How wild horses deal with death and grief: A rare insight

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Two members of the wild horse herd near the Simpson ranch in the mountains of the Oregon-California border.
Two members of the wild horse herd near the Simpson ranch in the mountains of the Oregon-California border. © Laura Simpson

In today’s world of instant gratification and life as viewed through artificially colored designer glasses, some people shy away from the hard lessons and experiences that might result in experiencing very powerful emotions.

But it is exactly these emotions that drive the evolution of meaningful personal convictions, beliefs and inner strength. These lessons, if you will, are by example the heavy lifting that results in spiritual development. And as they say in gym, no pain no gain. Having a powerful sense of empathy leads to understanding, which in turn leads to compassion and ultimately love. When people deny emotion, they disconnect empathy, compassion and love.

Recently, my wife and I faced the hollowing pain of the death of dear friend. But this friend was not human and the life experience related to this death was beyond my knowledge at the time I experienced it.

Some background is needed to fully appreciate what I will explain.

Five years ago when my wife I moved on to our land in the wilderness mountains of the Oregon-California border, the first wild horses we met were an appaloosa mare we named Lucy and her cute little filly, who we named Pixie.

Lucy and Pixie.
Lucy and Pixie. © Laura Simpson

Lucy was still nursing Pixie, a little roan foal with a black mane. Lucy was underweight due to an overload of gastric parasites. Lucy was the lead mare of a small family band that held back about 100-yards away and watched our interactions. Lucy approached Laura and I with Pixie in tow as if to ask for help. Having a background in livestock production I had a sense of her problem. So we MacGyver-ed a solution by mixing some wormer (Ivermectin) with some oatmeal mix we had in the kitchen. She ate the mix as Pixie watched and then they went back down to her family.

About two weeks later Lucy and Pixie returned and this time she brought her entire family up to introduce us, including their mighty family stallion, who we named ‘Black’. Lucy had clearly benefited from the treatment and her ribs were no longer showing. Over the years, this family of wild horses as well as others adopted Laura and I as their human symbionts in this naturally balanced ecosystem. Pixie grew into a beautiful young mare; an appaloosa just like her mom, and this past spring she had a filly, having lost her foal in the previous year to predators.

And over the course of hundreds of social interactions with these and other wild horses, Laura and I have developed an empathic connection with them at a level that borders on a discrete communicative dialog. Some horse whisperers may use different terminology; I am still suffering some of the terminology learned in college physics. Another important term however is ‘coherence’ and I can say that at times we engage in coherent dialog with the wild horses. Here again some whisperers might call this reading or sensing the horse. The science of coherence is growing and more can be quickly learned by watching this 7-minute video:

In mid-June 2018, during the primary filming of our local herd in regard to a documentary about Wild Horse Fire Brigade by university film students from Colorado, we filmed Pixie and her foal we named Dove in the forest where they happily grazed and napped.

About a week later, I revisited the area this time with an Oregon Department of Forestry District Forester (Dave) who manages 1.8-million acres of forest in southwestern Oregon. Dave was interested in assessing the prodigious fine fuel loading in the area of our ranch in and around the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area due to the severe depletion of deer by predators, and which deer no longer graze off the abundant grass and brush, which creates hazardous fuel loading.

Pixie and her foal, Dove.
Pixie and her foal, Dove. © Laura Simpson

After a brief hike over mixed terrain we arrived at a family of wild horses standing near a large spring partially surrounded by juniper trees.  As we approached the family a lead mare who I recognized as ‘Shy’ came over to where we stood and checked us out; she didn’t recognize Dave’s scent.

As I explained to Dave what she was doing and the names of the horses we saw, something seemed wrong, the horses were acting a bit odd. Then as I checked out the area around the spring, I saw a white horse laying in the shade of a large juniper tree. I moved a bit closer to the tree and saw it was Pixie laying on her side. She looked right at me and a terrible feeling overcame me. It was at that very second that my eyes were drawn to her right rear leg, which had been virtually sawn off by barbed wire sometime in the past few days; she was dying.

It was a crushing sight and as the heartache filled my chest, I started looking for Dove in the shadows of the trees. After a few minutes another crushing reality hit me, being severely injured and unable to protect her foal, Pixie had lost her little filly Dove to predators.

