Blind: Dealing with the Dark
- Jun 1, 2005
When her gelding, Houdini, first went blind, Jean Wilson was distraught--everyone she talked to insisted that he should either be euthanatized or confined to a stall for safety. Fortunately, Wilson did not listen, and two years later, the pair was chosen to represent their drill team during the opening flag presentation at the Midwest Horse Fair. The event was performed under a spotlight, a distraction that is often a problem for sighted horses. Houdini, however, was unfazed.
There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding the care of blind horses, the most common being that a sightless horse cannot enjoy a quality life. While not all horses adjust to blindness as well as Houdini, those with a calm temperament and a dedicated owner can go on to live comfortable and productive lives.
According to Dennis Brooks, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVO, professor of ophthalmology at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, the most common reasons that horses go blind are trauma to the eye and equine recurrent uveitis (moon blindness), which is periodic inflammation of the uveal tract of the eye. While these are the most frequent causes, corneal disease, retinal degeneration, and infection can also damage a horse's vision.
Fortunately, blindness can sometimes be prevented if the causative problem is caught in the early stages. "Become familiar with the appearance and face of your horse," recommends Brooks. "Tearing, squinting, and droopy upper eyelashes are all signs of potential problems."
Ann Dwyer, DVM, of the Genesee Valley Equine Clinic of Scottsville, N.Y., also lists excessive redness around the eye as reason for concern. "If a horse suffers trauma in the area around the eye, especially if it causes a nosebleed or a lot of swelling around the eye, a veterinary consult is indicated," she says. "If the horse suddenly acts like its vision has changed--for example he is really spooky, bumping into things, or reluctant to go into a dim area--this is good reason for an eye exam, too."
It cannot be overstressed that if you suspect something is wrong with your horse's eyes, you should consult your veterinarian immediately. "There is a tendency for some horse owners to write off problems as allergies," says David Maggs, BVSc, Dipl. ACVO, assistant professor of ophthalmology at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. "Then, by the time they bring the horse to a vet, it's too late."
"Eyes are complex, and the average owner cannot do too much self-diagnosis," agrees Dwyer. She cautions horse owners to call a vet if they think something is wrong. "Prompt treatment of many eye problems can ward off serious complications," she adds.
Adjusting to the Dark
Horse eyesight appears to have evolved primarily for detection of predator approach; in addition to having a total visual field of nearly 360 degrees, a horse's eyes are particularly sensitive to dim light and movement. Because horses are such vision-oriented animals, most will be very nervous during the initial onset of blindness, especially if their sight diminishes quickly.
"Before I found out that Houdini was blind," says Wilson, "I knew that something was wrong because he started having trouble loading in the trailer. His behavior also started to include more hesitation, constant circling, and nervous whinnying for his herd mates."
Houdini's behavior is not unusual--until horses adjust to blindness, they will feel defenseless and will react accordingly. Many owners of blind horses report frequent shying and even aggressiveness during this transition period. Therefore, don't let your horse's sudden nervous disposition alarm you; it is to be expected and will quite possibly subside once the horse becomes accustomed to his loss of sight.
In fact, partial blindness is often much scarier for horses than complete blindness. "As Berry was losing vision in his last eye," says Barbara Steadman, owner of a blind horse in Connecticut, "he was uncharacteristically spooky and nervous because he was seeing shadows only. Once his vision was completely gone, that type of behavior went away, and he was back to his old self."
"Too often what happens is that people and their vets make rushed decisions about a horse's fate in the very first days or weeks of the onset of blindness," says Steve Smith, founder of www.blindhorses.org and owner of Rolling Dog Ranch, an animal sanctuary that houses several blind horses. "This is when the horse is going to be frightened and panic. And yet, given time and a safe environment, most horses will adjust to blindness just fine."
Maggs believes that a horse's innate temperament influences how well it becomes accustomed to blindness; high-strung horses often become exceedingly nervous and do not adapt well, while calm, level-headed ones generally do. How quickly a horse loses sight is also a factor; horses that become blind over a period of years have a chance to get used to their vision loss and tend to be less anxious.
