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After Tragedy, Leaving the Stall Door and Your Heart Open

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The door is open.

The Spirit of the Horse Returns

Two days ago I had to make the hardest decision– to euthanize my mare, my dream horse, Dressed for Tea. Despite a season of hope, in the end, the decision was unequivocal due to extreme pain and a dismal prognosis. Just the same, I’m fighting with thoughts of what more could have been done, how it just isn’t fair, the “if only” questions as well as the why. Years ago when my daughter was a little girl we had to assist our beloved big Thoroughbred to cross over into the peace of death. After I’d finished with practical tasks such as cleaning out his stall, scrubbing and storing the buckets, and putting his halter away, I went to close his stall door. To my surprise, my five-year-old shouted out, “No, Mom, leave it open! He wants to come back to visit.” When I managed to swallow down the lump in my throat, I swung the door back and propped it open. “There. His spirit can come visit me anytime now,” I said.

I said the words, but I didn’t believe them. At the time, my aim was to soothe her little girl sadness and lack of understanding of the permanence of death. The irony is, I was the one who didn’t understand anything. Not a day later, as I entered the barn with my mind on the list of tasks in front of me, I looked up to see my big guy in his stall, his head poking out expectantly for feeding time. In the split second it took my logical brain to catch up with what my eyes were telling it, he was gone. But it was so real. I understand the neuroscience behind what your mind conjures up and why, which would explain such a vision, but my gut–where acceptance of the mysteries of life really live–told me it was more than just a hallucination. That split second of  sight gave me a sudden gift of peace. A peace that comes with acceptance and surrender–qualities this control freak usually finds hard to embrace.

Keeping That Door Open and Your Heart Unguarded

Today, Dressed for Tea’s stall door is open, waiting for her to visit if she chooses. The open door is a symbol of  welcome–indeed expectation–for the spirit to come upon me again and give me peace. After a great loss, it is tempting to close the doors, shutter the windows, and retreat into darkness. It is likewise tempting to build a fortress around your heart and vow never let yourself risk love like that ever again. I’m never getting another horse, I’m never investing so much love, money, and time ever again! I’m there now, going through sadness, anger, guilt, numbness, and endless questioning. I can’t understand why I lost this most beloved horse, why now, why when it’s so unfair, along with a host of other questions that will never have answers. And that’s okay. In time, I’ll realize I can stop looking for answers and just wait, knowing I have to leave a door open, a heart open, and press on.

When I am pressed on every side by troubles, I am not crushed and broken. When I am perplexed because I don’t know why things happen as they do, I don’t give up and quit.   –2 CORINTHIANS 4:8

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My beautiful mare, Dressed for Tea, looking into the distance.
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47 Comments

  1. Wow! If this does not reach out and grab your heart, nothing will. Love them hard while we have them with us and keep them in our hearts when we can’t touch them anymore.

  2. How well I remember that “story”. They are with us always if we but keep our hearts open and remember to view the whole world through the eyes of our hearts. Sometimes we get a peek or a message and that is balm upon our tattered souls. May Peace, Love and Many Blessings carry you onward.

    1. Thanks Nancy and I love your expression “view the whole world through the eyes of our hearts.” I may have to steal that one for a book!

  3. I euthanized my Quarter horse mare the last Tuesday of June 2019, she was navicular. She told me she was ready. It was very hard but I still had my TB mare Deb. One week to the date I received a call from barn manager to tell me Deb horse was dead. She had been kicked , broke her leg. He put her down in field. There are no words but the pain and loss are very much a daily companion

    1. Carrie this is such a heart-felt testimony to the power of love for your animals. How tragic, but thanks so much for sharing your story.

  4. With horses, we need to accept that they simply do not live as long as we do. So it’s quite likely that, at some time in our lives, we will have to say that saddest, and final, Goodbye. It is massively unfair to keep the horse alive if the horse is in pain and there is no hope of a good outcome. My very FIRST friend in the Arabian horse community, Roma Coe, said it best, “Put the horse down before you have to feel guilty for not having done it sooner.”

    1. Thank you Mary Lou for your insights. Yes, they don’t live as long…none of our usual household pets do and that takes a toll when we have to say goodbye. It is especially tough if it is “before their time” due to sickness or injury and we feel the weight of unfulfilled promise of the future together. Indeed, no question, a horse should not be kept alive and in pain just because we are not strong enough to due our duty as an owner and steward of their welfare.

  5. I said goodbye to my horse of 20 years, Copper, on 3/7/19. The vet and I agreed that the end would be soon (He was about 34 yrs old, loosing weight and starting to have neurological issues). I decided to let him go while he was still having some good days, he was a pasture horse and I went to sleep every night with the thought that he might go down somewhere out in the pasture. I waited for a beautiful early spring day and let him enjoy the new grass all to himself for the entire day (He really thought he had pulled one over on me, as he snuck into the grassy pasture when my back was turned!) He had the best ‘last day’ I could possibly give him, and in the end he never knew what was happening. I went into depression for 2 solid months and am just now beginning to think that MAYBE I might get another horse. I’m almost 64, I always told myself that Copper would be my one and only. But, I am not the same person without a horse, and I don’t know if I like that or not. So, I’m waiting for something, or someone, to speak to me to see if I have it in me to do this again. Thanks so much for your post, LR!

    1. Dear Diane, Thank you for sharing this story about Copper. He must have been truly loved to reach such an incredible age and still be enjoying life. You know you did the right thing, as hard as it is. I’m hoping for you that the perfect horse walks through your open door again soon.

    2. Dear Diane, to maybe help you, you might consider looking into fostering or sponsoring a horse through a 501(c) horse rescue or riding stable. Good Luck. God Bless.

    3. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story as well as all of the beautiful replies. As someone who Has been blessed with horses all my life I have also I had to say my share of heartbreaking goodbyes. I have learned the hard way that sometimes the greatest gift of love you can give them is Making that decision when it’s time for them because it will never be the right time for you. I recently retired and will spend the next chapter of my life taking Care of horses who Have been abandoned and are police cruelty seizures. If I could add only one small addition to all of your stories it would be that as your heart is healing and you walk by that open stall door that the day will come when you will be at peace and that you may someday fill that stall with a rescue horse. A horse that so badly needs a forever home and the kind of love that you wonderful people have given to you forever horses.

    4. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story as well as all of the beautiful replies. As someone who Has been blessed with horses all my life I have also I had to say my share of heartbreaking goodbyes. I have learned the hard way that sometimes the greatest gift of love you can give them is Making that decision when it’s time for them because it will never be the right time for you. I recently retired and will spend the next chapter of my life taking Care of horses who Have been abandoned and are police cruelty seizures. If I could add only one small addition to all of your stories it would be that as your heart is healing and you walk by that open stall door that the day will come when you will be at peace and that you may someday fill that stall with a rescue horse. A horse that so badly needs a forever home and the kind of love that you wonderful people have given to you forever horses.

    5. Look at rescue horses…I’ve done that a few times. .your life will never be the same when you rwalizee you gave them a second chance..trust me…

  6. I had to put my beautiful TB mate Kellygayle down 4 years ago.The pain is still so real some days I dont think I can get thru! Thank you so much for your story,I so hope one day to see her again! God bless your beautiful baby!

    1. Thanks Bobbi. I hate the pain and I hope that we both see our beautiful mares again so we can find some peace in knowing they are well and happy.

    2. Dear Bobbi, You did the right thing for Kellygayle and in reward I hope she shows you how much she loved and appreciates you.

  7. So beautifully expressed! You perfectly described the numbing feeling of losing your heart horse except for one thing: the physical grip of grief which chokes your throat and forces hot tears from your eyes. I don’t know how long it lasts, but at least 4 years and 12 days.

    1. Oh, dear, it sounds as if you speak from painful experience. Yes, trying not to break down in front of the vet, trying not to break down whenever I speak about her… that cord wraps around my throat and squeezes. I hope you have found some better days in those 4 years 12 days.

    2. LR, thank you for posting this inspirational insight. SW, I know exactly what you are talking about. It’s been 4 yrs and 37 days for me. I guess I “should be over it” by now, but I really don’t think I ever will be. Yes, the pain is physical sometimes still for me. May God bless you and help you to heal your heart….it is a daily struggle.

