The 5 Stages of Gr(ief)ays In Winter

Owning a gray horse has its perks, but come winter, every gray horse owner must face the inevitable: mud. Today, Kristen Brennan discusses the five stages of grief associated with facing the long, hard winter with a light colored horse.

In the horse world, there is nothing quite as painful as dealing with a gray horse in winter. Unlike most people on social media who go NUTS with “OMG #unicornalert” whenever a gray pops up on their feed, I never wanted one — bay with minimal white was my color of choice. But fate has a sense of humor, and sure enough I ended up with the right horse in the wrong color wrapper when Marcus came into my life.

I quickly figured out that during the warmer parts of the year, having a gray can have its perks. When we did the hunters, Marcus was often the only gray standing out in a field of bays and judges noticed (good or bad). I am often stopped on the way to warm up by a slew of little girls asking if they could pet him and telling me, “I like your horse, he’s so pretty!” And there is nothing quite like the presence a bright gray has as it trots up center line of a dressage arena.

Photo by JJ Sillman

But every year, as the show season comes to an end, those perks fade as quickly as the daylight hours and reality sets in: keeping him clean in the winter

I’ve had Marcus for over a decade now, and I’ve found that every year, the process remains the same as I cope through what I call the 5 Stages of Gr(ief)ays in Winter.

Stage 1: Denial

For over 10 years, my attitude going into winter has started out the same. Complete denial of what is to come. With good reason, as the late summer pasture combined with full show schedule would leave Marcus looking nothing short of spectacular. Sure, I would have to scrub off the occasional grass or manure stain before a show, but even then, he would stay a beautiful, glistening silver with seemingly minimal effort. On our yearly late Indian Summer day, I scrub him head to toe one final time, admire my work as he glows in the fall sunlight and think to myself, “This year is going to be THE ONE.” At this point, I am full-blown in the first stage of coping: Denial.

Stage 2: Anger

The blissful ignorance that comes with denial is a wonderful thing. But it can’t last forever and as reality begins to set in, what was once optimism turns to the second stage of coping: Anger. For me this stage always starts on the first cold, wet day of winter. My home office overlooks Marcus’s pasture and I have a perfect view right over my computer of the only grassless patch in the field. As I watch him make a beeline for the mud, then roll over and over, carefully coating his body in a fine layer like a baker icing a cake, I can feel my blood pressure rise. Eventually, the frustration wins out and before I know it, I’m standing on my front porch screaming over and over “WHY??????” Marcus of course looks at me with a “What’s the problem?” as he drops to roll again. This process continues day after day as he turns into a perfect shade of mud-tinted yellow.

So it begins… Photo by Kristen Brennan.

Stage 3: Bargaining

Eventually, I realize anger is futile and I find myself in the third stage of coping: Bargaining. The negotiations start out small — an offer of an extra treat in his feed bucket in exchange for a few less rolls that day. But before I know it, I am offering more bribes than a detective with a detained suspect. I try outright begging Marcus to make better choices with a promise of no currying for a week (he hates being groomed) in exchange for a roll in the grass instead of the mud patch. I plead wistfully, “If you try really hard to not get mud under your head to tail blanket, I promise I won’t make you do trot sets this summer,” as I turn him out, only to be ignored as soon as fresh mud is spotted.

Stage 4: Depression

By late winter, my once beautiful steed is now a (what feels like) permanent shade of mud and the fourth stage of coping sets in: Depression. I find myself looking longingly at the beautiful horse in the show photos decorating the wall of my office. I sigh dramatically to convey my hopelessness (“But what’s the point??”) when my husband gently suggests it may be warm enough to at least give Marcus’s legs a good scrub. At this point, I am just too emotionally drained to even react when I see Marcus run to his favorite mud-bath spot and I don’t attempt to reason with him to make better choices. My friends try to cheer me up, saying it won’t be long before the days grow warmer and the mud dries up, but nothing helps.

Stage 5: Acceptance

Eventually, I give up, raise my white flag and enter the final stage of coping: Acceptance. I finally admit to myself the reality of what I can’t change and embrace the fact that I have another bay (until Spring).

Photo by Kristen Brennan