Ellie was old and died of heart failure which is not unusual in itself. What was rare was that she did so when I was with her, just a few feet away. Thus I was able to share both her final moments and those immediately following when the remaining three members of the herd, Winston, Ruby and Dawn, awakened to what had happened and processed this information individually and collectively. I was able to witness their incredible reactions, and they mine, and spend time with them after the event.
Each one of them reacted slightly differently but all with clear emotion, displaying vocal and physical behaviour I had not witnessed before. Ruby, the lead mare of the herd, responded most dramatically. She touched Ellie gently with her nose, walked away, then returned to explore again. After doing this several times she dropped her head to the pony’s body and threw her head up with a spine-chilling, high pitched squeal, lashing out violently with one of her hind legs at the same time. She repeated this again and again. The other two also came one after the other and sniffed the small muzzle – Dawn shook from head to tail and whinnied loudly, Winnie silently turned to face away. Soon all three of them stood like sentries with their backs to where I sat with Ellie’s lifeless form.
While I will never know what went on in their minds and hearts, and have tried to give a factual rather than anthropomorphic account of what happened, it reminded me that horses (and other animals) possess profound consciousness and powerful emotions which are uniquely their own. In our human way it is easy to lapse into seeing the world through our eyes and to shape what we find to fit our world. But what of their’s? And how can we be richer by learning to understand it?
It is sometimes said that horses teach us by mirroring our own emotions back to us. Somehow this denies them their validity. When we learn with horses, they are not our tool. We are entering into a unique, vibrant, spiritual dynamic, which is the manifestation of all that is wondrous about the natural world itself.
And if we can lapse into seeing horses as reflections of ourselves, do we also fall into the same trap with other humans? Is this why we fail to understand ‘the other’, because we are expecting them to be like us? And when they don’t meet our expectations, we judge, dismiss, become frustrated, try to bend them to our will, or question our own self-worth?
Might it be that learning to honour and communicate with an equally valid emotional being of another species helps us to reframe the way that we perceive each other as well as how we might see ourselves? For whether we are projecting our inadequacies onto others, or protecting ourselves with façade and self-defining stories, horses will always see us for who we are, and call us to be who we are able to be.
On Ellie’s passing and in the days of shared transition which followed I felt that I became connected with my herd in a new way. Bereavement, previously, had always been my domain – my mother, father, brother and stepfather – and I had been able to witness the impact of my emotions and how I managed them, on the horses. They had helped me to heal in many ways: guiding me to own my feelings, release my fears and shed the tears I needed to. Now our loss was shared. For me there was shock, sadness, guilt (could I have done more to care for my pony?) and worry (would the others be OK without her?). The horses, they looked for their friend and I could see too that their relationships with each other were reconfiguring. But there was no drama, no recrimination, no “if-only’s” or “I should have done’s”. They were simply and peacefully with what was.
And that perhaps, is the essence of the horse’s gift to us as we come to terms with what is lost. How to simply be, together, with what is.
Pam’s book “The Spell of the Horse” will be published by Blackbird Books on 17 September 2017: https://www.blackbird-books.com/pam-billinge/