"Another big factor is the dedication of the owner to helping the horse through the transition phase and providing a safe environment," says Dwyer. "Owners need to be good horsemen and horsewomen and know how to be steady and reassuring."
Unfortunately, it is impossible to accurately predict how a horse will handle blindness. Every situation is different, and despite an owner's best efforts, some horses will not adjust well. In such cases, the owner might be faced with the difficult decision of whether or not to euthanatize the horse.
"It may be because the horse has a temperament that just does not adapt well, and thus is a danger to itself or to its handlers, and sometimes it is an economic decision," says Dwyer. "In my experience, this decision is not made lightly, but sometimes it has to be made."
When deciding what to do with a sightless horse, no owner should feel pressured into making a decision with which he is not completely comfortable. Weigh your options carefully, then do what you feel is right for your particular circumstance.
Because dealing with a blind horse, especially at the onset, can be a very confusing and emotional experience, many owners have connected online to exchange information and offer each other solace and support. "Seeking advice from others with blind horses can help in making decisions and locating resources," says Wilson.
"Our group is extremely supportive, informative, and helpful," agrees Galen McBride, a member of www.smartgroups.com/groups/blindhorses. "It has literally been a lifesaver to many owners and their horses."
Behavioral Changes to Expect
Because their balance might initially be thrown off, blind horses often tilt their heads or show changes in their posture during the onset of blindness. Then, as they begin to rely more on their remaining senses, they will exhibit other subtle behavioral changes. Watching a blind horse's ears twitch back and forth as he attempts to orient himself, or observing him sniffing the ground in an unfamiliar area, it might appear as if his hearing and sense of smell have become more acute.
Tactile exploration is also valuable to an animal that has poor vision; blind horses run their noses over stalls and fences, using their sense of touch to map out new locations. Because the muzzle is one of the most sensitive regions of the horse's body, a blind horse's whiskers should be allowed to grow.
Despite the myriad cues they receive from their functioning senses, blind horses do sometimes run into things. "It was hard to watch Houdini bump into things or struggle to find the water tank," says Wilson, "but allowing him the opportunity to think it through for himself was crucial to building his level of confidence and ability to maneuver blind."
Helping Your Horse Adapt
The best thing you can do to help your horse adjust is to be patient and make changes slowly. "Take your time and let him adjust to his new life at his pace," advises Steadman. "Do not force new challenges on him too fast; it may take a while for his other senses to hone in and take over."
The handler's voice and touch are very useful tools for cueing and calming a blind horse. "I make sure to touch Berry a lot and to talk to him more than I used to so that he always knows where I am," says Steadman.
"Keep your vocal and tactile commands consistent and calm. Repeat, reward, and take care not to confuse the animal," recommends Dwyer. "Navigating a known area while teaching verbal commands--for example, saying "step up" when entering a barn the horse has entered for years--can be helpful."
You can also make changes to your horse's surroundings to help him rely more on his existing senses. "Because Berry's pasture had a couple of gates to navigate, we put wind chimes at the fence posts to help him orient himself," says Steadman. "I also put fluttering pieces of material along the fence lines to help him hear his boundaries."
Turning a Blind Horse Out to Pasture
Like all equines, blind horses need room to move around. Turning a blind horse out to pasture, however, requires caution and preparation.
"We've found that in general, a herd is a bad place to be for a blind horse," says Smith. "They can't read the visual social cues from the other animals, and this sets off a chain reaction that ends badly for blind horses. They can't defend themselves, so they flee. This is when they get hurt."
Although blind horses in a herd environment often become bullied, isolating them is not the answer either. Horses need company and might become stressed if kept alone. Therefore, the best solution is to keep a blind horse with a familiar, sighted pasture buddy. A blind horse will be able to listen to and smell his companion's location; by simply avoiding obstacles himself, the buddy will become a trusted guide.