But then I noticed something else; there were several additional families standing nearby who were slowly moving into the area. My initial thought was they were there for water, but with so many large and excellent springs very nearby (within 300 yards), why would they all converge on one particular spring? As quickly as that though went through my head, the lead stallion from Pixie’s family walked about 50 feet from where he had been standing and to Pixie’s head. She raised her head off the ground and shared breath with the mighty stallion. Then in turn, one by one, the rest of the family did the same thing. I then realized we were intruding on a hallowed ritual, each of these beautiful sentient beings were bidding Pixie goodbye. As I watched, I realized that so many humans pass away these days alone and scared.

I instructed Dave that we should move back and give them some space, as one of the younger stallions decided to move the mare who was greeting Dave back into the family group.

As we moved farther back my eyes scanned the area searching for any sign of Dove, but continued to watch as the last family members shared breath with Pixie. Then her family moved away from the spring as another family moved into the same spot and the family stallion from that band and his lead mare went to the tree where Pixie lay and lowered his head. Pixie slowly lifted her head and the powerful stallion shared breath with her as did his lead mare.

It was the single most powerful emotional experience and transcended anything I had ever seen or felt before. And at the same time because of our friendship with Pixie, it was heart wrenching. I wanted to go to her side, but in doing so I would clearly be interfering in a sacred ritual of which I had no prior knowledge or understanding.

I led Dave away from the area informing him that I needed to head down the mountain and speak with my wife about Pixie.

Laura was also devastated when she heard the news, but we both agreed that I should go back up the mountain and if the situation was right, put Pixie out of her misery. I hurried back up the mountain. On my way up the mountain I collected a friend of ours who lives on some land that adjoins ours that is bisected by the road to end of the trail. My friend (Lynn) and I hiked to the spring expecting to see a family of horses. But none were in sight, and even with her devastating injury and crushed by the obvious loss of her foal Dove as she lay dying, Pixie had the final strength and courage to drag herself into the sunlight where she passed away.

And there, standing over her was a majestic guardian, a single bachelor stallion who Laura and I had named Red Sox a few years before. He was audibly crying over her lifeless body; making a haunting sound I have never heard a horse make before; a soul-piercing sound that I will never forget. It was like a whinny but with a hallowed, sad tone. This beautiful young stallion was one of Pixie’s playmates as she grew up … now he was the sentinel over her remains, lamenting her loss. I looked at him and asked and he moved back allowing me to go to Pixie’s head to say my own goodbyes. When I was done and moved away he moved back to where he had stood, directly over her.

As Lynn and I headed down the trail away from where Red Sox stood over Pixie I was torn about taking any photos of such remarkable events; It felt like it would be a kind of violation of the sanctity of such an intimate ritual. Wanting to have something to document such a remarkable event, I compromised and took one photo when I was 50 yards away from Red Sox; here is that photo:

Red Sox says goodbye to Pixie.
Red Sox says goodbye to Pixie. © Bill Simpson

Driving down the mountain, Lynn, who had just turned 80 years old and had lived an amazing life of adventures on the high seas and in the mountains said: ‘Never seen anything like that before’. As with most wild horses, Pixie had a huge spirit and incredible will to live. And in the end, she was surrounded by all her family and friends who provided a loving send-off. We can learn a lot from wild horses; even in how to deal with death and loss.

The following day I received an email from the District Forester who was with me when we first discovered Pixie and witnessed what was clearly a sacred ritual that few human eyes have seen. I have to say that I have a whole new level of respect for Dave given his empathy and understanding via his email, and taking the time to write even with the many demands for his time. As a firefighter with many decades of fighting wildfires and seeing all the carnage from that, his email carried great weight:

“I’m saddened by the loss and offer my condolences. I really enjoyed our visit yesterday and the opportunity to see what the horses are up to. I never have seen anything like it and the social interactions amongst the horses was quite intriguing. I understand the need to remove the old legacy barbwire and I hope somehow the process to remove it can be expedited. Firefighter safety is my #1 priority and I feel the same about the horses that are working up there.”

Many American wilderness areas (including the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument) are laden with the remains of long failed ranching enterprises. Legacy barbwire from the late 18th and 19th century ranching and homesteading crisscrosses many thousands of miles of remote wilderness areas, passing through forests and across grasslands, presenting a deadly and silent threat to all wildlife, including wild horses.

In the below video an elk calf was slowly dying after being caught in a barbed wire fence. Fortunately, two hunters with a little empathy happened by and freed the little elk … here, at least, is one happy ending.

