Caring for the Blind Horse

Caring for the Blind Horse


Most horses adapt well to vision loss but still require special management in a safe environment.

When you rode your aging gelding last week he stumbled a few times, and you assumed his old joints might be getting stiff. Then today as you approached him in his pasture he was momentarily startled when you spoke, even though he appeared to be looking your direction. When you led him into the barn, he nearly ran into the wheelbarrow you'd left near the doorway, even though you gave it a wide berth, and the clues started to fall into place: He's losing his vision.

There are many causes of blindness in horses, including injuries and diseases. A horse might lose vision in one eye or both. Fortunately, most horses adjust well to vision loss and can be managed safely.

"Often horses with chronic and insidious diseases that slowly debilitate their vision become almost completely blind before you realize they can't see," says Richard McMullen, DVM, DrMedVet, CertEO, assistant professor of ophthalmology at North Carolina State University. "It is incredible how well they can adapt."

Adapting to Blindness

Most horses lose vision gradually, explains Ann Dwyer, DVM, of Genesee Valley Equine Clinic, in Scottsville, N.Y., who wrote a chapter on blindness for the first edition of Equine Ophthalmology. As sight diminishes, handlers might notice the horse exhibits progressive uncertainty, especially in dim light, and he bumps into obstacles. The horse might balk or shy more frequently than usual under saddle.

"When complete blindness occurs, some horses go through a period of fear or anxiety," says Dwyer. "They may have episodes of rapid circling, freezing in place, spooking, and neighing. A previously tractable horse may become dangerous to be around if he crashes into a wall or runs over a handler. Other individuals show calmer acceptance of blindness."

Steve Smith, who operates Rolling Dog Farm, a nonprofit sanctuary for disabled animals based near Lancaster, N.H., has worked with blind horses of all ages at the sanctuary for many years. "Most of them adapt very well, but there are a few that don't," he notes. "These are generally the flighty, high-strung, spooky horses that jump at any little thing and are (as) wild-eyed (as sighted horses) about their environment and are always on the go. How a horse adjusts to blindness has everything to do with the animal's personality and not the disability itself."

How a horse adjusts also can depend on how quickly he lost vision. The horse with sudden vision loss might show signs of confusion and fear, necessitating several days or even weeks to adjust. "During that time he should be in a safe stall or corral where he can know his boundaries and develop a sense of security within them," says Smith. "Time will tell, after that, how well the horse will do. But even horses who lose vision gradually still need time to adapt after their world has finally gone completely dark."

Creating a Safe Environment

Veterinarians' advice for blind horse care usually depends on the type of case, but one thing all owners should consider is creating an environment offering the least opportunity for a blind horse to injure himself. Fencing, for instance, should be horse-safe and give way if a horse runs into it. "You can't use electric fencing or barbed wire," says Smith. "We recommend smooth wire or woven wire (diamond mesh or no-climb net wire)."

For safe corral fencing, Smith prefers lightweight metal panels chained to capped T-posts because they flex a little if horses run into them. "They are also smooth and rounded, with no sharp edges," he adds. Other fencing alternatives include woven wire, board fencing (wood or plastic), post and pole, or pipe.

"When frightened, (blind horses) don't take off and run off in a straight line like a sighted horse," he observes. "They tend to 'ground spook'; they turn in tight circles in a panic (afraid to run, but afraid to stay). When they hit an electric fence and get shocked, they don't know what got them."

Smith does note that once blind horses recognize their boundaries they generally don't challenge them.

For a safe pasture environment, fence off any trees or utility poles or ring them with sand-filled tires. Make sure the pasture is free of holes, debris, or sharp objects. Trim low-hanging tree limbs a horse might run into. When you first introduce the horse to a pasture or corral, lead him along the perimeter and introduce him to boundaries by tapping on the fence as you go. Show him where everything is, including water tanks and gates, before turning him loose.

Dwyer says some owners install "cues" for their blind horses, such as skirts of stone footing around pasture gates and rubber mats where hay is fed. However, try not to "rearrange the furniture" after the horse becomes accustomed to his environment.

Inside the barn, "stalls should have solid walls and secure doors without hardware projections," Dwyer explains. "J-shaped handles on buckets and feed tubs should be taped to prevent eyelid lacerations. Windows need safe casings, and glass should be protected by wire mesh or another barrier. Post a sign stating the stall is occupied by a blind horse, to warn visitors that special handling of the horse is necessary."

Social Considerations

Dwyer says some blind horses benefit from having an easygoing sighted companion in the barn or paddock during their adjustment period, while others fare better if kept alone. "After the adjustment most blind horses enjoy the company of one gentle, compatible companion," she says. "This can be another horse, pony, goat, or some other animal. The sighted animal may serve as the 'seeing eye' for the blind one."

In most cases blind horses don't do well in a herd. The other horses run them off, chase them away from food, push them around, or pick on them. "This is usually how blind horses get hurt," says Smith. "Fleeing from a bully is when a blind horse may run into a tree or fence."

Select a pasture buddy that won't try to chase or harass the blind horse. Smith keeps his blind horses in pairs or with a sighted pasturemate. "It depends on individual personalities of the horses and the 'social chemistry' when they are together," he says. "You will quickly discover what works and doesn't work for your own blind horse."

Keep in mind, however, that a blind horse will likely bond with his buddy and develop a very close relationship. "You can expect them to become anxious and upset when separated," says Smith. "You need to plan accordingly if you have to take one away for any reason."

Owner Adjustment

When a horse loses his vision, he's not the only one adjusting to a new lifestyle; owners must adapt to the horse's new condition as well. "The challenges a blind horse presents must be addressed, but if the owner is willing to make those changes, the blind horse can have a wonderful quality of life," says Smith.

If the horse goes blind in both eyes, for instance, the owner must make some immediate adjustments in how he or she handles and cares for him. This includes talking to him constantly and touching him for reassurance so he's aware of the handler's location and doesn't startle.

Dwyer says blind horses recognize handlers by voice, smell, and touch. "Use your voice often--in the transition period of adjustment and after the horse has accepted blindness," she says.

Teach verbal cues for "whoa" as soon as possible and always speak in the same tone of voice. "Similarly, cues for walk and trot can be taught while the horse is led," Dwyer says. "Other cues should be established to alert the horse to obstructions in its path." For example, you can improve the horse's sense of an imminent obstacle by rapping on the obstacle with a stick so the horse can gauge its distance.

Training techniques are important, but so is uniformity: "A consistent approach when greeting the horse--such as approaching and touching one shoulder while speaking in a consistent voice--is recommended," says Dwyer. "Horses that are anxious will usually settle down with a reassuring touch coupled with steady verbal cues from a familiar handler."

Take-Home Message

Smith notes there's a common misconception that blind horses are dangerous. In his experience, however, these animals tend to be particularly careful and cautious in their movement so as not to get hurt. They also develop trust in and a bond with their handlers. "Unfortunately the myth about blind horses being dangerous keeps a lot of people from giving their blind horse a chance," he says. "There are also veterinarians who are concerned about (owners') liability and don't recommend that clients keep a blind horse.

"But if they give the horse a chance, most owners are pleasantly surprised about how well the horse does," Smith continues. "The bond you establish with a blind horse is very different from what you develop with a sighted horse. The level of trust is deeper and more substantial than you may have ever experienced before with a horse, simply because the horse knows that he has to depend on you."


About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog,, she writes a biweekly blog at that comes out on Tuesdays.

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