      1. I don’t think we ever truly “get over it.” We maybe learn to remember the good times more than the loss… Hope you find the healing you need, and so do I!

  8. I know where you are. On the last Sunday of July 2019, in the middle of the night, and beneath the stars with her buddies with her, our 29 year old Thoroughbred mare died. We had her for 19 years. She was my youngest daughters first horse. She did what I asked of her a crossed over on her own terms and not in the barn. She was a tough horse and defied the odds multiple times. Since she was 18 or 19 years old she had been dealing with a heart murmur. Then she developed arthritis of the pelvis. As so got older, she suffered through multiple injuries to her hind legs, each time telling the vet to ” talk to the bottom of my hooves” as she jogged across the pasture bucking. I thought it was just the heat that had her moving extra slow when i turned them out for the night. That Sunday morning, i came out to do kennel and barn chores and there were only two horses in the barnyard. I put off going to look for as long as i could. Nothing stops the panic attack. Knowing this could happen doesn’t make it easier. I looked across into the pasture and saw that shiny, black rump on the ground and I started to hyperventilate. I had to call my daughters but I couldn’t breath. I finally got all that needed to be done and called. I had to get the other mates in the barn, I caught 1 but the best friend, the one who had been with her for 19 years, would not come. She looked to the pasture and screamed, I lost it. To hear their pain was almost too much. Even though they new, they still wouldn’t except it. It was days before I could take the name plate off the stall. I haven’t been able to take the buckets out. I finally turned the 3 led lights off over the stalls and have just the florescent light over her stall door on (it doesn’t like to fire up if it gets too cold). It is weird. The other girls have not been in but twice since then. They are tough paints who prefer out. I believe in them hanging out and visiting. I have seen them and have pictures of horses and dog spirits. The night Ma left, she was seen in a flat out run across the night sky learning how to work the clouds. She was racing the stars in true Thoroughbred fashion. Yes, her gate is open.

    1. A beautifully sad story. She lived by her own terms, it seems. My pony screamed and spun in his stall, calling for his mare. I was afraid he’d colic or hurt himself, he was so distraught. The two geldings still seem lost without their lady leader.

  9. I lost my beloved thoroughbred mare on Labor Day which happened to also be my birthday. My Dee Dee was 39, she’d been with me for well over 30 yrs. It was a freak accident that caused me to have to end her life. She was in amazing condition, as a vet had told me not long ago, she should be on a poster for senior horse care. How I wish I had let her go before this accident but even though my brain was willing my heart wasn’t and the price was paid. I had another horse that was born into my arms and I lost him to liver failure at 28 so I have lost a horse in the past but was still caring for my elderly parents then and I didn’t have the luxury to grieve my Copper like I needed to. I have a rescue gelding that has been Dee Dee’s companion since Copper died and he’s grieving hard for her. I’m thankful for having Big Red…my vet estimates that Red is probably in his mid 30’s, he’s been here for 8 yrs. I don’t think any herd animal should be alone but have considered that I won’t have anymore horses since I and my husband (who is 72) are finding it hard to keep up with the work on our 20 acres. But, Diane Opry’s comments above really touched me and yes, I too would be not the person I am without having horses out in my pasture. It’s all still too raw for me and I am still trying to get to that place where I can focus on all of the wonderful years that I was lucky enough to have my mare rather than those last, terrible minutes. I will always see her or expect to, either at the barn or in the field. Red has calmed down and seems resigned to being solitary but I’m leaving that stall door open and will see what I can do for another horse in need when I’m ready to put myself out there again. I miss riding, have had extreme seniors for so long and never wanted to bring a younger horse into the mix. Thanks for this timely and touching article, LR, and thank you all for your comments. Of course I’ve cried in the reading of them all but it’s a comfort too.

    1. Michelle thank you for telling us about your Dee, Copper, and all the beloved horses in your life… you are lucky you had ones that lived so long! You must be gifted in horse care (so, maybe you need to share that gift again with a senior who needs a safe place to land.) I have two old guys now (not as old as yours) but fear when one goes because they are bonded and have been together for almost 20 years. This is a tough “hobby” loving and caring for horses.

