The whole topic of mustangs and death and the acceptance of death is going to lead me to "re-print" a reflection I wrote for other purposes a while back, on coming to terms with death - of a horse I had since childhood a few years ago, of the eventual death of everyone you love, and on the role of death in an ecosystem. I started with the story of my Arabian mare, DEATH - A ROAD TO ACCEPTANCE
When we arrived in Australia in late 1982, my parents bought a quite remote farm. They had brought two horses out to Australia, one of which was allegedly mine, but when we got here, they decided to take her off me for breeding. This was an animal I was deeply bonded to, an ex-broodmare who'd kind of adopted me and carried me all over the countryside in Europe, and she ended up bleeding to death and dying in my arms after giving birth (and later I found out that my parents had been advised by the previous owners that the reason she was being sold as a child's riding horse was that she'd had a difficult birth with her last foal and the veterinary advice was that further breeding would risk her life...and I have never been able to fathom why you'd do something like that...).
When this horse was taken off me ("because she wasn't really mine, because I hadn't actually paid for her") I wanted that kind of situation never to be able to happen again, and I scraped together all my pennies from selling items I had left behind in Europe, and from what my grandmother had given me for my birthday. I had $600, and went to see our neighbour, who bred working-line Arabian horses. It was a drought year, and horses were going half-price. There was a skinny little yearling in the paddock who looked like a cross between a bicycle frame and a moth-eaten blanket. She was for sale, and cost twice what I had, so I did an International Velvet
type thing and did odd jobs and chores nobody else wanted for another couple of years. But, this one couldn't be taken off me. It was years before I could ride her, and I did all her groundwork and training alone, closely following an excellent horse training manual by Australian horseman Tom Roberts. And after that, I rode her many hundreds of miles through the Australian bush, exploring the Reserves and State Forests near where we lived, and eventually competing in endurance rides. She was, during my high school years, the only independent means I had for getting off our farm besides my own two feet. She was my freedom in those years, and my best friend. And by the way, the Australian bush is amazing...
Here's a photo of us when she was two and I was 12:
The rest are from 2008, on the South Coast where I live with my husband, when she was 27... and yes, that is the same horse, she was a heterozygous grey, and those start a solid colour and grey out slowly:
So when this mare died in April 2014 - and I had to make the decision to end her life, she had cancer and her quality of life was nosediving - it was actually a huge bereavement for me. Yes, she was old, yes, it was to be expected, but none of that makes it hurt any less when you lose a dog or a horse you've had for a long time - and I had this horse for 31 years. Also, when I have to make end-of-life decisions for horses, I opt that they be shot, because it is instant and so much better than sticking needles into their necks and poisoning them slowly - having seen both - and having also personally experienced that anaesthetic agents can have pretty disconcerting side-effects as you are going under (I had a backwards-of-the-cliff type experience, which was neither expected nor fun). Shooting is an instant out for the horse, but messy for the onlooker (...I think the onlooker is less important in that situation). After you've got a dead horse, you have to move it to its burial site (because I won't walk them into a pit); so the neighbour came with his tractor to help us, and we buried her at the back of our place, in the bushland. Anyway, it's so sad to see these larger-than-life animals dead. She was like a beautiful silver statue, lying motionless on the ground, with blood flowing scarlet out of her nostrils, and she looked so small. They always do compared to when they are alive.
I had been on autopilot the whole day she was put down, and busy with burial and cleanup and dealing with the other animals on our farm. I didn't get to stop until sunset. As the sun dropped below the horizon, I sat down on a grassy bank in our garden and watched the colours in the clouds until they faded away. And I was sad, and it wasn't until then that I cried. That's because I always have an autopilot that gets me through situations like this, and I don't let up until all the necessary tasks are done and everyone has been looked after.
Sitting on that bank in the twilight, I contemplated how strange it felt to be breathing when she was not. The universe felt different, as if the moon had been taken from the sky. I felt small, and space felt big. It was the day of the Australian election, and my husband was down the town hall helping out, and didn't know my mare was dead, because it had been a snap decision I made during the day, after I'd already voted. Doing the count takes time, and people get home late. Bereavement is different when your spouse has got their arms around you, and Brett is always supercalifragilistically wonderful at times like that. But in the gap before that happened, I sat with night falling around me, my dog leaning against me and the crickets chirping in the bushes, just breathing and contemplating mortality.
I'd only lost two relatives up to that point, both of them on another continent; the rest was all losing companion animals. But, none of those were like the loss of this particular one, which was so in my face, and a friend to me from childhood to midlife.
It is a very difficult thing that sometimes the only thing you can do to help someone you love is to kill them. What you wouldn't give for a magic wand... But, on the other hand, I trained as a biologist / environmental scientist, and I am acutely aware that the cycle of life works the way that it does for a reason. If you halt death, you have to halt birth (something the human race has been slow to understand, to their own peril and the entire planet's); otherwise the place gets out of balance. The process of evolution is facilitated by excessive offspring coupled with huge fatality rates - that really drives natural selection, and therefore adaptation to a changing environment. This is the very process that has resulted in the splendour and stratospheric diversity of species in the wilderness areas of this planet.
People generally are out of touch with this; many live in cities, and rarely encounter death, and when they do, it's all hushed up and sanitised for them... I really recommend the Japanese film Departures
Death is basically the price paid for life, and the two are inseparable. But just look at the life... the photos below are all taken in the on-farm remnant vegetation conservation area that we steward at our place: