Processing Grief

Zelda the Magnificent

There’s no “right” way to grieve the loss of your horse. For me, the grief has come in waves so strong that they still take my breath away and bring tears to my eyes. I haven’t been blogging much since Zelda died. It’s been too raw, too fresh to think too much about her or writing about horses. I’ve started this post about a hundred times and never gotten further than the first few sentences. The last night, when she was in so much pain, still makes my chest hurt. Processing the grief has been complicated and not easily put away. At first, I wondered how I could have prevented what happened, how if I’d made different choices, she would not have died. I’m still not sure why after a decade of living out on grass, this year she had laminitis. What I do know is that she got the best care possible once we realized what had happened.

I found this cute cast iron horse that reminds me of Zelda. She now lives on my computer table.

For the first weeks after she died, I would talk about her with Curly, who also missed her friend. Even though we brought Curly into the field with Zelda when we put her down (she stood, untethered, next to her body for a long time, never moving off to eat), I know that she shared the emptiness of my grief and the incomprehensible knowledge that she was not coming back. The first time she was turned out in the field where Z was buried, she was inconsolable — calling for her and cantering around the field like she could find her if only she looked in the right place. I knew exactly how she felt.

I completely understand Curly’s distress — that if she only looked harder, she’d find Zelda. I still miss seeing Zelda standing at the gate and looking for me when I drive up to the barn.

At some point in time, I will write about the lessons I learned about laminitis, which were many. Perhaps they will help someone else have a better outcome. But it’s too soon for me to go into that much detail. The team of people who helped me get through the last few weeks of her life were generous with their time, knowledge and sympathy. My friends and family were likewise very supportive, even though I think that unless you are a horse owner, it’s hard to comprehend the type of bond that we have with our horses. Zelda came to me 10 years ago and it wasn’t nearly enough time. We had developed a strong, trusting relationship. We worked well as a team and she always made me smile. She was smart, sassy and curious. Right up until the end, she had a bigger-than-life personality. Her Instagram channel was called Zelda the Magnificent, and she certainly lived up to that handle.

Strands of Hope: How to grieve the loss of a horse
It took me several weeks before I could even open this book, but it helped me feel less alone in my grief.

One of the gifts that I received was the book Strands of Hope, written by my fellow blogger, Susan Friedland and sent to me by a mutual friend (Thank you C.V.!). It took me several weeks before I could read it, but one afternoon I sat by the pond and read it cover to cover, wiping away the tears as I went through it. One of the most important aspects of the book — for me — was that it helped me put my own grief into perspective. Just knowing that you’re not alone is a great comfort, especially when fighting the feeling that you should just get on with your life, that it’s “only” a horse. The book has great advice as well as interviews with people who’ve gone through their own losses.

Another resource that has helped me is a Facebook group called Coping with the Loss of a Horse. This is a community that understands how much our horses mean to us and how devastating it is to let one go. And it’s always too soon. You always hope you will have more time with them. Reading about other peoples’ losses has helped me understand how lucky I’ve been to have my heart horses in my life for so many years.

I’ve had two horses leave me suddenly. Kronefurst, my Trakehener gelding, died from a clot in his brain. It was sudden and unexpected. He was only 19 and I thought he would be with me for a long time, but I’d owned him since he was six. Zelda was 20 and I’d owned her for 10 years. Freedom, I got when he was six and I’m thrilled that he’s still doing well at 25. I hope he has many more good years.

One thing I’ve learned from talking to people recovering from losing their equine friends is that there is no “right” way to mourn the loss of your horse. For some people, the grieving process makes them feel like they never want to own another horse. Some walk away from the sport. Some wait years before they dip a toe back into horse ownership. Other people need to fill the hole in their hearts with another horse. I’m one of those people. Certainly, when Kroni died, Freedom helped me through the grief because he needed me. I had already adopted Freedom at that time, which was a blessing, as it’s extremely difficult to go out and buy another horse with such a fresh loss. When I retired Freedom, I was secure in the knowledge that Zelda and were a team, and while I missed him, I had more time for her.

I have found another horse and will introduce him in my next post. He was a horse that needed me as much as I needed him. Although I’ve only had him for a few weeks, I’m confident that as we get to know each other better, we will have many great adventures and that Zelda will look down at us, along with Kroni, and whinny their approval.

9 thoughts on “Processing Grief

  1. There are no words that can help soothe the ache of losing Zelda. Time will help lessen the pain and your memories will improve each time you tell a Zelda story. Take care! (Congrats on your new horse). ♥️

  2. Oh Liz, I cried through this. I appreciate that you have reached deep down and finally been able to write about it. I think humankind is divided into those who have experienced deep grief and loss and those who have not.

    1. Yeah, it made me cry, too. I remember when Kroni died it took months for the grief to recede. It doesn’t help that my father died at the end of March and that after Zelda died, we had to put one of our cats to sleep. A grief pile on.

