Blind Horse Owner's Story
When my Thoroughbred mare, Sanibel, started losing her vision I didn't know what to do. My once reliable, easy going horse was suddenly becoming unpredictable and unmanageable. She spooked quite easily, becoming difficult to handle.
In turn out she paced the fence to no end. I looked for advice everywhere but I was in an environment that believed blind horses were dangerous and must be put down. I was unwilling to accept that alternative.
Over the course of three years I continued to struggle managing her behavior. In that time I moved her to four different stables in an effort to find a safe place. Each new stay came with a promise of kindness and understanding of how different horses with vision loss are. With each failure came a lesson and as I continued searching for a permanent home for Sanibel I became increasingly specific on the details.
Sanibel was suffering from aggressive uveitis due to leptospirosis. Each flare-up was painful and escalated her vision loss. When I moved her to her final home she was fully blind in her left eye with limited vision in her right. I found a retirement farm that allowed me to modify an eight acre pasture with an attached lean-to (28x36ft). The pasture is flat and rectangular with four board wooden fencing. The lean-to attaches to the main stable area.
My lessons learned with Sanibel became essential three years later when my other mare, Red (Sanibel’s 2009 foal), also started having uveitis flare-ups. I immediately brought her to the farm to join the herd. When this experience started I was led to believe managing a blind horse was impossible. Now having two blind horses that not just cope with their condition but absolutely thrive I am compelled to use my experience and share their story to give hope to someone that was once in the same situation.
Over the past few years I have worked locally with horse owners, rescues, and barn managers on the care of horses with vision loss. I also invite farriers, veterinarians, and other equine professionals to visit my horses and use them for observations and demonstrations. It has been an amazing gift to help others.
What to Expect
If you know the horse’s vision is an issue or if I might suspect a horse is losing vision, is important that you work with a veterinarian right away. Eye issues should be considered an emergency; if left unattended and untreated they can become a bigger problem. A veterinarian that specializes with eyes is called an Ophthalmologist.
When working with a horse that either has partial or full vision loss it is important to remember each case is different. Individual character before vision loss is also a factor in how a horse adjusts. Both my horses had different experiences and responses to losing their vision. I have observed that when vision loss is gradual there is more time for adjustment. Horses that experience sudden vision loss may be more prone to panic and take longer to adjust. These horses may startle more easily, overreact to sound, become more herd bound, pace, or display other unwelcome behaviors.
Another factor to determine how a horse adjusts is how the handler responds. Not only will the owner have to make adjustments, but anyone that handles the horse as well. Blind horses are often assured by familiar voices and constant touch. They like to know who and where you are. I have found that they do like to keep their nose on or very close to their handlers. I knew a horse with vision loss in one eye who developed a habit of walking with his muzzle placed on the shoulder of his leader.
If you have never worked with a blind horse before, there are some things you should expect. When startled, these horses tend to spook in place, or spin. If a horse has partial vision they may tilt their head to either side or be active and their head and neck while surveying the area. I was upset when my horse would run into things like the fence, walls, and buckets. As an owner I wanted to protect my horse but at the same time you must let the horse feel their surroundings and not over protect them. Allow the horse to find their space.
Another thing I would like to point out is that a blind horse's whiskers should never be cut. Whiskers on any animal seeing or not should never be cut as they serve an important function in navigation. When watching a horse with vision loss you may observe them occasionally mapping the area with their nose. Their whiskers are essential to give them feedback to what and where objects are.
The horse’s handlers also need to make adjustments. When nearby it is a good idea to talk to the horse, letting them know you are around. Most likely they already know you are nearby, but it is good to identify yourself and exact location. When a horse is still adjusting to their vision loss they might startle more easily when being handled. Try keeping one hand on the horse at all times to assure them your location.
If there are several visitors at the stable it may be a good idea to have designated handlers, or a sign that identifies the horse having special needs to avoid a novice from getting hurt. From my experience, when boarding at a facility you must observe how your horse is handled. The biggest issue I encountered in boarding was unacceptable handling by the staff.
