Management of Blind Horses Discussed at Equine Ophthalmology Meeting

Blind horses can usually get by with a little help from a friend; or, in this case, a trustworthy companion horse, said Ann Dwyer, DVM, a private practitioner with a strong interest in equine ophthalmology and co-owner of Genesee Valley Equine Clinic LLC in upstate New York. She spoke at the first AAEP Focus on Ophthalmology meeting, held in Raleigh, N.C., in October.

Uveitis is a leading cause of blindness in horses. It's responsible for blindness in nearly 50% of affected horses. Other causes include cataracts with or without luxation (dislocation) of the lens, glaucoma, retinal detachment or damage, penetrating or blunt trauma, and neoplasia.

Horses seem to tolerate a gradual loss of vision better than rapid or acute loss. Newly blind horses might be anxious and fearful, but this response is usually brief, typically lasting under three weeks, after which time the horse begins to adapt to being blind. It is important to note no horse should be ridden during the time they are adjusting to being blind due to the increased fear and anxiety behaviors they typically express.

Many blind horses adapt to their condition more quickly with the presence of a calm, full sighted pasture and/or barn mate. Blind horses will often use this companion as their "seeing eye" guide.

Some owners of blind horses have found placing a bell on the "seeing eye" companion helps the blind horse hear where their companion is. This same technique is often employed with blind broodmares with foals--a bell placed on the foal's halter allows the mare to locate her offspring.

Although some horses benefit from a sighted companion, they do not fare well in herd environments as they tend to be picked on more and are at the bottom of the pecking order. This can significantly affect their access to food and water. Some blind horses seem to prefer to be alone.

Keep a blind horse's area as consistent as possible, as they will learn a "mental map" of their environment. Changing where the water tank or feeding station is can result in a lot of confusion. It is also important to keep debris and dangerous items out of a blind horse's pasture or stall as the horse will not be able to avoid these items, particularly if spooked and moving quickly.

Barbed wire and high tensile wire fencing should be avoided if possible. Board fencing (either wood or plastic) and woven mesh-wire fencing are preferred. Objects in the pasture which cannot be removed, such as trees or poles, can be guarded by sand filled tires or a ring of gravel around the base to give the horse warning.

Because blind horses no longer have the power of sight, those training them must rely on these horses' other senses, most notably voice, smell, and touch. It is very important to use your voice to let a blind horse know where you are in its environment as that gives them the warning of your approach. Consistency is very important in teaching and working with blind horses so that they can adapt easier. Keeping cues easy to understand makes it easier for a horse to quickly learn what you are asking of it.

The more consistently you work with a blind horse, the quicker they will learn to adapt to their new circumstances.

While these techniques are crucial to managing a horse without vision in both eyes, most horses lose vision in only one eye. In these cases it's important to remember that vision is still compromised, and many of the adaptations mentioned above should be considered.

Talk to your veterinarian if you are concerned about your horse's vision.

About the Author

Kristen Slater, DVM

Kristen Slater, DVM, practices with Kasper & Rigby Veterinary Associates in Magnolia, Texas. Her practice interests include preventive medicine, reproduction, sports rehabilitation, and conditioning.

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