Dressage Horse, Blind in One Eye, Makes Olympic Debut

Dressage Horse, Blind in One Eye, Makes Olympic Debut

Santana lost his left eye in a stable accident three years ago.

Photo: Jennifer O. Bryant

It was one of those dressage tests a competitor would just as soon forget: Off to a good start, the horse lost it toward the end of the ride, and there went the score. The test in question might have been forgettable, except for three things: The horse is green at Grand Prix (he only debuted at this level in January); the venue was the 2012 London Olympic Games; and the horse is blind in his left eye 

His name is Santana, and he's a black 11-year-old Hanoverian stallion owned and ridden by Minna Telde, 39, of Sweden. Telde, the mother of a 14-month-old boy, entrusted her active toddler to her own mother for a few minutes so she could tell The Horse about Santana's journey to the Olympics.

Telde, a veteran of the 2004 Athens Olympics, has been training Santana since he was three and bought him outright as a 5-year-old. She has brought him up the levels and got him approved as a breeding stallion.

Then "three years ago, he had an accident in the box (stall) overnight," Telde said. "We don't know what happened. It's the same box he's stayed in for years. He had a big scratch on the surface of the eye. It was really swelling and running. We called the vet, of course, and we took him to the hospital.

"They put in a catheter so they could treat the eye," she continued. "We medicated him every fourth hour for seven weeks, and we had the vets coming in and out every day to the stable because we'd rather keep him home and (have the vets come) there.

Telde's veterinarian consulted with specialists in the United States, but the eye was starting to die. Although she had done everything she could, Santana was going blind quickly. So Telde elected to have the eye removed via a procedure carried out in the standing horse.

"He was perfectly fine afterward, but after many discussions we decided to put in a silicone ball (artificial eyeball)," Telde said. "Also they did that standing; he recovered very well from it, quicker than when he had the injury. But overall it took about seven months before everything had passed."

Telde was devastated by the injury to her "very promising" horse: "I said, 'This is not happening.' Not to this horse. I love him to bits. But he's a fighter." That fighting spirit, she believes, is what helped Santana overcome the setback.

Adjusting to life with only one eye took the stallion some getting used to.

"He doesn't see anything on his left side," Telde explained. "Everything from leading, walking--you have to talk to him because he doesn't see you. Normally if you stop, the horse will stop because he reads your body movement. He doesn't see you, so you have to tell him what you are doing." (Telde makes that "brrrp" noise that means "whoa" and clucks by way of illustration.) "You speak more when you're on the ground and when you're handling the horse. When you're on the horse, it's building up the trust so he doesn't react to what's on the side.

Building that trust took time, Telde said: "Even before, with two eyes, he's a horse with a lot of energy--a lot of sparkle in his personality. Sometimes too much spark. Like what happened in the Grand Prix: I thought I was going to get the ride of my life, but he got too scared with the cameras--not the cameras but the noises from the cameras, click-click-click-click-click. Unfortunately that disturbed him more than I would have assumed."

Some of Santana's spookiness might also be attributed to his relative greenness. Prior to August 2011, Telde explained, she was pregnant and unable to ride. The combination of the time off for the injury and the maternity leave relegated the pair to the sidelines for seven to nine months, she estimates, factoring in time spent on turnout and then being hand-walked before he could be ridden again. The pair finally made their Grand Prix debut in January 2012.

Telde said she's thankful that her horse made such a speedy comeback. "That he's standing here today, going at the Olympics, is fantastic, but of course we need a bit more time and training to get (all of Santana's potential) out."

"He loves to work, and he loves going in the arena," Telde said. "He has a quite good ego. He's a stallion, and he thinks he's very gorgeous. You have to have the ego working with you."

Santana's beauty and talent, combined with his desirable Sandro Hit/Rubinstein/Donnerhall bloodlines, have had people requesting that Telde return her stallion to the breeding shed, she said. She took him out of breeding to prepare for the Olympics, but she thinks she'll start standing him at stud again in the future.

First, however, there's more Olympic competition for Santana and Telde, members of the Swedish team that placed seventh in the Grand Prix and therefore qualified for the Olympic dressage team medal final, the Grand Prix Special, to be contested Tuesday (Aug. 7).

For her part, Telde doesn't regard Santana's injury as a hindrance to his international dressage and breeding career.

"It's like people with one eye; they adjust," she said.

About the Author

Jennifer O. Bryant

Jennifer O. Bryant is editor-at-large of the U.S. Dressage Federation's magazine, USDF Connection. An independent writer and editor, Bryant contributes to many equestrian publications, has edited numerous books, and authored Olympic Equestrian, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604. More information about Jennifer can be found on her site, www.jenniferbryant.net.

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