Do Horses Grieve?

Years ago when I bought my first horse, Bogie, I asked the instructor at the barn why he was always turned out alone. She told me that he had bonded very strongly to another gelding and had been turned out with him for years. When the other horse died, Bogie refused to accept a substitute. He preferred to be alone.

Freedom was very strongly bonded to Kroni.
Freedom was very strongly bonded to Kroni.

Freedom, my TB, is definitely grieving the loss of his friend. Since day 1 Freedom always wanted to be near Kroni. They were almost always next to each other in the pasture and they would stand side by side in their stalls.

There were certainly times when Freedom drove Kroni to distraction. Freedom always wanted to play and the two of them put on quite a show: they would rear and paw the air, or play halter tag. Sometimes Freedom would sneak up behind Kroni and grab his blanket or fly sheet with his teeth and pull until Kroni kicked out. Freedom would dance around and then come back and do it over and over again.

When Kroni  became sick, Freedom was acutely aware of his discomfort. He spent much of his day standing near his friend, nuzzling him or just keeping him company. Even when Kroni retreated to the comfort of his stall, Freedom came in and stood in the aisle or grazed close to the barn.

When we tried to get Kroni back on his feet Tuesday, when his legs would no longer obey the commands of his brain, we had to sedate Freedom because he became so upset. We needed to sedate him a second time when we loaded Kroni on the trailer, strapped to the glide.

My husband and I checked on Freedom the night that Kroni went to Tufts. When he heard us drive up, he came running through his paddock whinnying and agitated. He was looking for Kroni and not content to see only humans.

Yesterday I couldn’t bear to be at the barn. I checked on him a few times, but didn’t spend much time with him. Freedom is normally an “in your pocket” kind of horse. He loves human attention and will always come in from the field to find out what you are doing. But he didn’t want me to touch him. He was quivering and anxious, pacing back and forth. A friend told me that he spent much of his time looking off down the trails, as if expecting Kroni to come walking home.

Today I felt guilt about leaving Freedom to deal with his grief. Even if I’m sad at least I know what happened to Kroni. Freedom knows only that he’s gone.

Like yesterday, he didn’t really want to be touched. I could catch him but he was fidgity. He refused point blank to walk into the barn.

I saddled him up and took him for a long hack. It was good for both of us to go somewhere and move forward. Certainly he seemed calmer after we returned.

The grieving process is intense. According to the Pet Hotline on the Washington State University Web site, there are three distinct phases.

1. Numbness: (also shock, denial, or a sense of unreality). In this first phase, our minds slowly begin to adjust to the new reality that we have lost a loved one. Because this is such a difficult time, thinking about or experiencing the grief constantly would be too painful. So, we vacillate between knowing and not knowing, or believing and not believing that the loss has happened and is a reality. Give yourself time to come to terms with the loss. It can last from hours to several weeks.

2. Disorganization: This is a time of personal chaos, as we try to adjust to the world without our lost loved-one. During this phase, we are intensely aware of the reality of the loss, but would do almost anything to escape it. Strong emotion and exhaustion permeate this time and grievers find it difficult to participate in many of their normal activities. The experiences of anger, extreme sadness, depression, despair and jealousy of other’s who haven’t experienced such a loss are all a normal part of grieving. It is during this time that a person slowly understands all the implications of the loss, and figures out how to live again. This experience may last from days to a year or more.

3. Reorganization: (also recovery, reconciliation and acceptance). The disorganized, disrupted time a person experiences slowly finds a new balance point. The grief process slowly progresses and the person in mourning becomes aware that the physical signs of grief are fading and that the exhaustion isn’t as profound. Although the pain of the loss remains, the unbearably quality of it begins to lift. Hope returns. Life seems possible again.

I would say that Freedom and I vacillate between phase 1 and phase 2. All we can do is keep moving forward.

Note: my husband found a short article that was published in the New York Times back in 


13 thoughts on “Do Horses Grieve?

  1. Horses absolutely grieve. I have seen it in several different situations and am sure of it. Like people, it varies from horse to horse and individual circumstances.

  2. Horses do not grieve. They simply feel extremely vulnerable without a herd for protection, even if their ‘herd’ is only one other horse and demonstrate this extreme fear in various ways. By keeping horses in as natural as possible living conditions minimizes any physical or emotional stress. And by interacting with them without initiating fear or pain responses by incorrect training equipment and incorrect communication also ensures their physical and emotional health. Isolation, restricted areas such as small paddocks or stables, refined feed, mineralised water, iron shoes, bits including a mechanical hackamore, treed saddles, covers, hand or leg contact (no matter how small), holding the lead rope tight, trying to control them or force them to do something beyond their physical or emotional ability or tolerance levels all contribute to horses who are fearful, flighty, fidgety, disconnected and dangerous. Orthodox ways of equitation do not work with a horse’s natural way of communicating. Once hierarchy status and communication are clear between horse and rider, and no fear or pain is suffered, horses become relaxed, obliging and safe.

  3. Oh dear Jenny yes they do! Well let’s be accurate, in certain circumstances some do – just as with humans one size does not fit all. My 25 year old Arabian mare is now grieving for her companion of 20 years who died in January in her 30th year. Sometimes she relates to the other mares in the herd – so she is certyainly not vulnerable and alone – but often she stands alone from her choice. She seems very tired and ‘snarls’ often which she never used to do being very sweet-tempered. At her age how can we best assuage her grief and help her to gain equilibrium – or will this now be her lot and precipitate her own death? Denying that it is even possible for her to feel ‘grief’ would be convenient and arguably less painful but it would be dishonest. Horses are amazing creatures with far more capacity for shades of emotion than dogs – and I have and love both. Let’s find ways of helping them!