William E. Simpson

William Simpson is the author of Dark Stallions - Legend of the Centaurians, proceeds from which go towards supporting wild and domestic horse rescue and sanctuary. » Read Bill's profile

12 thoughts on “How wild horses deal with death and grief: A rare insight

  • July 4, 2018 at 10:36 am
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    How sacred.. How can any one doubt animals have souls?

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    • July 5, 2018 at 2:41 am
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      Dear Barbara: You are certainly correct and Laura and I know without doubt they do. Moreover, looking to the Bible for guidance on this we this passage among several that informs us animals have souls-spirits. Matter + Time does not = life. Matter + Time + Spirit = Life:

      Job 12:7-10 King James Version (KJV)

      7 But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee:

      8 Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee.

      9 Who knoweth not in all these that the hand of the Lord hath wrought this?

      10 In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind.

      Reply
  • July 5, 2018 at 10:14 am
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    Thank you for sharing your emotionally touching experience. It’s sad, yet somehow life affirming also. This planet is one giant interactive organism.
    We need to respect and embrace all life forms.
    And indeed, animals do have souls.

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  • July 5, 2018 at 11:33 am
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    Non human animals grieve, as hard, or harder, than humans do. I have seen it in my dogs and my rats and my cats. They all love, just as we do. Treating them as less than human, only highlights our ignorance and ego.

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  • July 6, 2018 at 8:51 am
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    We had two Saddlebreds (a mare and a gelding) that although were not gotten at the same time quickly became “joined at the hip” as surely as Romeo loved Juliette. When our Sonny had to be put down due to the ravages of laminitis, my mare, Katie, was of course allowed to sniff his body in order that she could realize the situation (they were inseparable even to the fact of one not being able to be ridden without the other one in tow) but after his burial in one of the pastures they shared, she would daily go to his grave and stand when she would take her afternoon naps. We watched in awe at her period of grief until another horse was brought in as a companion. I never really doubted that our animals truly have souls but this was proof beyond a shadow of a doubt and took place before our very eyes.

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  • July 9, 2018 at 5:35 am
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    This is a touching and interesting story, but I would strongly caution people about doing things like giving dewormers or any other drugs to wild horses without specific veterinary advice from a vet who works with wild horses. Since these horses have not been exposed to drugs, they can have quite severe reactions to “harmless” things like dewormers. And, any horse with a heavy parasite load can end up in potentially life-threatening trouble if you cause a massive parasite die-off in the gut at one time, which ends up releasing toxins from the dead parasites into the horse’s body. When we deworm horses taken out of the wild, we usually start with something milder than ivermectin, and build up to that one. One old stallion I have had a bad reaction to ivermectin, even with that strategy.

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    • July 9, 2018 at 9:21 am
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      Susan: We are not newbies this sounds a lot like a lecture….
      I have personally owned and managed thousands of domestic animals and livestock animals ranging horses to cattle and sheep down to chickens, rabbits and pigs. I have saved dozens of wild animals ranging from deer to owls to snakes. I have turned (in the uterus) baby calves and saved both calf and cow from a breached calving. I have administered I.V. and I.M. and oral drugs, sutured, and set bones on many animals and many people and more… your anecdotal experience and advice might apply to someone else (emphasis ‘might’)… but your assumptions are just that… you have no idea who we are and what we know or have done… we successfully oversee over 50 wild horses in the wilderness and have done so now for the past 5-years, which is in addition to decades of managing a ranch and all that entails. There are thousands of stories of Vets prescribing meds where the animals dies or has a bad reaction… Having a Vet is good for people with no or little experience. Maybe you are one such person? AWHC also promotes the use of PZP… maybe you support them and their idea of wild horse management and the myth of ‘overpopulation’?
      And arguing with success is just obtuse… the Mare Lucy was healthier than ever after the treatment and foaled two healthy babies after Pixie.
      Lucy was however killed by a mountain Lion. And finally, Ivermectin is used extensively with many species and it has a very high therapeutic ratio and is usually well tolerated.

