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They bury horses, don't they? Well, now they do

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Pet psychic Terri Jay, called the "horse whisper lady," helps horse owners through the guilt of euthanizing beloved pet horses. Psychics, pet cemeteries and clergy are increasingly accommodating grieving horse owners. Dead horses are getting burials, cremation and funeral services. (Lisa Tolda/courtesy of Terri Jay )

The deceased had been a superior athlete with a wild streak and a 15-year rodeo career. At her funeral last year, some 75 rodeo contestants gathered on the grounds of Central Bible College in Springfield, Mo., and listened as Pentecostal minister Paul Scholtz stood by her fresh grave, read several Bible passages and praised her courage, her strength--and her progeny: four rambunctious colts.

She was a sorrel mare named Old Wino, a bucking horse on the rodeo circuit worth $17,000. She died in "one of them accidents," said Scholtz, a rodeo chaplain, when, during a meet at Missouri State University, she slammed her head into a concrete wall. The horse's owner had requested a funeral out of respect for the fact that Old Wino had made him a lot of money over the years.

"These horses help us make a living," Scholtz said. "You don't just shrug that off."

Time was that dead horses, beloved by their owners or not, were buried somewhere on the farm or picked up by the local rendering plant, where their flesh was processed into dog food and livestock feed. But home burials are increasingly banned by a patchwork of local zoning rules designed to keep the residue of decomposing animals from seeping into underground water supplies.

As for rendering, increased regulation of the plants have driven up costs, and now the renderers charge horse owners $250 and up to remove their dead animals. Tom Cook, president of the National Renderers Association, estimates that less than a third of the nation's 260 renderers make pickups anymore.

And besides, the relationships many people have with their horses no longer allows for such an unappetizing ending. "At the rendering plant, they get the fat, the hides and the meat," said John McKenzie, owner of Pet Praise Memorials, a company in Winston-Salem, N.C., that manufactures urns for cremated pet remains. "You have to ask yourself, is that what you want done to your pet?"

For these reasons, more pet cemeteries are accepting horses for burial, cremation and funeral services. "My own personal opinion is that it's probably the fastest growing segment of the pet death care business," Stephen Drown, executive director of the International Association of Pet Cemeteries, said in a newsletter for the International Fund for Horses. Drown estimated that 150 pet cemeteries now accept horses along with other animals.

Because horses live as long as 35 years, the pain of losing one can be acute, said Ryane Englar, a veterinary student and director of Cornell's Pet Loss Support Hotline. The line is open evenings, Tuesday through Thursday, and takes calls, usually anonymous, from grieving pet owners all over the country. One woman who called the hot line said that she had owned her horse since she was 8, and the horse lived on as she went to college, married and had kids of her own. "It was like she'd lost part of her family," Englar said.

In addition, a bereavement Web site, Petloss.com, lists some 70 pet-specific grief support groups in the United States and Canada, many of them organized by veterinary hospitals. "People are waking up to the fact that loss is loss, whether it's a cat or a dog, a horse or a person," Englar said.

Some owners go in for full-scale funerals. Episcopal minister "Pet Rev" David L. James of Mount Kisco, N.Y., began to perform pet funerals at the request of his parishioners some years ago, and after his wife died in 2004, he resigned from the church to perform them full-time.

"I knew that there was an unfulfilled need," said James, a consoling figure dressed in his priest's collar and sporting a gray beard.

A few years back, James performed a service for a family's horse at their estate in North Salem, N.Y. The horse, named Prince, was "a docile thing," and "more of a family member," who died in old age after years of giving rides to the family's children. At James’ invitation, each family member put a few red roses and a shovelful of dirt into the grave. James read the 23rd Psalm, along with the first chapter of Genesis, in which God creates the world, including horses.

On the rodeo circuit, Scholtz conducts a handful of equine funerals each year. A Vietnam veteran who graduated from Pentecostal Bible college after the war, he wears a drooping cowboy mustache and a bandana instead of a minister's collar. At funerals, he reads Bible passages that reflect the divinity of animals--how lions lie down with lambs and how Christ returns to Earth atop a white horse.

"When Jesus returns, we'll ride white horses into Heaven," Scholtz said, "and I believe we'll see some [of the horses] I've read over."

Where state law prohibits the burial of horses, cremation has emerged as an alternative. At the Pet’s Rest cemetery in Colma, Calif., owner Phil C'de Baca said that increased demand drove him to build a horse-size crematory chamber a year ago. Since then, he’s been cremating as many as three or four horses a week, at $1,250 each.

The urns need to be pretty big for the cremated remains. McKenzie, the pet urn distributor in North Carolina, calculates that each pound of horse flesh gets reduced to 1 cubic inch of remains, meaning that the average 1,000-pound horse would need an urn that could hold 4 gallons of ashes.

For owners who must euthanize a horse after it's suffered a broken leg, for instance, there’s special spiritual counseling available. One such specialist is the "horse whisperer lady," Terri Jay, who practices out of her home in Washoe Valley, Nev., near Reno.

Jay, who once ran a ranch that paired up animals with disabled children to ease them through their physical problems, says she works by speaking with the soon-to-be-euthanized horse just before the fatal event.

Jay said, "A lot of times when I communicate with a pet, it says, 'I know it's time to go, and I'm in a lot of pain, but I'm worried about my owner, I don't know if she'll survive the grief.'"

E-mail: jmg2167@columbia.edu