SmartPak Monday Morning Feed: Saying Goodbye to my Heart Horse

Losing a beloved pet isn’t easy; never is that more true than when that pet is your heart horse. Today, SmartPaker Riley O’Neal discusses what it means to have a heart horse as well the pain of having to let it go.

By Riley O’Neal

I never believed in heart horses until I met Haven.

The moment I met her; it felt like our hearts connected, and I finally understood what a heart horse was. A gorgeous dark bay 16.3 OTTB with a white blaze down her face, but as big as she was, Haven was incredibly graceful (for the most part) and a gentle giant. She had the softest eyes and the kindest soul. She was so invested in doing well and always put her heart into our working days. As much as she loved to work, she loved our time in the barn with the radio on softly and me singing off-key while grooming her.

In fact, I was happy that it always seemed like Haven just loved being near me. If I was cleaning her run, she would follow every step of mine and if I paused long enough, I would feel her chin on my shoulder. Summers were the best. She loved playing in water, and I can’t even tell you how many days I just hung out with her in the sun doing nothing but watching her be a horse (but always staying nearby).

Photo by SmartPaker Riley O’Neal

Not only was Haven a great horse while working and hanging out, but she was also always game for my antics. I loved buying silly headbands and other random dress-up stuff for my horses to wear to just take fun pictures in. Sometimes I’d play around just doing silly things with her mane and tail, but Haven just loved the attention and never refused anything I wanted to do- even if it wasn’t normal horse stuff. Those funny pictures will be my comfort in the coming months of grief.

When I met Haven, a second horse was not something I was looking for, but as soon as I learned that she was for sale I knew I was going to end up with her. I was lucky enough that her former owner, Linda let me ride and play with her in the arena which really cemented that instant bond I had felt upon meeting her. Linda saw it too and I will forever be thankful that she and her husband trusted me with Haven. I feel in some ways that Linda and I are bonded through Haven’s spirit and that eases the pain a bit, too.

Due to her racing career, Haven’s joints weren’t in the best shape, but Cosequin and SmartFlex Senior helped keep things manageable until last year. We increased her supplements and adjusted her workload. We tried everything as her pain progressed. Wraps, medications, different supplements including CBD, liniments, etc. Everything worked for a while and she seemed to feel better for a time, but then her pain would return.

Photo by SmartPaker Riley O’Neal

On 12/19/2020 I made the decision to put my beautiful Haven to rest. I’ll be 100% honest, it was not a difficult choice to make. Despite how much I knew my heart would hurt without this beautiful creature and gentle soul in my life, I also knew it was what was best for Haven. She picked me to be hers, trusted me with her care, and I was going to honor that, all the way until the end. I knew it was not if this needed to happen, but when.

On that cold December Saturday, I talked to my barn owner, Ashley about it. I just wanted what was best for my girl. That day Haven wasn’t doing too badly, but I knew some days were better than others- and the good days were no longer outnumbering the bad. We decided it was a good day to let her go. She was calm and seemed to be in less pain than normal. I was glad to be able to make that decision on a good day, instead of having to make an emergency call.

So if this was to be my last day with her, it was going to count. We took a little walk and I let her graze and just enjoyed the silence and peace of being near her. When it got too cold, we went back to the barn where she had the biggest tub of grain, she’d ever seen waiting for her. I went all out for her last meal! Her favorite grain, peppermint treats, apple slices, and carrot pieces were hidden in the tub and I also mixed a small brand-new bag of Banana Bread flavored SmartCookies (her favorite flavor) in with it.

It seemed like Haven thought she had hit the jackpot as she happily munched away, but there I was, tears welling up in my eyes, threatening to break the damn and spill over my cheeks while trying to cut Haven’s incredibly thick tail. Ashley came out to the barn and started braiding her mane, snipping off the braids one by one for me. We worked in silence with the holiday music playing in the background. At one point we both laughed at the struggle I was having cutting her tail, it was so thick and beautiful. We got Haven all groomed up while she was still devouring her food and I took some time to just hug her and breathe in her scent so that I could commit it to my memory.

Photo by SmartPaker Riley O’Neal

My vet, Dr. Best arrived, and he was so compassionate and gentle. He and Ashley took charge so I could just focus on being there for my girl. I never left her side, telling her how much I loved her until she was gone. It sounds cliché but, she was absolutely my favorite hello and my hardest goodbye. Dr. Best stayed to make sure she passed peacefully and a while longer to make sure I was ok. I will admit that in some ways I was a tiny bit numb to everything in that moment. My focus was being strong for Haven and doing right by her.

Looking back, I can see how lucky and loved both Haven and I were by our barn family. Ashley, not just my barn owner but my dear friend was my strength when I had given all of what I had to Haven. She was by my side doing things I couldn’t do and providing hugs and support. Therese, a fellow boarder was there to walk me to the other end of the barn and even managed to make me laugh while the rendering truck took Haven away, I’m grateful she kept me from watching that. Wendy another boarder and close friend who arrived at the end of it wrapped her arms around me and let me finally break. I couldn’t have gotten through it without those three women. I will eternally be grateful for everyone that day, including Dr. Best.

So here I am now. It’s a little over a month later, on what would have been her 12th birthday, tears falling as I write this. The days pass and the pain in my chest seems to ease up little by little. I no longer cry when pulling up to the barn to take care of my other horse Mariah.

Photo by SmartPaker Riley O’Neal 

Do I still struggle with the grieving process? Absolutely. Grief comes in waves and is not a straight timeline. Some days are completely tear-free and others are the exact opposite. Some things that have helped me personally are thoughtful momentos I can cherish. My boyfriend Paul found a necklace with a horse running, an angel wing charm, and another charm with “H” on it. There’s also a rearview mirror ornament that is a lock of Haven’s hair along with a charm with her name and a jewel (I chose green as it was the color that all of her halters, lead ropes, boots, etc. were) in between angel wings. These are little ways to feel like she will always be with me. They don’t fill the hole of her missing, but they’ve helped in being able to work through the grief while honoring her memory.

If you’re going through the loss of your horse, be gentle with yourself. There is no right or wrong way to heal. If you want to run out and adopt another horse right away, wonderful! If you want to wait a while or until the right one crosses your path, that is what may be best for you! If you never want another horse again, that is perfectly okay as well. The one thing I think I needed to hear the most going into this was to not let others tell me how to grieve. For you and for me, we can work through it in whatever way we need to.

The week after saying goodbye to Haven, Ashley took over Mariah’s care so that if I needed to stay home and wallow, I was free to do so and if I just needed to go and spend quality time with Mariah without the barn chores needing to be done, then I had that option as well. So if you’re out there missing a horse you loved and you just need to curl up with ice cream and watch your favorite tv show all day, do it! This isn’t about anyone but you and your healing. As time passes, the number of sad days becomes less, and the good days seem to grow. If you are grieving a horse, you will get through this; I promise.

I’m going to end this with a quote we share here at SmartPak that has really helped me.

“Somewhere in time’s own space,
there must be some sweet pastured place.
Where creeks sing on and tall trees grow,
some paradise where horses go.
For the love the guides my pen,
I know great horses live again.”
-Stanley Harrison

You can find this and more stories on the SmartPak blog. Go SmartPak and go riding!