Layers of Loss: Understanding Grief

Photo © Evelyn Szczepanek / ES Equine Photography


Grief is heavy and complex. Thankfully, people are increasingly vulnerable in discussing their personal grief, but there had to be a shift in our culture’s validation and acceptance of grief before that could happen. It has been heartwarming to watch our culture speak more openly about grief. 

I have had a lot of loss in my life, and I focus on different types of grief professionally. My role as a pediatric chaplain requires that I hold space for grief for children, their families, and my fellow healthcare workers. 

But what is grief? How do we see it in the horse world?

Grief is loss. It is loss of life, loss of relationships, loss of community, career changes, unmet goals, and dreams not realized. Grief is not linear. Losses stack on top of each other. We revisit past ones while experiencing new ones. We often associate grief with death. Losing a loved one, whether a human or an animal, is devastating. Our worlds are never the same. It is as if we were one person with them in our lives and another after they left. We have feelings of sadness, anger, abandonment, fear, and hopelessness at new levels with no set timeline. 

Yes, there is no timeline on grief. Give yourself and others all the time they need. Grief is experienced in a host of other ways, too. It can be validating to realize that you were in deep grief when you were passed up for a well-earned promotion, lost a job, or had a baby admitted to the NICU instead of discharging home with the social media perfect photo op your other friends had.

In the horse world, grief takes on different forms. It’s directly related to your horse and riding. It can heal through your horse and barn family. Equestrian grief is significant and life-changing. 

When your beloved horse dies, the pain is deep and indescribable. You lost a partner. Your daily routine changes. Your identity changes. Loss of an animal is a grief understood by many, particularly that of a dog or horse, but it’s also lonely. You are the only one who truly grieves that animal. When a family member dies, the memorial service is full of friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers who share the collective loss. They tell stories, laugh, and cry together. While friends and family may support us when an animal we love dies, the grief is ours alone. Grief is already isolating, and the loneliness and being the only person grieving that animal increases the loneliness.

It’s not always about losing a horse though. Sometimes it’s just change. The loss of dreams, goals, and relationships at the barn is not only lonely but can be hard for others to understand. Perhaps you had a long-term or strong relationship with a trainer or barn buddies, and it was time to move on or barn drama caused tension. Perhaps you set a goal to show at a new division or qualify for Devon, but your horse was suddenly injured. Perhaps you hoped to add more rated shows to your scheduled filled with wonderful local shows, or you hoped to spend the winter in Florida. All of a sudden, you are rehabbing after a fall, or your horse has a career-ending injury. Perhaps your dream has nothing to do with showing but about achieving deep softness or moving up to 3’ or 3’3” at home, and you become pregnant. You are thrilled about the baby but have some sadness as you were nearing a new goal. 

It’s okay to grieve all of those things, even the mixture of joy and sorrow when welcoming a baby and having to pause on riding goals. Your dreams come crashing down when either you or your horse are injured. Your show season ends abruptly, and you begin rehabbing yourself or your horse. Fear, disappointment, discouragement, and anxiety sets in quickly. Our identify is affected. 

The non-horse world may not understand this grief, but it is all too real in our world and within many sports. Our sport is the only one, however, that also relies on the mental and physical health of an animal as well as our own. Goals set at home and all the way to the Olympics are impacted by words like “not sound,” “retirement,” and “surgery.” We should give ourselves permission to grieve lost dreams. It will give us the peace to adjust to the new normal, but we have to grieve first. Let others grieve, too. 

I have never been a point chaser but enjoyed showing for the sake of having an outlet to demonstrate the connection and achievements my horse and I worked towards for so long. However, I did choose an undergraduate school with a great riding program. Out of all the colleges that sent acceptance letters to my childhood home, I picked the one that would allow me to bring my first horse and ride. 

I also brought fresh, personal grief with me to school. My mom died, and we shared the horse I would bring to college. The original plan was for her to keep him, and I would ride school horses. She promised she would care for him whether he was able to continue his heavy program or his stifle troubles resurfaced and required retirement. I kept that promise and took him to college. The school asked him to leave after one semester. He had trouble adjusting to a new climate and actual seasons. He needed more time, but that was not an option. 

Gunner was adopted at 3 years old, and he’s now 5. Retraining him and bonding with him has been true soul care.

It broke me. The one thing supporting me in my own grief over my mom’s death felt threatened when I needed it most. This moment was a lost dream of riding in college. Yes, I could have remained in the program and ridden school horses. Oftentimes I regret that I did not do just that, but I was 18 years old and lost. There was no one to say, “riding will heal you.” I could not imagine riding someone else when the horse that connected me to my mom went home three and half years too early. 

What would have happened had there been someone, maybe a classmate, professor, or coach, who validated my grief and helped me see what riding would do for it. My dream of riding throughout college and building friendships within that community ended. I lost my identity while in deep sadness over my mom’s sudden death.

The healing power of horses in our grief was part of my lost dream to ride in college. I stayed at that school and loved every second while there was a clear void in my life. That school gave me my voice and changed me in wonderfully empowering ways in spite of a broken dream and distance from a treasured riding community. It took years out of college and self-awareness for me to grieve that lost dream. There is always hope in the mess. Horses give us hope and friendships.

Gunner met Oliver, my Boston terrier and best friend, a couple of times, and this was the first meeting. Gunner is now helping me cope with the loss of Oliver.

Our horse’s death years later, while I was in graduate school, hit me hard. Again, grief has layers. A Boston terrier entered my life that year and was a source of peace, unconditional love, and emotional safety. He healed me. He died a month ago, nearly 16 years after changing my life, and now the incredible connection I have with my five-year-old OTTB is healing my grief. He is giving me moments of peace, love, freedom, and distraction. 

I imagine each of you has experienced the healing horses give you. Perhaps you miscarried a baby, and your horse’s breath on your neck brought you comfort. Perhaps, as you grieved your horse’s career-ending injury, they showed you the way your relationship can continue through becoming your kid’s crossrail horse or a peaceful trail horse. Perhaps you lost a loved one and found comfort in your saddle. Acknowledge the grief, and validate the grief of others. Grief is heavy, but it does not have to break us. Live in it. Grow from it. Heal in your own time.

Jessica lives in The Woodlands, TX where she works as a pediatric chaplain with a strong passion for meeting the spiritual needs of children through play. She’s a proud dog mom and is retraining a 5-year-old OTTB, who is her forever heart horse, “Gunner.”