  4. My horse, Arizona, is most definitely showing grief at the loss of his partner of 5 years. They were the only 2 in the pasture, and he bossed, and directed and continually protected her. He loved her, muzzled her and scratched her back. He noticed everything she did. I knew her time was coming. She was 33, and had lost significant strength in her back legs. I didn’t want her to suffer and made an appointment for her euthanasia. I introduced a younger mare, Arizona didn’t allow her to come near the old one, and continually stood guard between them. But, the day came. I took him to her afterward, and let him sniff her lifeless body. He began eating the grass around her. I took him back to the paddock -he called and cried, and made strange sounds. He called all night. The next day he stood in her place in the run in, disinterested. Today, it’s the same, only he didn’t even bother to eat his alfalfa. The other horse stands near him and obviously likes him -but right now he doesn’t even want me to pet him. He even turned his head away from me. He’s never done that before.

    Most animals do experience grief. To assume grief is purely human emotion is to show the human ego for it’s ugliness.

  5. Horses most definately grieve. My daughters mare had her colt weaned. She had nothing to do with him and she moved to my place. we were offered him as a rising 3yr old. He arrived and there were a few paddock, trees between him and the other horses. But she knew he was here, she called first.
    He was gelded. The next day something had gone terribly wrong and his insides were hanging outside. he was destressed, weak, and in a terrible state. We had to put my daughters mare in the paddock next to him to settle him down. She stayed at that gate and did not move.
    The vet was called and sadly he was put to sleep. She was not in his paddock but she knew. He was burried. She knew. She was allowed into his paddock once he was burried and she stood on that grave for days. SHe lost her appetite, her alertness, She even gave up being lead mare. She stood with her head hanging. she didnt want to be taken out for a ride (something she loved to do). She didnt want to leave the paddock and no human contact was enough.
    She was moved to a different paddock as her depression was getting worse and worse. In the new paddock she’s go off on her own. 3 weeks on and depression still there. No longer keen to go on rides. Was like riding a broken horse. Looking over to the paddock he once was in with sad longingness.
    I’d like to say she has come right but she hasnt yet. nearing 4 weeks and nothing seems to be getting her out of it. I hope time will heal…..but if anyone asks me “do horses grieve” well my answer is absolutely.

    1. I’m so sorry for your — and your mare’s — loss. When my horse Kroni died, Freedom was actively distressed for at least a month. I did move a horse into his pasture as soon as possible but he really wasn’t interested in becoming friends. He did recover but it was probably two months before he started acting like himself again.

  6. How long do they grieve? My mare has been noticeably depressed and becomes quite agitated and nervous with just the smallest changes. New pasture, different water trough etc… It have been 1 yr and 3 months. She was with her Rope for 12 years and she still has her off spring that is 11yrs old. I am at a loss, she seems to be morning all over again and is not eating and either walks the fence line or stares off in the distance. I am bringing home another horse tomorrow, another mare hoping that another horse with increase the feeling of herd security…safety in numbers…

  7. I just lost my 25 year old quarter Tulsa horse last Friday. And I am worried about my 7 year old appendix Nikko They have been pasture buddies for a while and would call out to Tulsa if I even just took him out for a brush. He seems like he is doing better. Trotting to his hay and everything now. But I am worried that he is going to resent me for taking his buddy away. His eyes look so sad. I want to fix him but i dont know what to do or how to help him. I haven’t put any1 in his field yet. But there r other horses always in the next paddock. Can any1 give me any suggestion?

    1. My horse did much better with another horse in with him. I put him with a mare that he’d been turned out with before. He was still sad, but it definitely helped. So sorry for your loss.

  8. Things are better for Lena. She still looks for Rope but with the third horse added in May I have seen an improvement in her. She is showing fewer signs of stress and doesn’t pace the fence as much. She is also keeping weight on better this winter. Ginger looks a lot like Rope, very similar build and coloring. I placed them in neighboring paddocks for several days before turning them out together for the first time. I was expecting a squealing, peeing, tail swishing fight. It didn’t happen. They moved together across the field in perfect harmony, side by side like they were intended to be best friends. Moon was feeling a bit left out, but that is ok. He needed some self-reflection time anyway. 🙂 Shannon, I hope your Nikko is doing well and accepted his new friend.

  9. I got a mare pony I rescued from the auction she was in quarrentine for about a month. There is some squeeling but they r fine. I just worry him getting attached like he was to Tulsa. But at this point it doesn’t matter cuz every1 is heard bound from the winter we r having

  10. I lost my mare last Thursday after a horrible battle with Cushings disease, my old mare was so upset, we brought her another horse 3 days later, well my old mare passed away this morning exactly 7 days, it has been the most horrible time in our lives. Now I have this gelding that is obviously very sad, even though he was only with my mare for 4 days. I am fostering him from a wonderful Horse rescue, I really like him, I don,t know if I should take him back since I got him for a companion or now foster another horse so he will have a companion. Life sucks sometimes!

    1. I’m so sorry for your loss. I will say that my horse did start to feel better when we turned him out with a mare that he had known “over the fence” and then later I brought in another gelding. They weren’t the same friends, but they helped. I’ve fostered quite a few horses for CANTER and I loved having them come through. Freedom was the only one I kept, but I really enjoyed watching the others thrive.

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