Till Death Do Us Part

How do horses perceive a dead horse? Do they know the deceased is not coming back?
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Q.My mare Gabriella has lived in the same pasture for about seven years with an old gelding named Bear. We took Bear specifically as a babysitter for Gabby when she came to us as a weanling. Bear and Gabby hit it off immediately and have been awesome buddies. When they’re in the pasture, he won’t let her out of his sight. When we take her out, he yells and paces the fence. When we bring her back, he’s waiting at the gate and they run around, buck, and jig.

Bear is more than 35 years old. He’s losing weight and having some trouble getting up and down. We realize that he will not be here forever. We wonder how Gabby will react to losing Bear, and what would be the best way to do it so that Bear has a peaceful end and Gabby doesn’t miss him as much.

My neighbor suggested putting another horse in the pasture now so Gabby can get attached to a new friend before Bear dies or is put to sleep. But a few years ago, we put a miniature donkey in the pasture. Bear kept chasing the donkey away from Gabby. We just took the donkey out of the pasture. Do you think Bear would do the same with a horse? I am worried that it will kill him trying to keep another horse away from Gabby. For Bear, we think it would be most peaceful for him to be kept alone with Gabby to the end. For Gabby, would it likely be better or worse for her to be with Bear when he dies? Do you know how horses perceive a dead horse? Will she know that he’s not coming back? As amazing as it seems, she has never been in the pasture without Bear. We would appreciate any suggestions you have.

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Written by:

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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