      Reply
      • July 10, 2018 at 10:05 am
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        William, I did not mean to lecture you, personally, and I apologize if it came off that way. I simply hoped to prevent others who don’t have your knowledge and experience from going out and giving wild horses meds they should not. You have to realize that when you post something online like this, others are going to see it as an example. We actually have a real problem in our area with well-meaning people going out and administering completely inappropriate medications to wild horses without either knowledge or permission. This can and does cause harm, and even death. We’re dealing with one right now whose injured leg (which was being monitored) got drastically worse after someone gave him a whopping dose of bute, causing him to “feel no pain” and leading him to use the leg in ways he shouldn’t have. He had been making some progress, and now he is worse than when he was first spotted. We also had a horse die after someone gave her a dewormer, causing a massive parasite die-off that led to an impaction. Deworming horses with heavy parasite loads can be a tricky proposition, and I’m sure you would agree that you don’t want random people heading out on the range and dosing horses with dewormers or any other drugs. Perhaps in future, if you are going to post about the activities you undertake to help the horses, it might be good to add a couple of sentences explaining your experience and qualifications, and that you are not advocating that people go out and do these things themselves unless they are similarly qualified. Just a suggestion. Oh, and just for the record, I am NOT a fan of the AWHC. They and their cronies have done far more harm around here than all of the well-meaning “medicators” put together.

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  • July 9, 2018 at 9:03 am
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    Thank you for sharing this powerful and heartfelt story. I too have been privileged to see similar deeply powerful, caring, compassionate, and spirit-filled interactions within the herds that roam through Washoe Valley, Nevada. Sitting back and observing with reverence, then moving in with permission, and connecting at a level that I have not found words to explain. I am grateful for the story you shared – WHAT A GIFT. Again, Thank you.

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  • July 9, 2018 at 9:16 am
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    Thank you for sharing this beautiful, heart-wrenching, humanity-filled story. I too have been privileged to witness similar spirit-filled interactions with herds who roam in Washoe Valley, Nv; I have not been able to find the words to express the essence of these interactions. Thank YOU for expressing so authentically. AND – MERCHANT MARINE???!!!! Did you perhaps attend Cal Maritime Academy? Blessings to you and yours and the herd that surrounds you.

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  • July 11, 2018 at 4:37 am
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    In 2010 our farm experienced a similar experience upon our first farm stallions passing. As he was dying, every horse, foals, broodmares, yearlings and our present farm stallion all came up to our first farm stallion and shared their breath with him as he was still standing in our backyard. We think our first stallion died from colitis or perhaps cancer, we don`t really know. Our founding broodmare did not have a foal for several years despite being with our present farm stallion. All the horses in our equine family moped around and acted very sad for many months after our first farm stallions passing. We of course had to call our vet and have him humanely put down as he was very thin and unable to stay standing much longer. We of course did everything we could to help him recover but to no avail. We all still miss Count Mein Too every day!! He was the kindest, most gentle thoroughbred stallion we have handled in 35+ years of working with thoroughbreds. We feel horses are very much like us and have people who work for us say the horses think were one of them!

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  • August 1, 2018 at 10:30 am
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    Thank you so much for Pixie’s story. Through you, she’ll be remembered from her birth, her life and her death. As awful as her death and that of her foal was, to witness her herd’s tribute , and that of Red Socks, was extraordinary.

    As a Hospice nurse for years, I’ve been with many people around the time of and at the point of their deaths, including our parents and family members. Most people close to passing have deathbed “visions” of departed family members who come to comfort them and to help them pass. The patients are usually awake, alert and having what appears to be one-way conversations. Afterward, some are able to describe exactly what they experienced. Witnessing such brief and sacred communications can be rare , because they happen spontaneously and are over quickly . But they are precious and can be life-changing.

    I was surprised (but not 😉 ) to see that animals have them, too.

    I’ve worked in adoption for retired racing Greyhounds for years and we’ve had 9 of these incredible dogs as family members, as well as other dogs. It has occasionally happened that they die unexpectedly , rather than by euthanasia, in my arms… in an unmedicated, and natural process. Our other Greys would gather around us, nose to nose, sharing breath , touching paws , lying close to their friend. Natural death is similar to natural birth in many ways, it happens in stages and not until the moment is perfect … but even if the dog appears to be in coma, like a person, suddenly her eyes flash open, she lifts her chin and she focuses , with rivetted, complete attention, on a point at the ceiling. You know what your girl looks like when someone comes to the door … it’s that but more intense … sometimes moving into a keen chase look , and a look much younger on her sweet face. I don’t know who or how many came, but watching this, my aching heart fills and pounds with gratitude, that she/he was being helped by someone she wanted to follow, into the next stage of life. My darling Greyhound Bonny did follow. Minutes before she breathed her last , lying on her side in her bed, she started running. She ran so fast, her legs were a blur, I’ve never seen anything like it. She was racing, competing with a Greyhound I couldn’t see, but thank God, who was there to help her move on.

    Reply

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