it over the gate to safety. I had no idea that Trotsky had been so dominant in the herd. Either Tycho was feeling like suddenly the weight of the world was on his shoulders, or he was playing up because he had a chance to be boss again.

This behaviour continued for some weeks, and it was a good couple of months before he came back down to the point he was at before. When Trotsky was buried, everyone followed as they usually had, but everyone was very jumpy; getting a bit bucky and kicky, as though they were frustrated. Tycho went crazy all over the field; I was having to watch I didn’t get hurt. He seemed to suddenly hate everything; me, the others, the tractor…. And my guys love tractors because tractors bring hay. He was so disturbed, and it was, frankly, pretty terrible to watch.

We don’t give enough credit to the fact these animals have their families like we do. The whole family unit shifts when one passes, and the herd has to get over it and make do. It’s apparent to me that horses suffer bereavement at least as much as we do, and their feelings manifest themselves in different ways. I wonder if death is easier on them than separation; as in death they have the opportunity to understand what has happened. When they’re separated they don’t. We hurt as much from divorce or physical loss of a companion as we do from death, so it’s important to remember than horses do too, and give them time, and to understand.

About the author

Tess Delismurf

Tess runs Delismurf, a self funded sanctuary for abandoned, abused, and difficult horses. Jokingly referred to as the “Ponitentiary” the horses are reintroduced to kindness, and to living the most natural life possible for a horse. As some of the horses came to the centre with serious hoof issues, Tess learned how to fix feet with corrective trimming, so far with great success. Originally trained in theatre design and acting, she has for the last few years studied both Human and Equine Psychology and is an active campaigner for Equine Rights. Learn more here:


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