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Dealing with the Loss of Your Once-In-A-Lifetime Horse: Reflections from Exhibitors

The privilege of loving and being loved in return by a horse is one of the greatest gifts in life. But, as many have come to experience, with love comes loss, and the deeper the passion, the greater the sense of loss.

One of the biggest challenges that comes with loving an animal so profoundly is having to say goodbye. And, without a doubt, the grief from that loss changes us. But, as Tennyson famously said, “Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” 

GoHorseShow talked to leading AQHA competitors Emily Ambrose, Melissa and Violet Shetler, and Kassidy Lammers, and asked them to share their experience about losing their favorite horse. They graciously agreed to share their personal experience and how they were changed by their grief, both in and out of the show pen.

Melissa and Violet Shetler

For AQHA trainer and owner of Circle M Training Center, Melissa Shetler, and her multiple Congress and Reserve World Champion daughter Violet Shetler, the passing of their horse Mister Awetabulous or “Tab,” came after a long, successful show career. 

When asked to reflect on their favorite memory of Tab, Melissa recalls, “There were so many amazing memories and achievements, but for Violet, what stands out the most is when she was little and he would follow her around the arena with no halter on. If she moved further away, he would jog over to her and then break to the walk to follow behind. He was hers and only hers. The bond they had was one of a kind.”

Since she was three years old, Violet owned Tab and she quickly became successful in the all-around events, winning numerous awards and accolades until he died in 2018.

“It made us realize how lucky we were to have such a talented horse. And that they are not easily replaced,” Melissa said of Violet and Tab’s relationship.

When asked how their grief changed them, Shetler notes, “It changed our goals and how we go about achieving them. Tab was excellent in many events, but that was rare. We try to focus on events that the new horse can excel in first and then work our way forward.”

Emily Ambrose 

For Emily, an AQHA amateur all-around competitor from Chardon, Ohio, her heart horse was Play For A Minute, aka “Ralph.” In 2016, the pair won the AQHA Level 1 World Championship Show in Youth Showmanship 14-18 and earned numerous top ten placings at the All American Quarter Horse Congress.

Unfortunately, Ralph unexpectedly passed away in early 2020 at the age of 14. To Ambrose, Ralph will forever live in her memory, not because of the many awards they earned together, but because of his infectious “smile.”

“Ralph was known for often smiling, which is due to the Flehmen Response in most horses, but Ralph did it an unusual amount,” said Emily. “Not having him here every day to laugh with is difficult because he was such a clown. I have learned to be a source of happiness for others the way Ralph was to so many.”

When asked how her grief changed her, Ambrose admits that the loss of Ralph taught her to appreciate every moment spent with her horses. “Of course, I knew my horses were the most important thing in my life, but when I lost Ralph, my closest friend, I came to realize how much my horses support me. I spend a lot of time with my other horse, Doc, and appreciate every day I have with him. As a showman, I still have a competitive edge, but I have learned to relax and focus even more on having fun when I show, especially because I don’t know when my final show may be with my horse,” she reflected.

Kassidy Lammers

AQHA all-around competitor Kassidy Lammers’ journey with her horse-of-a-lifetime, Smooth After Midnight, affectionately known as “Stallone,” began in December 2016. The two quickly formed a great team, earning top awards in hunter under saddle, horsemanship, equitation, showmanship, and performance halter, as well as numerous all-around and year-end awards during their time together. In 2019, the pair were named finalists at the 2019 All American Quarter Horse Congress in 15-18 Hunter Under Saddle.

Sadly, Stallone was diagnosed with EPM in June of 2020, and though he passed away shortly after, Kassidy recalled her favorite memory was their last ride together last August.

“It was a beautifully sunny day, we rode outside, which was his favorite, and I was able to canter just for a few strides on him. Looking back, I’m so glad that our last ride together ended on such a happy, relaxed, and thankful note. I could not think of anything more fitting,” Lammers said.

When asked how her grief changed her, Lammers notes, “As a person, losing Stallone was a little bit of a wake-up call. I realized that nothing in life is promised and that every moment in time should be cherished for what it’s worth. Great days give you smiles, and the hard days teach you lessons. In the middle of the heartbreak, I also learned the importance of being vulnerable, and the importance of leaning on those around you for support.”

The loss of a horse can be a concrete reminder of life’s fatality and that our time spent on this earth is fleeting and temporary. We should appreciate every moment spent in the barn and the saddle, especially with our beloved equine partners whose time on this earth is usually much shorter than ours. 

To end, Kassidy put it best when describing one silver lining to dealing with grief. “I could have very easily let the loss of my best friend destroy my passion for horses and ruin my outlook on life, but to me, after everything that Stallone had taught me and all of the times he made me smile, this wasn’t an option. I came to realize that no points, qualifier patches, or ribbons can replace the time you spend with your horse, just enjoying being where you are,” Lammers said. 

Do you have fond memories of a special heart horse?  Let us know in the comments.

About the Author – A native of Northwest Pennsylvania, Kelli Hardy has been a lover of horses and all things AQHA for as long as she can remember. She graduated from Edinboro University with a BA in English literature and a minor in writing and is currently a high school English teacher at Erie First Christian Academy in Erie, PA. She shows with the American Quarter Horse Association in her spare time in amateur all-around events with her mare, The Pretty Committee.