  10. When I had to say the final goodbye to my beloved horse he did something amazing that the vet and six others there for support all felt just after his passing. An incredible peacefulness fell over all of us, we were blanketed in total love. Stoke still speaks to me more loudly now that he is on the otherside, and, others have witnessed some of these surprising and unique messages. Allow your heart open to receive these messages, and they will always be there for you. I believe in The Rainbow Bridge, and Stoke made me a believer. Blessings to you and your aching heart.

  11. Oh, I am so sorry for your loss. You had a vision, meant to bring you comfort and peace. I had one too, after my much loved calico cat died, when clear as day, she stepped down off the back of my couch to cuddle with me, and it was about 2 weeks after she’d died. (I know it’s odd, but it really happened, and was not “just” a hallucination.) You quote Corinthians, so I will suggest if you are interested in such things, to read some of John Dominic Crossan’s writings, about Easter and about visions. Anyway, I am so sorry, and I want to thank you for sharing your feelings and experience with us. Our animal friends love each other and they love us, and it breaks our hearts wide open when we lose them.

    1. Thank you Pat, I will research John Dominic Crossan– I don’t know anything about him. Today is a week since she was released from the pain of her earthly body. I can’t express how much I loved that horse and believed she was the one that I would have and enjoy for years to make up for the tragedy of others that came before her. I don’t understand why, I just have to accept and that’s really hard.

      1. Crossan is a scholar, and I recall hearing him talk about visions such as these. If you can’t find it, let me know and I will dig it out. It is probably in some recent writings about Eastern vs. Western ideas about the Resurrection.

  12. Thank you for sharing – what a lovely tribute. I hold memories of my first horse near and dear to my heart, knowing he is part of me. I planted a tree over his grave and am so happy to see it growing.

  13. Your story was so touching! I’ve lost many horse and just recently one of my dear goats. I could so relate to what you wrote I am in tears. Thank you for sharing that beautiful story and how you really felt. Not many people understand the bond of a horse and owner I shouldn’t say owner but a horse and a person And a goat and a person. When they leave us I know they leave their memory and happy thoughts behind but we missed them so dearly. Thank you again for sharing

    1. Dear MaryBeth, thank you for your kindness and I am sorry to hear about the loss of your dear goat. No animal friend passing is easy.

  14. I am in tears as i read this. I needed to see this as we just lost our little girl, “Venus” she was only 11, she was a pug mix,I have so much guilt that some days its so very hard, I needed to see this. Thank u for sharing this.

  15. I have loved “horse” stories all my life. Starting with Black Beauty and The Black Stallion” series as a young girl. I grabbed everyone I could find. What a joy at 78 years old and recovering from thoracic surgery that I discovered you and your marvelous books. I am devouring every one of them. Thank you for writing your fabulous stories. I can’t wait for the next ones. Your style of writing has given me so much pleasure. I can’t even express it. Keep on, keeping on. God bless you and your wonderful work.

  16. Somehow I lost my first comment to you. I don’t think I can say what I initially said as effectively. But here goes. I have loved “horse” stories all my life, starting with “Black Beauty” and “The Black Stallion” series. What a joy at 78 years to discover you and your marvelous books. I am recovering from thoracic back surgery and happened to stumble over your books. They are marvelous and have given me so much joy. Thank you so much. I can hardly wait for your next stories to read. Keep on, keeping on, p!ease. From a devoted fan!

    1. Dearest Rosalie,
      You have no idea how your words boosted my flagging spirits! It is hard to be a writer, slogging through a draft story and sending it out without any idea how it will be received. So often, all we hear is how we came up short. It is so wonderful to hear from a reader that a story was entertaining, but to say such wonderful things besides…I’m now buoyed up and ready to take on my next project!! Thank you so much for taking the time to write and let me know and I pray your surgery went well and you’ll be back to more than 100 percent soon!

  17. You know that I am out here impatiently waiting for your new works to read. I !ook forward to everything you do. Keep the faith. I would love to hear from you anytime. Again thank you.

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