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