Sun Protection: Does Your Horse Need Sunglasses?

Pale-faced horses, like fair-skinned people, need a little extra protection from the sun. While sunglasses and sun screen might be the obvious solutions for fair-skinned humans, they're impractical for horses. Protection from sun glare, however, is as important for horses as it is for humans, because horses with little or no pigment in the skin around their eyes can suffer from squinting, watery eyes, sunburn, cataracts, and even cancer.

An old-timer's solution to this problem was to paint black shoe polish around the horse's eyes. The polish prevented sun glare, just like the black makeup football players wear under their eyes. A more modern solution to the problem, however, is the application of permanent tattooed eyeliner. Tattooed eyeliner is a measure that can help prevent eye problems in horses, says Teri Reid, a registered nurse from Filer, Idaho, who specializes in permanent cosmetics for people (tattooed eyeliner, eyebrows, and lipstick) and eyeliner for horses.

Reid detoured from humans to horses when a friend and fellow nurse, Holly Akagi, asked her to tattoo permanent black eyeliner around her pale-skinned, blue-eyed filly's eyes. The filly squinted and her eyes always watered, says Akagi. Constant watering of the eyes can cause swelling, which then attracts insects, leading to increased infections. Reid agreed to do the procedure, performed with oversight by Bob Monroe, DVM, in his Twin Falls, Idaho, clinic. Reid says she performed the procedure on Akagi's filly the same way she does on her human clients--"I just made the lines wider," she says. The eyeliner made the filly more comfortable, says Akagi, and, "She sees better in the sun and no longer squints."

Reid and Akagi, who now works as Reid's assistant, have since performed the procedure on many horses, most of them Paints. Demand for the permanent eyeliner spread by word of mouth and through veterinarian referrals.

Kent and Judy Howell of Dayton, Idaho, had talked for two years about having their Paint gelding's eyes tattooed, but couldn't find anyone who could do it. Their gelding, Louie, has pale skin and pale blue eyes, and he was bothered by both sun and snow glare. His eyes watered and would get crusty, says Judy, and Kent was afraid the horse would eventually be blind. When the Howells heard about Reid and Akagi through an acquaintance, they hauled Louie to Twin Falls for the procedure, and Louie's now a happier, healthier horse, says Judy. "We're really pleased."

Safety Measures

The horse's safety during the procedure is of the utmost concern, says Reid. Monroe performs a health exam, including a thorough eye exam, on every horse brought to his clinic for the treatment. The older a horse with pale skin gets, says Monroe, the more likely he is to develop cancer of the eye. In fact, Monroe has found precancerous conditions during the health exam in about half the horses Reid and Akagi have tattooed.

According to Monroe, cancerous carcinomas are often found on the eyelid, third eyelid, or on the horse's eye. The cancer is either frozen off or surgically excised before the tattooing is done. Reid says they like to perform the procedure on these horses as early in their lives as possible to avoid skin damage.

After the health check, the horse is
outfitted with protective, full-length, quilted leggings before being sedated inside a rubber-matted room at Monroe's clinic. The horse is sedated because he must remain down and immobile during the procedure. Horse systems are very sensitive, Akagi says, "So we don't want to keep the horse down for more than an hour." Akagi acts as timekeeper during the session, which takes about two hours from the health check through recovery.

Once the horse is down, he is intubated with a tube down the throat that delivers anesthetic gas, then placed on a respirator. Monroe monitors the horse's vital signs throughout the procedure, although he says there is minimal risk to the horse.

The Procedure

Akagi cleans the eye, applies an antiseptic solution, and trims away any excess hair. She holds the eye closed (to protect it from cornea abrasions) and the skin taut while Reid tattoos. The eyeliner is applied with a tattoo gun that works "like a little jackhammer," says Reid.

Wearing a small inkpot ring on the index finger of her left hand, Reid uses short strokes of the needle to feather a black outline up to the edge of the canthus (the inside rim of the eye). She typically tattoos a quarter- to a half-inch of skin. If the owner requests, a wider area can be done with the black ink fading into brown ink for a more natural look.

The area tattooed depends upon the individual horse's needs. A horse might need a wide area tattooed all around the eye, a small area just underneath the eye, or something in between. Many horses need only one eye tattooed. When the first eye is finished, Akagi rolls her hand over the tattooed area to set the ink, and the horse is rolled over so the second eye can be done. Each eye takes approximately 30 minutes to complete. Ice is applied for 15 minutes after the procedure is finished to prevent swelling, and the horse is usually on his feet within a half-hour.

During recovery time, Reid and Akagi advise the owners about follow-up care. The horses, just like Reid's human patients, will experience a prickly, stinging sensation around the eyes, and the eyes will weep a little, says Reid. Bute is used to minimize pain and swelling. Owners are advised to keep the horse inside and out of the sun, if possible, for a few days after the procedure. They will also need to clean the eyes with a damp cloth and apply an antibiotic ointment two to three times a day for five days.

The top layer of skin sloughs off in about a week, leaving a softer, lighter black color around the eye. Even though the black ink fades a bit over time, Reid says it still offers the horse protection. A horse that spends all his time in the sun might need a touch-up in three to four years.

Owners of show horses who are concerned about appearance might choose to do the procedure more often. Reid says the American Paint Horse Association approves of the procedure, but requires documentation to record the change in the horse's appearance. Owners are advised to check with their breed associations before any appearance-altering tattoo procedure is performed.

Reid and Akagi will travel to the horse if an owner can't bring the horse to them, but because of their medical backgrounds, they are adamant that the procedure be performed under the guidance of a licensed veterinarian and in his or her clinic. Reid says they never perform the procedure on a horse for purely cosmetic reasons, even when a horse owner asks. They do the procedure to make the horse more comfortable and to protect the horse's health.

Reid and Akagi can be contacted through email at or through their website at

About the Author

Diane Schorzman

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More

Free Newsletters

Sign up for the latest in:

From our partners