It’s been kind of a year of death for me, but if I am honest with myself, it’s always a year of death for someone. We’ve all endured the heartache that comes with being alive and having family, friends and animals die.

They are, after all, our reason for living and they are the heartbreak in the end. But isn’t life so grand when they are around?

When it is time to say goodbye the hurt is unbearable.

Losing my mom, a year and a half ago, and my little cat two months prior to my mom, put my life in perspective. Life is short and we, the ones left behind, have no choice but to get on with it.

That’s why I travelled around the UK for four months. Just to live a little and experience a lot. To remind myself that my life isn’t over, it has just changed, immeasurably.

I’ve always had animals in my life, most notably horses and cats. But after Sophie died, my perfect little grey cat, I vowed never again. Never again can I take on the little furry life of another to love and care for only to have to make that call, that final decision.

I don’t do well with death, though I suppose few do. And when I think back now as I write this, I understand that my life has been shaped by death. I suppose everyone’s has.

I stopped competing because of death. I bared witness to too many accidents and injuries over the course of my many decades riding, and I considered myself and my horses lucky that somehow we had escaped the same fate.

Images of those accidents are burned into my mind and never far from the surface and once those images turn into worrying thoughts it’s impossible to delete them. And when that worry is impossible to remove, it creates hesitation and that is when it’s time to ask yourself the hard questions.

I stopped riding and working with horses for a long time because of death.

It was two pasture accidents that were six months apart and unrelated in every way other than they both involved horses and they both involved trees.

No more. Never again. I can’t do this.

That is why I went to journalism school. I needed a change and a clean slate. I had pushed the thought of horses so far from my mind that halfway through my four-year degree I thought I had made a mistake. What is a journalist if not someone covering a local town hall debacle for a local newspaper? The thought of it had me considering dropping out.

Then, somehow, I remembered about horse magazines and realized that there were journalists in the industry. The one thing in life I knew something about. So, I re-entered the horse world as a journalist. I’d also been hornswoggled into teaching some riding lessons by some former students of mine. I did so with reluctance but quickly re-discovered my first love.

What I didn’t know, was in the deep recesses of my mind sat an untapped source of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I thought PTSD was reserved for those that fought in wars or those that have survived a traumatic, life-threatening situation that they somehow managed to have the strength to escape. But as it turns out, PTSD can live within anyone and can show up whenever it wants.

I was simply asked to ride my student’s horse for two weeks while she was away on holiday. And for those two weeks, I went to the barn and rode and cared for her horse as though he were mine. Giving him hugs and feeding him treats. Making sure he had enough water and that his blanket straps were done up properly.

The horse was on full board, I just needed to ride, but for those two weeks I had horrible nightmares every single night. The type that have you sitting bolt upright at 1:00 a.m. with a pounding heart and clammy skin. Dreams so vivid it’s unclear whether it was a memory or a night terror. Each dream was about a horse in horrible distress that I was unable to save.

The day my student arrived home the nightmares stopped and never returned. She happened to be a therapist and I told her, just as an aside, about the dreams.

“PTSD”, she said, and it made sense.

I’m writing this post today because one of my students has had to make the decision that none of us ever wants to make. All any of us bystanders can do is be there for support. We can help weigh up the options, offer suggestions and give hugs but ultimately it isn’t up to us, the friends, family, vets and coaches.

“I support whatever you decide.” That’s the best we outsiders can do.

This is the second time in eight months that a student of mine has had to make this decision, to end a life that on the surface seems too soon. Two different horses of different breeds, ages and diagnoses. But the end result is the same and it breaks my heart, and it breaks their heart.

It’s never supposed to be this way. Our horses, pets, animals and family are supposed to live forever, but that isn’t reality, and we know that. The only thing left for us to do is live life every day with as much love and gusto as we can muster.

I’m not yet brave or strong enough to have any animals in my life at the moment, but I know the day will come when I recognize that the love of an animal today is worth the heartbreak of tomorrow.