Training a One-Eyed Horse

Q: I am a barn manager at a Dutch Warmblood farm. I have a filly that turned 2 in March. She has been in the field for a year (the owner is out of the country and can't return).

She was born with one eye, and I need to train her. I have ridden one-eyed horses, but I've never taught them from such a young age. I also feel I need to change her feed, as she is so anxious. She was just brought into the barn four days ago, so I understand her nervousness. This is a very high-strung horse, and her sire and dam are also very high-strung. The dam's line is known to be very dominating and bossy, with a very strong, entitled attitude.     --Deborah, via e-mail

A: Like yours, my firsthand experience working with visually impaired horses has been mostly with those that lost vision as an adult, after they had been trained. And, in general, the horses I have worked with directly have impressed me with how adaptable they have been with losing vision in one eye. I only remember one animal with which I had long-term firsthand experience. It was a young colt that came to us previously unhandled with vision in only one eye. He was to be a teaching and research animal. So we only had to train him for breeding and for various research studies. That colt did great with all that we needed him to do for routine management and breeding in the barn and at pasture with other horses, as well as in a variety of studies. His left eye was his good eye, which handlers seemed happy about. They felt that it was easier for leading him from the left side.

When first being trained, at anxious moments, this colt's tendency was to shy into the handler a bit, away from his blind side. He was a very high-libido colt--a very enthusiastic breeder. We also had the impression that this colt did better when given plenty of latitude with his head, rather than keeping a short lead on him. That allowed him to better position his head so as to keep the mare in view as he approached. Some of art of handling him was to give him just enough latitude, but maintaining safe control. Once he learned the routine, he was a very easy horse to work with.

Sometimes we would forget that he had only one eye and we'd inadvertently startle him on his blind side. As long as we had him, he would still turn butt quickly out of genuine fear in those instances, but he didn't kick out. As soon as he figured out what was going on, he would calm down.

The impression I have gathered secondhand over the years is that horses that are born with one-eyed vision or become one-eyed as youngsters do very well in training.

The thinking is that they have adjusted well during their development. With reasonable care not to limit their head movement and to respect their narrower field of vision when working around them, they perform as well as unimpaired horses. You can probably tell a lot about how this filly is functioning by watching her maneuver out in the field and around pasturemates or even in the stall.

There have been one-eyed horses among the top performers in racing, jumping, driving, eventing, endurance, and just about every other equine occupation. I would recommend continuing to ask around to get advice or help from people who have started a young, one-sided vision horse to get some firsthand tips.

Concerning the challenging temperament characteristics of this particular filly's breeding lines, I think there is a chance that these tendencies, if anything, might be slightly tempered by the one-eyed vision as you introduce new steps in training. As you suggested, in most cases nutrition can greatly affect temperament and manageability in training. In general the higher fat formulations and the all-forage or mostly forage diets are helpful for calming this type of horse.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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