A Mustang’s Goodbye

Gabriel & Bella

In the wild a Mustang herd always has one alpha stallion and one alpha mare. Although the mare can be “stolen” by a competing stallion, the stallion-mare bond is very strong.

I saw that borne out yesterday when we had to say goodbye to our small herd’s alpha male gelding, Gabriel. Gabriel was a big Warmblood rescue who was with me for ten years after an already cataclysmic life full of accident after accident. His days have been numbered since he was two years old, so the fact that he made it to 18 is a miracle.

But Gabriel’s time had come, and he was clearly suffering, so yesterday was the day.

Bella, my Mustang mare, was very bonded to Gabriel. He in fact tried his best to mount her from time to time, even with all his physical handicaps. As strong as she herself is, he was her leader and could do no wrong, and she adored him.

We had Gabriel way out in the pasture when the vet gave him the injection that would help him sail peacefully away. Bella was closed in the corral up at the barn with her other two herd mates. I had talked at length to her about Gabriel’s departure and felt she understood, but what happened next made me really wonder.

We were well out of sight and hearing of the barn, but when Gabriel’s big body hit the ground Bella let out a shrill whinny. Bella never whinnies. She squeals, she groans and grunts, she even growls, but I have hardly ever heard her whinny.

I immediately dispatched the friend who was with me to go open the corral gate. Bella came roaring out like a big black freight train (she weighs 1500 lbs.) — we could hear her before we could see her. And when she came into view I could tell she was furious. In fact the vet said he would retreat far away from Gabriel’s body because he feared Bella would associate him with what had happened and might want to harm hiim.  I withdrew with him, to a distant grouping of scrub junipers, so we could give Bella some room and time to do whatever she needed to do.

Bella tore off in a big circular pattern around Gabriel’s body, about 100 feet out, alternately at a huge trot or intermittently galloping with her chin tucked into her chest — you could feel the anger pouring off her. We could only watch in awe as she circumscribed what seemed to be an area of protection all around Gabriel, making sure there was nothing near him to harm him.

Once she had finished the circle and let off her initial fury and frustration, she finally approached Gabriel’s body, quietly and respectfully. I then joined her in an effort to share our grief together. She sniffed him only once at that point, and let out one anguished squeal.

The vet said he had never witnessed a display quite like this before. He felt it was clearly Bella’s wild heritage exerting itself and wished he had been able to make a video of it to show to young vet students in order to impress upon them how deeply losing a member of the herd can effect the others.

Bella stayed close to Gabriel until it was time to bury him. I tried to show her that would not be something she would want to watch and, amazingly, she quietly walked back up to the barn.

It was feeding time when we finished burying Gabriel and, for the first time in her life that I know of, Bella would not go in her stall to eat and had little interest in her food. She finally ate most of it, with her new herd mate, Lopeh, eating quietly nearby, then she went back to the pasture and spent the evening roaming the area, occasionally whinnying for her lost love.

And that is where we found her this morning too, though she did come on in to eat finally. Afterward, she and I walked back out to where Gabriel had last lain, and she still checked the air and looked toward the distant mountains to see if she might catch sight of him.

Our herd has lost two other male members since Bella joined it, and she has never even seemed to notice. But her grief over losing Gabriel is awesome, her actions magnificent and terrifying.

We are all very relieved that our dear Gabriel is no longer suffering, and that he can finally find rest from his long and difficult life, but we are now grieving as much for Bella as for him and will be putting all our efforts in the next days and weeks to help her, and ourselves, adjust to such a tremendous loss.

2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    What a magnificent testament to the bonds between horses. There is still so much we do not understand about them, but we can learn from experiences such as this. You are to be commended for helping Bella deal with her grief, and allowing her to say goodbye.

  2. 2

    Cindy said,

    Holy Cow, this is about as heart-breaking as I can stand. You’re a special girl Bella. Your mom knew it from the get-go.

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