The healing herd

When the old horse was led out past the barn, the younger one lifted his head in curiosity and sniffed the air. Something was not right, or perhaps it was. The old horse had been wobbling, fragile, his skin becoming paper thin and hanging on his bony frame like ghostly fabric. His heart was missing beats, and there was not much natural timing left in him. He was not able to eat much, and so therefore the younger horse would eat all he left. The younger horse had watched and felt old horses become distant and other-worldly before they passed on.  He knew, the moment the old horse hit the ground, his heart suddenly stilled, that he was gone, and his pain was a thing of the recent past.


I watched for the first week, our gelding Patches’ response to losing his dear old friend, Bo. Bo was approximately 31 years old when he was euthanized, because he had been in failing health for awhile and was beginning to have seizures. Also, it was unfair to expect him to go through another winter in such ill health.

Teaching what the "glue" feels like.Patches is 17 and was Bo’s companion for the past three or four years. When Bo’s lifelong friend passed away last year, Patches was the only friend Bo had left. I had been keeping Patches with my other horses but put him with Bo to keep him company. While Bo was alive, Patches would sometimes try to rouse Bo when he wouldn’t get up, grabbing him by the neck to see if he could get him up, which he usually did.

The desire to keep a friend alive is extremely strong, like a vibrating thread. The order was always the same – Bo would move Patches off food, although Patches became more familiar with Bo and kept him from lying down too long. Sometimes Patches has seemed like a very young horse, always looking to an elder to protect him or tell him what to do. Yet he took the role of rescuer when helping his friend Bo.

Bo and Patches on their last day together.
Bo and Patches on their last day together.

I watched this behavior between the horses, and knew that they cared for each other. I don’t know what you would call it in human terms – empathy? Concern? Is it what we feel for each other, why we continue to help and bring comfort until the day of death?

I heard of two horses who would lead a blind horse to food and water, by flanking him on each side so that he knew where those things were. My own mare has taken care of me when I was injured, standing over me as though I were a foal, and doing the same thing for my little grandson.

When I moved Patches back in with the rest of the herd after Bo’s death, they wasted no time in reorganizing to accommodate him. Patches spent a short period of time calling for his old friend and running around, but then settled down. I think on some level he knew that Bo would be gone soon, one way or another. Each time I go to check on them all, they are lined up, snoozing, along the fenceline, under the shade of a barn, in the same order.

Having an immediate herd whom he was familiar with, helped Patches adjust to the loss of his friend. In big herds, the other horses help assuage the pain of the loss of a loved one. When a foal loses its dam, another lactating mare will take over. Auntie mares will help raise that one, so the foal never really feels the lack of a mother. Some years ago I remember a big herd where a foal was orphaned. I was worried at first because his body did not form quite right at first, but then a year later, he was perfectly formed. The herd had taken care him, nurtured and nourished him in the way they know how.

In this way, the small band embraced Patches and made him their own, making sure he ate, drank and moved freely, and rested with them. My mare created a new order to include him.

IMG_1662Usually, Patches is more dependent upon my attention, but I notice that he’s completely happy with his herd now. He doesn’t need me much at all. When I saw them lined up along the fenceline snoozing today, I put aside my desire to ride and left them alone. Why spoil a good thing? Even while I did chores around the barn, they didn’t move or shift position.

The new herd includes Khami who is Patches’ dear friend who will play with him, and Zuzka who maintains order with the two boys. She has taken more responsibility for leadership in recent years, as Khami has found it easier to let her manage certain aspects of the herd. She was a manager waiting in the wings; now she is truly in her element.475270_2937453925295_198726_o

In this new dynamic, Patches is still low in the pecking order, and he is comforted by his friends and their knowledge and abilities. They are also older than he is.

Watching the horses makes me glad for the way they take care of their own. When they have friends, they are healed of their grief to go on doing horsey things. Their familiar rhythms keep them being and responding as horses. These are the ways of caretaking horses, and why these rhythms are important for us to recognize and understand. They are life-affirming for us all.



(copyright: Susan Smith, OrthoHorse)

Services: Bodywork: (Ortho-Bionomy for people, Equine Ortho-Bionomy): private sessions,  tutorials, phone consultations, Horse & Rider sessions, distance healing communication and gift certificates

Liberty Coaching: clinics, mini-clinics, workshops, private and semi-private sessions, tutorials, consultations: by appointment:  505.501.2478 or emailing  Scheduling now. Contact me for details.

I’m now putting together the 2015 Clinic Calendar. Let me know if you want to do a clinic at your location. Prices will vary according to location.

Kaiden doing a foal feeding with Zuzka.
Kaiden doing a foal feeding with Zuzka.

Filling Fast!!!! By popular demand, the last Santa Fe 1-Day Liberty Workshop of 2014 will be held at Arrowhead Ranch November 15, from 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. We will work with the natural tendencies of the horse, honoring her/his need for food, safety, space and community. We also work with establishing our place in “the herd.” Cost: Early Bird payment before November 1st: $150, after November 1st: $175.

Who will benefit from this work?

All horses and humans, but specifically:

  • Horses who have not responded to traditional natural horsesmanship
  • Horses who have been frightened, abused and in other ways traumatized
  • Horses who may be aggressive or too passive in their herd situations
  • Horses who have problems with humans
  • All humans who may be puzzled about relationship with horses and want to deepen their connection.

December 13-14 I will be in DeLand, Florida teaching a Weekend Liberty Clinic. One spot is available, so please register asap if you want to come!  An OrthoHorse Tutorial as well as private lessons and sessions will be offered on Friday, December 12th.

Book your spot today! Cost: $325

January 27-March 10, 2015Horses at Liberty Online Advanced will continue the instruction for those students who have taken an introductory online or in-person clinic from me.

The work builds on what has been taught in the introductory course with refining movements, body language, knowing what and when to ask for change, celebrating the horse’s gifts of engagement. Cost: $311

Payment for the Santa Fe 1-Day Liberty Workshop and Advanced Online can be made by check, PayPal or credit card. A PayPal button for each of those events is available on the home page of my website,

Susan is a member of the Independent Liberty Trainers Network.


7 thoughts on “The healing herd

  1. Very nice. I watched my Kody and the horses in the next pasture deal with Gringo’s death earlier this year. I was very interested to see how they would act. We have a lot to learn from them.

    1. Thank you, Ann. Yes, the horses are really our best teachers, aren’t they. Since this happened a couple of weeks ago, so many people have shared with me their stories of how their herds adapted to either a death in the “family” or changes in their living situations. It warms my heart 🙂

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