My first senior horse rehab case, Chaco’s, 10-year anniversary with me was the week before Maya died. Over the 10 years he has outlived four other horses that had been a part of his herd at one time or another. He has maintained his position as one of the fairest herd leaders I’ve ever seen. He is also the first horse to teach me about how horses process grief.
His relationship with Maya was special. When they first met 3 months ago, he was so curious across the fence line. Maya grazed just outside of his reach, but clearly had her eye and ear on him. Chaco had both his eyes and ears on her, hoping she’d come closer.
A few hours later, I let them out together in the several acre field. To my surprise, there were no herd dynamics, no dominance gestures on either of their parts, no nothing, just curiosity about each other. Within a few hours they were grazing side by side. It wasn’t until 3 days later that I saw the first ear pin. They were grazing in close proximity, and then Chaco nonchalantly ambled over closer to her as he slowly laid his ears back, asking her to move a little. Maya responded by taking one step away from him while she continued to graze. Completely satisfied with that response, Chaco brought his ears back up and just grazed next to her. It was then that I knew she was number two in the pecking order, and yet Chaco also gave her tremendous leeway, far beyond anything he had done with any other horse. On more than one occasion I saw Chaco go around her, rather than ask her to move for him.
In the days leading up to Maya’s death, Chaco was often side by side with her. When she was in the process of dying, he was grazing in proximity, eye and ear on her. When the vet and I made the decision to euthanize her, the vet went up to her truck to get her supplies. Chaco and the other mare in the herd followed the vet all the way up to the gate.
The following day we needed to move Maya’s body to be picked up. When we went to get the tractor to do the job, Chaco immediately walked all the way out to Maya’s body and started grazing about 15 feet away (which is a horse’s sense of personal space). The following day I found him grazing once again about 15 feet from her body. By this time, there was a distinct smell from decomposition. Horses have an incredible sense of smell well beyond human capabilities. Yet, this did not stop Chaco from being in proximity of his friend, Maya. When the rendering truck came the following day to pick up her body (there was no pickup on weekends), Chaco stood and watched once again. The day was dawning, but still had some cover of darkness when Maya’s body left the property.
In Maya’s life and death, Chaco was ever present, never shying away from what was happening. It was a great comfort to me, knowing that he was there 24/7 with Maya these past weeks leading up to her death and afterwards. Wow, Chaco. Thank you for your incredible example of how to navigate life and death, support Maya, and give acknowledgment to the end of her life on earth. She was so lucky to have you as her friend.