  3. thinking of you, and all your wonderful memories of Zelda — what a special horse, and so lucky to have had you as her person <3 i'm so sorry for the loss of that special relationship

    1. Thank you. I know will always miss her. But I also know there are other wonderful horses out there who need their own humans. Someone I know said, “Always remember her with love, but keep looking forward.”

  4. TO this day I grieve losing Raven, and he wasn’t even ‘my’ horse. I remember the times we had together. I have the same thing, to a lesser degree with Jordan, my little flea bit Arab. I say lesser only because he asked me to let him go, as he was suffering, whereas Raven had a twisted intestine over night and Sue had him put down by noon. It is the kindest thing to let them go.
    When I had to put down my wonderful Wren, an ‘old fashioned’ Siamese, I am serious…she came to me a half hour after the vet left. (I had my horse vet come to the house to put her down, I didn’t want to increase her anxiety and pain by taking her to a vet clinic.) Wren came to me and said in my mind, “Thank you for letting me go.”
    Putting a loved animal down is the most painful thing to do, and yet the most merciful and kind thing to do, to the creatures we love. I only wish we could do it for the humans we love.
    Of course you are grieving. There is no end date. The jerks who look at you and say it was only a horse, or you should be over this by now…ignore them. The grief grips you now, but it will recede with TOT..Tincture of Time. Liz, if you weren’t grieving, I doubt I’d be writing to you. You loved Miss Z, as you loved all the rest of your furpersons. To paraphrase Robert Heinlein, ‘horses aren’t human but they are nice people.”
    It’s okay. by grieving you are honoring her.
    And trust me. I’m atheist. I don’t believe in a god, but I have had it proven to me that there is life after death, just one that is incomprehensible to us in this realm. She’s there with you and will be there for you when you pass.

    I don’t know if you watched the Test, a grade 1 race at last Saturday’s Saratoga whitney Stakes card. when a horse named Mapleleaf Mel was in the lead, she’d beaten the other horses, and stumbled and fell at the finish line. She had to be put down right on the track. The horse that came in second, Pretty Mischievous, was named the winner…but no one wants to win that way. her owners…I bleive she was from Godolphin ,
    didn’t take her into the winner’s circle. There was no celebration, the winner was unsaddled and taken into the shedrow. without ceremony. The atmosphere was sad. People were crying, to include me on the other side of the country.
    And the next day, the white carnation blanket that should have been over Mel’s withers was located…they didn’t take it to the winners barn..brought to Giddings, her trainer and hung on the stall.
    Take your time, Liz. She will always be with you.

    1. I read about Mapleleaf Mel. What a terrible tragedy. I knew she was the favorite and I’d intended to watch the race later. I do hope there is life after death. There are a lot of animals waiting for their humans and I look forward to seeing Z again.

  5. New here. And deeply sorry for your loss. May I offer two things to consider? You and others here are so right, there is no one way to process grief. It will stay with you but it does change. It has been now five years and one week since I lost my beloved draft cross gelding to a pedunculated lipoma. The vets, the researchers, do not know why or how those occur. There is no cure other than surgery and perhaps not even then, surgery on horses being fraught before, during, and after. There’s no “fault of owner” for that or for laminitis or founder. Sometimes, I think I’m healing but then a glimpse of a wide blaze in a roan face, suddenly must make my excuses and go somewhere private to pull myself together. One bit of advice – talk only to like minded people and especially avoid non-animal people — because from them the intentional and unintentional remarks about “get over it” will be very hard to bear indeed. The second thing. After decades of having many many horses with assorted ailments the main thing I have learned is that no two vets, no two researchers, ever will agree on the causes or processes of laminitis. Or its treament along the way. Especially if there is founder. No two horse people ever agree, either. Other than a couple very obvious triggers “got into the feed bin” or “retained placenta” the causes are myriad, interconnected, and often just plain mysterious. Out of so much love for the horse, one does the very best one can with the information available at the time. As you did for your lovely mare, including making the eventual hardest decision the caregiver of any horse (dog, cat, bird, exotic) must act upon. Wishing for you fortitude as you move forward.

    1. Thank you for your comment and very sorry for your loss. My vet told me I should not blame myself for what happened as he didn’t know what triggered the response after so many years on grass. What really tipped the balance for her was her size. As a Clyde-TB cross, she was just so heavy. She also was very stoic until the end when she spiked a fever of 104 and her coffin bones rotated and sank. I guess the good news is the choice, while not easy, was obvious. I do feel I got top notch medical support from my vets and farrier. There was truly nothing else we could do. While I’ve not yet fully bonded with my new horse, he’s give me a mission (he needed some TLC) and he’s a sweet boy that wants to be loved. His previous owners loved him dearly but were not able to give him the care he needed and I wanted a horse to take care of.

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