While providing a blind horse with a seeing buddy will help him avoid obstacles, you must also make the environment as safe as possible. Use common sense; choose a pasture with level footing and minimal obstacles such as trees, fill in any holes with dirt or gravel, and keep the location of the horse's food and water consistent.
"Make sure to clear the pasture of all debris, wire, and sharp objects," cautions Brooks.
Safe and secure fencing is also of utmost importance. While barbed wire is obviously a bad idea, wood or pipe gate fencing should suffice. Smith recommends using woven or smooth-wire fencing if possible. For corrals, he suggests installing lightweight metal panels chained to T-posts because they flex and bend if the horse runs into them.
Once you have blind-proofed the pasture, walk your horse around the perimeter to help him make a mental map of his new surroundings. "When we first put Rusty out to pasture, we mowed about a four-foot edge around the fencing," says Tina Nunez, owner of a blind horse in Indiana. "I walked him from the barn to the pasture along the fence line, naming and tapping each thing as we walked by. When we reached the pasture, I walked with him in the tall grass, and when we hit the mowed grass, I told him 'fence' and turned him." This process should be repeated several times for your horse to get his bearings in the pasture.
Exercising the Blind Horse
Turning a blind horse out to pasture will give him the freedom to move around, but some owners feel that their animals need more exercise. While many people choose to longe their blind horses, it is generally only an alternative if the animal is used to being longed consistently. No matter how experienced the horse, one cannot overstress the point that horses are large animals with fight-or-flight instincts; if they are startled or frightened, they can be potentially dangerous. Moreover, if a horse has just recently become blind, he might be off balance on a small circle and could travel in toward you. If you feel your horse would be fine on a longe line, make sure to use your voice to instruct him instead of a longe whip, and if he has any sight at all, start with his good eye facing in.
Deciding whether or not to ride a blind horse is also a very individual decision, and the issue is rarely black and white. "Superior athletic ability of the horse or excellent rider skills may compensate for suboptimal vision," writes Steven M. Roberts, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVO, in his review of equine vision and optics, "but minor vision loss may create an unsafe situation for the average horse or inexperienced rider."
For these reasons, Maggs, like many veterinary ophthalmologists, tells his clients not to ride their blind horses. "Part of that is legal defensibility," he says, "and part of it is just good common sense."
With that said, many sightless horses have become very successful under saddle, and their heart-warming stories demonstrate the unique bond that develops between blind horse and rider.
"Since blind horses must rely on other senses for perception," says Wilson, "they seem to pay more attention to their riders' cues. There is no greater feeling than that of a blind horse placing their trust in you and galloping off into total darkness! My blind horse taught me the true meaning of communication between horse and rider."
While riding a blind horse can be an enlightening and rewarding experience, if it is not the right decision for your horse, don't despair--he might be better suited to another task. Blind horses with quiet temperaments often make great pasture buddies for lonely horses, and many blind mares are used for breeding.
Whether they become competitive athletes or simply remain treasured pets, sightless horses can be inspiring and affectionate companions. While caring for a blind horse requires an abundance of common sense, patience, and love, most owners feel that the rewards far outweigh the added responsibility.
"Our relationship has taken on a whole new and totally rewarding aspect," says Wilson of Houdini. "I feel that by working with him, I have gained a better understanding of how to communicate with all horses."
Dwyer, Ann. Practical Management of Blind Horses, Equine Ophthalmology. Ed. Brian Gilger, Philadelphia: Elsevier Press, 2005, 449-456.
Nelson, Mary G. Equine Recurrent Uveitis: Information for the Horse Owner. www.igs.net/~vkirkwoodhp/eru.htm 1996.
Roberts, Steven M. Equine Vision and Optics. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Equine Practice, Vol. 8, No. 3, 1992, 451-457.
Saslow, Carol A. Understanding the Perceptual World of Horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 78, 2002, 209-224.
About the Author
Erika Street is a writer and filmmaker with a BA in animal physiology.
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