Lisa Niemi, Patrick Swayze's Widow, Leans on Her Pets for Support

One year after the actor's death, his longtime wife finds comfort in their dogs and horses

It has been a year since Patrick Swayze lost his battle with pancreatic cancer – and Lisa Niemi’s life changed irrevocably. Niemi, Swayze’s wife of 34 years, is still grieving the death of her spouse and soul mate, and though the “unbearable” pain continues, she has also begun to have better days.

Some comfort has come in the form of the couple’s pets: a Rhodesian Ridgeback named Kuma, a border collie mix named Murphy and a standard poodle named Lucas; seven horses, including Niemi’s “pretty little princess” Bint Bint Subhaya; and cats Lupe and Possum.

The pack is still finding its way without Swayze, especially the dogs, who follow Niemi everywhere. “They’re like my self-appointed guardians,” she tells PEOPLE. “I know I’m in a bad mood when I start going, ‘Get a life, will you?’ And all they’re trying to do is take care of me.”

A few months after Swayze’s death, Niemi got back on her horses. She pushes herself to ride one of them as often as possible, even if it’s a struggle. “On my way up [to ride], I’m grumpy and complaining, and then the whole time I’m there I have a huge grin on my face,” she says. “Like, this is the worst thing to do, to be out here in the sun with this magnificent, beautiful animal who is trying so hard to do everything you ask her to do.”

One very special horse for both Niemi and her husband was Kuhaylan Roh, Swayze’s white stallion. The actor rode in on Roh when the couple renewed their wedding vows in 2008, and Roh stood guard at the entrance to Swayze’s memorial service last October. Sadly, Roh died in early August, but Niemi took the animal’s loss as a sign.

“I just have to think,” she says, “[that] Patrick must have needed his horse.”

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