Fuck the Rainbow Bridge

“The horses at Rainbow Bridge play together in the sunshine until each of their owners comes to claim them, as the owners themselves pass away. The souls of horses and their owners finally reunite and cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again.”

To take responsibility for ending your own life is tough, but if it’s the wrong decision you only have yourself to blame. To end someone else’s life with or without their agreement is illegal, although Death Row and warfare continue. But to snuff out the soft breath of one so dear that the mere thought of it leaves you feeling like you’ve been eviscerated with a blunt fingernail, is the task we horse carers accept each time four hooves and a velvety nose nuzzle their way into our hearts.

It is our job to order destruction of the life that lives above those hooves, and forever close the eyes of the soul we have worked so hard to keep safe. There will be no more silken coat to groom, no more smell in which to bury our face, and we will never again see the blink of trust that passes between two opposing species. When we nod our head to signal the felling of the body beside us, the world instantly changes. Is becomes was, and wisps of memory are the bittersweet legacy of love.

I’m  So  Sorry are the three words you never want your vet to say, because There’s Nothing Else We Can Do completes the sentence. It’s not a life sentence it’s a death sentence. You nod, and as you mime an answer, trying to swallow rising bile, find a spare breath, and fight against the urge to run away, three huge tears plop out of your eyes and your horse turns to look at you. The vet stands back until you win your fight for air, and when you can agree coherently she brings you the death warrant to sign and you can’t write your own name. We have the idea that living creatures deserve a good death, but many didn’t even get a good life. You can only do the best you can do and there’s a whole future ahead to beat yourself up with what-ifs. Doing the best by your horse is commitment to love even when sparing him pain means sacrificing his life.

Death and sex (which ironically started the dying process the moment it gave life) are very similar. In reality neither actually resemble the misty-hued scenes depicted in the movies, but they do both leave you feeling totally exhausted, or disconsolate because the end came too soon. From Here to Eternity has the right title, but in death the waves only ebb and the tide never returns to the shore.

Euthanising a horse is not a pretty sight. Don’t let the Rainbow Bridge fool you for a minute, because horses don’t really metamorphose into a unicorn and trot across the coloured arch to heaven. I’ve stood with enough horses as they received anaesthetic overdose or bolt gun to know they all die as individually as they lived. Some struggle with surprise or fight to stay alive, some are thankful to go and some hardly notice. The sight that is unreal, and the one that I can never un-see is half a ton of horseflesh laid dead with its tongue lolling to one side. If you need to sob into a still-warm neck before your own heart breaks, brace yourself against the sight of a corpse because this is your last opportunity. You’ve held it together this long, and the vet will busy herself checking his pulse and heart even though you all know he’s dead. Touch his body, smooth his coat and stroke his ears. Whisper the prayer or the thankyou or tell him he’s a good boy because part of him might still be watching you, just like he always watched from the gate until you were out of sight.

He’s free at last. This magical creature had such a strong will to survive evolution, he paid for domesticity with his freedom, his ability to roam in a herd, and his fundamental right to just be a horse. He buried his wants, forgave constantly and learned to work through pain. He served people as best he could, if he was lucky he got his own girl and when she heaped the worries of her world on him, he carried them as stoically as he carried her. Mankind wanted a horse that suited their needs, not his, and the horse has made all the compromises. It’s not wrong to want something back from our horses, but don’t assume because you pay the bills and make the decisions, you own them.

We want a partnership but how many people communicate with their horse in his language? If you scratched his withers in a one-sided attempt at mutual grooming it’s a start, but then you put him back in his solitary paddock. Horses acquiesce and dominate and find safety in the herd pecking order, but we humanise their reactions and ‘protect’ them with fences. We leave a flight animal to watch 24/7 for imaginary predators instead of having a herd leader to do it for them, and then wonder why they get anxiety, or fat because they aren’t moving with interaction. Connect with your horse in his language while he’s still alive. Lower your eyes, lower your expectations, empty your mind and take the opportunity to just be with him, breathe with him and be quiet. Give him a holiday from your constant chatter, verbal and mental. Knowing that you’ve tried to meet him halfway will mean more to him than all the treats and titbits, and when the end comes he’ll know you know that the weakest has to leave the herd and he’ll trust you to be the swiftest predator.

“The horses at Rainbow Bridge play together in the sunshine until each of their owners comes to claim them, as the owners themselves pass away. The souls of horses and their owners finally reunite and cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again.” Don’t make Bruce wait for me, he’s done his time with people clinging to him and claiming him and his soul is his not mine. Just as he lived, he died with a force that shouted “That’s it, I’m off,” but this time I bailed out and let him run because there was no reason for him to stop. I might have paid the bills and taken responsibilty but I never owned one single hair on his body. How can anyone own magnificence?

25 thoughts on “Fuck the Rainbow Bridge

  1. Our herd lost a leader ten days ago. He was only 13. Another friend lost a four year old. And then Bruce. The vet says, as if it makes it easier, “There are many people dealing with this right now.” Thank you Elaine, for this reminder of the part we don’t like to think about when we feel all the love for our horses. I can only be grateful that I’m able to provide mine with a life that’s closer to what they really want, and that I’ve learned to see things from their point of view rather than just my own. And yes, I’ve never felt comfortable saying that I “own” them!


  2. For all the eulogies I’ve read, for all I’ve written, thank you for one that speaks to the true spirit of your horse more than our feelings about being victimized by loss. There I said it. You used the f-word and I’m inspired. Is there a more selfish thing than thinking our animals stand around and wait for us until we die. Like he grazes and the afterlife party doesn’t start without us? I applaud your big beautiful boy. I wish him a better destination, a full-throated gallop, on legs that carry him far. It is my goal to mourn with strength, for all horses have given me. Thank you for doing that. And yes, I feel sorry for you and for myself. But not for our September horses. (How can that door exist without him?)

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  3. You are correct, we can not own magnificence. If we are lucky we can only recognize the beauty of magnificence and stand in gape mouthed awe. As you so aptly explained , dear Elaine. Good teaching Bruce.


  4. This pinged into my inbox and I knew I couldn’t read it, then it sat on my sidebar and I averted my eyes. I knew this would be a wonderful piece of writing, just as your love for your magnificent boy was and I knew I would be a blubbering wreck once I read it … so it waited until this morning.

    And I am.

    I send you much love, and if I could take one bit of your pain away and wash it with my tears I would. xx


  5. Fuck it indeed. To the September horses, the July horses, the June horses, to all of them. Here’s to Bruce and his glorious herd. May you run forever free.


  6. Hell yes, Elaine. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people express that their horse has come back to them in a different life, or that they are waiting for them. My response is the same: why would I insist they wait for me (what makes me so special) when they spent their lives doing just that? Your blog is the perfect expression of this. And I’m still sending you big hugs too.


  7. There is nothing Disney or Rainbow like about such an experience. My gelding died as he had lived, gently and without much fuss, he simply laid down, but oh the pain of kneeling in the cold, wet mud and stroking his muzzle until his last breath, the instant awareness that he was no longer there.
    Enough that we are honoured enough that they share a part of our lives with us without placing the burden that they wait, goodness no.


  8. Dear cousin Elaine…Rescuing my beautiful and dearest abused Chows over the last 28 years has given me so much love but then having to let them go is excruciating. Unfortunately it’s part of the scheme of things in life!
    At times I still like to think that there is a Rainbow Bridge but reality takes over. However I do know that their heart and souls live within mine with such lovey memories and my ability to save them from a life they didn’t deserve and give them a much better one.
    I hope that your pain will begin to subside a little with your never ending love for Bruce.
    All my love Sharon


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