Have you ever wondered if horses grieve?
One morning my partner went out to feed our horses, but not long after leaving the house, he returned to ask for my help. Chips, one of our heavily pregnant Arabian mares, had slipped her foal.
We had around a dozen horses at that time, mainly mares. That morning instead of mingling around the gate waiting for their breakfast, the horses were all standing quietly in a circle, with heads lowered. They were surrounding Chips, who was frantically nudging her perfectly formed still born foal as it lay on the ground, still encased in its birth sac.
It was a deeply distressing sight. To see Chips so desperately trying to encourage her foal to move, and gesturing towards the other horses as if to enlist their help was truly horrible. It’s an event that will stay etched into my memory for a very long time. What made the situation even more heart-rending was the behaviour of the other horses.
I haltered Chips and guided her away so my partner could take care of her foal. Although she did not resist when I led her away, Chips turned her head back in the direction of the foal and began whinnying. At that point, Psyche, our matriarch, broke from the huddle and trotted to join Chips as I led her away. As we walked, Psyche nuzzled Chips along her neck in what looked unmistakably like a gesture of comfort and support.
I led them to a smaller paddock and released Chips who immediately made a beeline for the fence. She began calling for her foal as she paced the fence line in a very distressed state. I was surprised to see Psyche trot after her, then keep pace with her, pressing her body up close to Chips’ as they walked back and forth. Clearly, she was supporting Chips in her distress.
In the meantime, the others remained huddled over the spot where the foal had lain, as if grieving for the little life lost.
Chips eventually calmed her pacing and stood quietly, her sad gaze constantly watching in the direction of the other horses. Psyche also stopped to stand still with Chips.
Throughout the day, Chips alternated between periods of pacing the fence and calling out, and standing still with her head lowered, facing the direction of where she’d last seen her foal. Incredibly, Psyche mirrored Chips’ every movement. When Chips stood quietly, Psyche would stand quietly with her as if she was supporting her and holding space for her.
The rest of the herd remained huddled in the same spot, only dispersing late in the afternoon to come in for their evening feed. The overall mood of the herd was sombre to say the least.
It was several days before Chips stopped her anxious pacing and calling and appeared to return to her normal calm self. In all that time, Psyche never left her side. Just like humans, it appeared that horses also need time and space to grieve.
The experience impacted me deeply. It made me realise how little thought I’d ever given to how horses feel when they lose a foal, either due to still birth, or even when the foal is weaned or sold. It got me thinking about my own experiences, and how I felt when I had to let go of twin daughters at the age of 6 months, or when a close family member died, or when someone I loved left my life. Could horses feel the same emotions as humans?
Seeing how the horses behaved when Chip’s foal died convinced me that was the case. The herd was a very close-knit unit, and it was obvious that every member was affected by that event. Blind Freddy could have seen that.
I thought about the other mares in our herd who had given birth to foals before they had joined our family. Had they felt grief too when their foals were taken away from them and sold on? How did such a loss impact their lives? How long did it take for them to get over the loss? And what about their foals? How did being taken away from their mothers affect them?
When a horse comes into our life, how do we know if they are carrying emotional pain? What would that pain even look like? We see horses in a paddock with their heads down grazing and assume they are happy. But are they really? Who would know what is really going on in their world? Are they silently grieving for a lost foal? Unless we can communicate with animals, it would be hard for most of us to know if a horse was experiencing emotional pain.
Could losing a foal cause a change in a mare’s personality or behaviour?
Not long after Chips lost her foal, Psyche gave birth to her own healthy foal (pictured in the image above). Psyche had always been a prickly mare but for the most part she was calm, and easy enough to handle. However, as soon as her foal was born, she turned into the demon from hell. There was no way on earth she would let us near her foal, under any circumstances. She even succeeded in teaching her to flee from us whenever we came close or even thought about coming close. It was 2 years before I could eventually get near her foal, and not for lack of trying! After that, Psyche seemed a whole lot more prickly and a lot less trusting of humans, even though we kept her foal.
Prior to coming to us, Psyche had given birth to a few foals, all of which had been taken away from her and sold. I believe her threatening behaviour towards us after she gave birth to this foal, was caused by an instinct to protect her from being taken from her like the others had been. But that’s a story for another blog post.
As for Chips, after losing her own foal, whenever one of the other mares gave birth, she became very interested in the foal and tried to mother it. In fact she became our foal nanny, and was instrumental in helping me gain trust from Psyche’s foal (along with daily Reiki treatments!), but again, that’s a story for another post…
How can Reiki help a grieving horse?
Apart from the support from Psyche and the rest of the herd, one thing that I believe helped Chips through the grieving process was Reiki.
Seeing how the horses behaved during that time and knowing how Reiki can help soothe and support humans during the grieving process, it seemed natural to offer Chips Reiki in the days following the loss of her foal. Both Chips and Psyche were receptive to the Reiki whenever it was offered. During treatments they’d stand close together as if in meditation, with their heads lowered, eyes closed, and breathing deeply. Sometimes they’d stand for an hour or more, other times, not so long.
Reiki had a calming affect on both horses, and Chips seemed to remain calm for longer periods after each treatment.
In humans, Reiki treatments can ease feelings of grief caused by the loss of a loved one. The soothing Reiki energy offers emotional support and brings peace to the spirit. It can help us with acceptance and letting go. Reiki can help horses in the same way. Even if we are not sure how deeply the horse is feeling the pain, the beauty of Reiki is that you don’t need to know what is going on in the horse for it to be a benefit, if the horse is receptive to sharing Reiki with you, the Reiki energy will go wherever it is needed whether on an emotional, mental, or physical level and will help to put into balance anything that is out of balance.
When we offer Reiki to horses, we are not ‘doing’ the healing, we are simply facilitating an opportunity for the horse to find healing within themselves, that way they are free to choose whether to join us in the healing space or not. I know from having spent many countless hours offering Reiki to horses, its rare for a horse not to choose Reiki if they are in need; even when I’ve had no idea about their history or what is going on for them. Reiki allows us to lovingly hold space for them while they find healing within themselves.
Its such a beautiful thing we can do to support our horses, specially at a time when they are facing grief caused by the loss of a loved one.
The thing I love most about offering Reiki to a horse at any time is knowing that it could be helping them heal from any possible past trauma, whether that be from losing a foal, or from being taken away from their mothers and family.
What a wonderful thing we can do for the horses in our lives.
If you found this post interesting and would like to learn more about Reiki and how it can help horses, or our Equine Reiki courses please feel free to get in touch either by booking an obligation free chat which you can do by clicking this link or send me an email so I can answer all your questions.
In the meantime stay safe and well!