Every horse’s environment should be carefully considered to ensure essential needs are met. When adapting a farm to a horse with vision loss there are special considerations and will furthermore be individualized to that particular horse. Safety to prevent further injury is always a concern.
I have found what works best for my horses is 24/7 turn out. The stalls are available to them when the pasture is being mowed or during yearly vet examinations. They have done well in a group of four horses. There was a time last year where they spent roughly five months with themselves, and I was very concerned about how they would do without a seeing eye horse. I was surprised there was no issue, showing once again how well adjusting these horses can be given the chance.
I realized the mistake I made early on was focusing on the vision loss. By focusing on the one sense that was missing I was ignoring all the other senses that were available to work with. There are multiple ways to use scent, touch, sound, and taste to work with your horse to modify their environment.
Through my experience working with horses, I am able to share a variety of general tips and how to modify a blind horse's environment.
In the stall, necessary hardware to hang buckets should be carefully examined to ensure they are not obtrusive and if at all possible they should be removed. I have found rubber floor tubs to be an excellent alternative to plastic buckets.
When it comes to fencing, electric fencing of any kind should be avoided. Fencing should be safe and strong yet give way if the horse is to panic. I prefer four board fencing or v-wire mesh to avoid horses reaching over to the other side. Gates and doorways should be wide enough to allow the horse ample room to walk through without collision.
Footing in all areas should be reliable and never slippery. When a blind horse panics they tend to move their feet in all directions. Safe footing is essential to avoid falls and injuries not only to the horse but other horses and handlers around them. Rough grooved rubber mats can be placed on slippery concrete aisle ways, draining tiles can be installed under slick turnout areas.
On the topic of footing, using different materials in specific locations is a great way to mark areas of interest. Depending on what's available in your area you can use a variety of crushed gravel to mark the location of the water trough, or block dangerous areas like trees that cannot be removed from the pasture. My water trough and entrance to the lean-to is marked with a mixture of crushed gravel and aglime.
Other markers can be used for designated areas, such as the sound of a wind chime for the water trough or use scent by planting a specific (horse safe!) herb. Once these areas are designated, they should not be moved around. As a blind horse adjusts to their new environment they will rely on the navigation system they have practiced. Changing things around starts the process over and may cause anxiety.
Careful consideration in herd mates is also required for the blind horse and will once again be dependent on experiences before losing vision. A well socialized horse should have little to no issue turned out with other horses. Selecting the right herd mates will also take careful planning to ensure compatibility. Blind horses are at an immediate disadvantage from resources and protecting themselves.
Herd introduction was done initially in the barn by letting them get to know each other through the stalls. I was fortunate to find a unique small group of horses that accepted both Sanibel and Red right away. One horse in particular, a gelding named Dazzler was essential. I often referred to him as the ‘seeing eye horse’ as throughout the years Sanibel was often at his side following him around. Blind horses pairing up with another is not uncommon. It is important to continue working with the horse independently so they do not become herd bound or buddy sour to the point of being unmanageable.
The use of bells are quite popular to signal the location of other herd mates. I initially tried this but ran into trouble with the bells breaking, not staying on, or just not making sound. I scrapped the idea but tried again when Red came to the farm. On the second try I used higher-quality carriage bells and only used them on Sanibel and Red. I use the bells on them as they seem to crash into each other more than anyone else. After switching to the higher-quality bell and which horses I put them on I have only lost one bell in three years. I place the bell underneath their fly mask that provides UV protection for their eyes, which they wear 24/7.
On a final note, being consistent is key. For each individual horse you may experience some trial-and-error. If something doesn't work, don't be afraid to change things up. When changes are necessary make them slow, especially if they involve the location of resources.
In many ways, a horse with vision loss is similar to any horse. By focusing on the senses they do have, you will open a creative door to management and training tools. If you have questions or concerns about your horse's behavior, or would like to learn more how to work with your horse experiencing vision loss, seek out a qualified horse behavior consultant. Given the chance, blind horses can adjust and thrive.
(Red and Sanibel in photo)