May 11, 2013
Storm Warning was a beautiful thoroughbred with a challenging personality. So many things spooked the horse: umbrellas, bicycles, small dogs, ponies, even people who removed an item of clothing while riding him. Storm, as he was called, was just a bit neurotic. But he lucked out in one way: he enjoyed a fifteen-year close relationship with Mary Stapleton, who happens to be a psychologist. Acutely attuned to people’s fears and anxieties, Mary transferred her insights and calming abilities to the horse. Even as Mary and Storm competed in the dressage ring, they worked together on Storm’s fears. In Mary’s words, Storm “learned to jump and face all of his terrors with great courage.”
Then, one night when he was eighteen years old, tragedy struck. Storm had been turned out into a field at the farm where he lived in a herd with other geldings. An accident of some sort must have occurred, for in the morning, Storm was found to be severely injured. Examination revealed a compound fracture in his hind leg, too extensive for successful treatment. Right there in the field where he had spent his happiest days, Storm was put down. And right there he was buried.
Horse people will recognize, Mary says, how unusual it is for a horse to be interred in the fields where he had lived. Mary still expresses gratitude to the farm’s owner for affording Storm such a burial.
The evening after Storm’s death, Mary walked out into the field alone. Approaching the large mound that now covered the horse’s remains, she placed on the ground his favorite flowers—flowers he used to eat.
“I heard the horses grazing around me,” Mary says, “and was, as always, comforted by their presence. Slowly, at least six of the group stood around the mound, stopped grazing, and looked at the grave. I realized we, the horses and I, had formed a circle around the fallen Storm.”
To Mary, this event felt eerie, all the more so once she realized exactly who the encircling horses were: Storm’s companions, the geldings who were part of his herd. The geldings stood with lowered heads, which implied a straight-ahead gaze. “If horses hold their heads high,” Mary explained, “they are scanning far away. But Storm’s group clearly was at the right visual angle for looking directly at the burial site.” Other horses, nearby in the field but new to the farm and not part of Storm’s herd group, did not join the circle. None of the gathered horses ate the flowers Mary had placed on the grave, and she had brought no other treats. Whatever drew Storm’s companions to his burial place, it wasn’t the hope of food. In spontaneously forming a circle at his grave, Storm’s herdmates began a vigil of sorts; Mary found them still there the next morning.
A cautious person, Mary acknowledges that many interpretations of this behavior are possible.
“I choose to think,” she says, “that I was allowed to share a circle of mourning for our mutual, loved companion.”
Mary’s story about Storm became a catalyst for me, as I was unfamiliar with horses either personally or in my work on animal emotion. To horse people, I soon found out, the notion of a horse circle, or indeed of equine grief, was anything but new.
At one time, Janelle Helling managed a ranch in the Colorado mountains, with twenty or thirty horses in residence. One morning, the herd failed to make its way to the barn-corral area for feeding as it usually did. A mare had foaled during the night, and the newborn was too weak to stand. “The rest of the horses were circled around the mare and foal,” Janelle recalls, “and would not let us get near them. The horses refused to be herded away from acting as a barrier between us and the mare and foal.”
That barrier was protective in nature. In that area of Colorado, mountain lion, bear, and coyote are indigenous, so perhaps the horses were hypervigilant for predators. But they clearly had people on their minds too. Only when Janelle arranged for a trailer to collect the mare and foal could the barrier be breached and the foal given proper medical attention.
As the trailer bearing the mother and infant headed back to the barn, the other horses followed closely.
The foal survived, so fortunately this anecdote does not qualify as a grief story. And this horse circle differed in character from the quiet, still, one that formed around Storm Warning’s grave. Here, the horses made a blur of motion, some moving clockwise, others counterclockwise. “Trotting, wheeling, kicking, galloping hoofed chaos,” Helling recalls. She is certain that no predator, or person, could have breached that moving circle. Could the protective intent of this horse circle suggest a new possibility in relation to the geldings who surrounded Storm Warning?
Perhaps they had intuited a connection between Storm and the mound that had appeared in their field, and by encircling it they meant to protect that spot and thus Storm himself. Could the horses somehow have thought that Storm might reappear? Or were they in fact mourning him?
The fact of the horse circle cannot in itself answer the question of what went on in Storm’s companions’ minds. But the anecdote does help to refute what some naysayers insist: that what we interpret as horse grief must instead express a feeling of vulnerability caused by separation from the herd. On this skeptical view, “grief ” is an overstated claim, because the horses are only demonstrating the anxiety that besets a survivor in a herd-oriented species. Yet this “herd mentality” explanation doesn’t match up with what happened after Storm died. The surviving horses placed themselves in a specific configuration and expressed no agitation through their body language. Their group was intact, save one; they had no reason to feel vulnerable. Even though we cannot intuit precisely what the horses may have been feeling, it’s clear enough that something unusual was going on, beyond a concern for the self.
Responding to an article on horse grief by Kenneth Marcella in Thoroughbred Times, a reader described the events that unfolded after her thoroughbred filly lost her companion. This other horse, Silver, had died suddenly, and his body was visible to the filly. While Silver was buried, she was turned into a separate field. When she later returned to the field they had shared, she stationed herself on top of the grave and pawed the ground. Indifferent to offers of food and companionship, coming in at night only when forced to do so, she persisted in her behavior for almost two weeks.
Can the science of horse behavior help us understand this reaction? In his article, Marcella observes that an increase in horse longevity in the last fifteen years means that “equine buddies” now spend significantly longer periods of time together. Some horses who lose longtime friends may fall into outright depression. This is what happened with Tony and Pops, two workhorses who had known each in years past and met again at the time of their retirement. Once they rediscovered each other, these two were rarely apart. After Pops died, Tony lost weight, stopped interacting with other horses, and became lethargic enough that he lost muscle. His arthritis flared up.
In the horse world, this situation is often diagnosed as depression and treated accordingly, with anything from extra attention from human companions to doses of Valium. For horses, depression may exacerbate physical ailments such as colic, so breaking the cycle of mourning, falling sick, and becoming more depressed is potentially urgent. The introduction of a new companion may help, just as we have seen with other animals. One Thoroughbred Times reader told of her horse, who mourned when his pasturemate of twenty-three years died. For two weeks he stood in a spot, under a favorite tree, that he had often shared with his friend.
He would not eat. Only when a mare died during foaling, and he began to care for her orphan, did his behavior turn around.
I’ve next to no personal experience with horses, beyond admiring their grace and intelligence—though I did, during a fourth-grade class outing, fall off a horse and still retain a memory of that long trip to the ground.
Just as I remain impressed with the sheer size and power of horses, I have come to admire many horse people’s embrace of horse grief and their efforts to ease it.
Reprinted with permission from How Animals Grieve, by Barbara J. King Published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2013 Barbara J. King All rights reserved.
BARBARA J. KING has taught Anthropology at the College of William and Mary since 1988. Originally focused on primate studies through her observations of wild monkeys in Kenya and captive apes, she now takes up intelligence and emotion in a wide variety of animals. She writes for NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog and the TLS. In Gloucester County, Virginia, she lives with her husband and many cats. Besides cat rescue, she enjoys attending her daughter’s college choral concerts and reading as much fiction as possible.