Life can be tough at first for a horse that is slowly losing its eyesight. The encroaching darkness can scare them, make them startle and can even turn the most beloved, calm horse into a bundle of nerves that you as an owner for the first time fears. There is hope for your horse and there are things that you can do to help your horse adjust to their gradual eyesight loss that will make things much easier as they transcend into total darkness. I am currently working with my four year old araloosa mare as she starts what may ultimately be the cycle that makes her perpetually blind. So I am going to share some things that I am learning and have been offered as advice for her.
A blind horse can live a totally normal life that is very sweet. They can be a great riding companion and will often become the most trusting horse that you have ever owned. The days of putting a horse to sleep just because they are blind can be over for most horses! Here are some things that you can do to make your horse that trusting partner forever despite their blindness. These are tips you can use for any horse, even if they are not going blind, as a safety net in case the unexpected happens.
First, make sure people are aware that your horse is blind or is going blind. Post signs on their pasture (on gates and fences) and on their stall doors. Change the signs and locations of the signs frequently as sometimes people become so used to them that they no longer pay attention to them. Consider restricting to some extent the people who can go in with your horse as they adjust to losing their sight. Always be present if someone new is around your horse, or when others are around your horse, as much as possible. This is important to prevent accidental injuries as your horse adjusts. Your horse may be a bit more moody than normal, spookier, or seem like a completely different horse. For example, my Misty girl is usually a very dominate horse who can be more than a little pushy and you have to remind her that she must listen to you otherwise she will attempt to walk
all over you. She is dominating of other horses and food aggressive. She typically leads her companion everywhere and often goes off on her own. When she suffers bouts of uveitis (a disease of the eye that often leaves her vision extremely blurry and hampers her ability to see motion), she becomes an entirely different horse. She is laid back and more trusting. Less likely to give you trouble and is more willing to be haltered, fly masked, and led. She is calmer around other horses and ceases to attack them over food. She follows her companion everywhere and stays within a nose length of her at all times. If her companion moves too far away, she becomes spooky and panics easily. Some horses do the exact opposite and become more aggressive and feel that they must fight for their food because they canít see the other horses around them. They seem to know that the other horses will typically take advantage of their
Second, start with basic voice commands. Horses respond well to basic voice commands and you may not even be aware that you use them while working with your horses. A blind horse especially needs the assurance of a voice around them at all times to prevent accidents and to prevent them from injuring themselves or you. I am working on simple commands right now with Misty. We started with halter. Anytime I am going to put a halter on Misty, I approach her while talking to her and make sure she knows where I am. Then I tell her halter. I let her sniff the halter for a second and then say halter again, making sure the halter stays in contact with her nose the entire time. She quickly figured out after several sessions that when I said halter that I was going to put her halter on. She no longer startles at the feel of the halter touching her and in fact she stands better than she ever has
to be haltered. We are using the same type of commands with other items like fly mask, brush, hoof pick, blanket, etc. Once we have mastered one of the commands, we move on to the next, but I do continue to use the previous commands on a daily basis. Also create commands in partnership with your vet and farrier that will help your horse understand what is going on when they are present. Alerting your farrier is very important for his/her safety as well as yours and your horseís safety. Your vet will be assisting you as you work through the medical conditions that are often present for horses that are going blind.
Third, move on to some advanced commands once you have basic commands down. Commands that will help your horse move freely on a lead rope with you. Start with the basic forward command. Moving forward for a blind horse can be scary because they donít know what is ahead of them. As you move forward in a safe area, your horse will begin to trust that you will lead them and make sure that they do not get injured. From there, work on obstacles. Small steps up and down, gates, moving around objects, etc are all things that can frighten a horse when they initially go blind. If you make a set of commands for different obstacles, they will become more confident and will know what you need them to do in each situation. Simple commands seem to work the best with my Misty. We use gate when I am preparing to move her through a gate, step up and step down when we are moving into and out of the
barn where there is a concrete lip. I also tell her where we are, for example, pasture, barn, etc. While she can still see at this point, she is learning the commands and understanding the need for them. Also consider teaching under saddle commands at this time. I am starting to think about these commands myself as I prepare Misty for a rider (I donít typically ride horses before they are five.). I am going to continue to use short simple commands, blanket, saddle, bridle, etc., but I also intend to use commands for mounting and dismounting. I am planning to use the word stirrup for when I place my foot in the stirrup prior to mounting and then mounting when I am actually climbing into the saddle. Then for dismounting, I plan on using something along the same lines. These are commands that I am still considering as I learn. I may later include a list of commands that I use with Misty as a jumping off point for others
who are struggling to come up with commands for their horses.
Fourth, prepare your pasture or pen for when blindness comes. There are some simple things that you can do that will make their world a more comfortable place. First, make sure your fence is safe. Most blind horses cannot be in hotwire because if they accidentally hit the hotwire, it will most likely spook them and send them into a panic. The best suggestions for fencing are board fencing, PVC fencing, metal corral panels, etc but if you cannot afford to purchase those types of fence, then you can use other options. One suggestion that I received was to create a fence with a top board and then have snow fence below (snow fence usually is orange and is made of a plastic type material. It is stretchy and has small holes throughout the fence. It usually comes in rolls and can be found at almost any home supply store). Or to use a top board fence in conjunction with hotwire below it that
is not turned on. Anther suggestion that I place two feet of gravel to the inside of the fence (I have heard of straw being used as well), this will give your horse a section where the ground feels different and alerts them to the fact that the fence is there. They have approximately two to three steps before reaching the fence. Once your pen is safely fenced, check it for holes, dangerous spots, and for anything that could injure your horse. Fill in all the holes and repair any damaged areas of the barn to prevent injury. A sighted horse will usually avoid these areas, but a horse that is blind may be a bit disoriented in the pasture at first until they have had time to relearn their way around.
Fifth, create safe zones for your horse. These are areas your horse will frequent such as barns, run ins, feeding and watering areas, etc. Use wind chimes to mark entrances to barns or run ins, use bells on feed dishes and water buckets so that they are easier to find, and use other items that make noise to indicate corners of pastures, etc. Blind horses will rely heavily on their sense of smell and hearing to find their way around. If you do this ahead of time, the horses will be used to the sounds and will understand what they mean.
And finally consider adopting a horse or two to be a sighted companion for your horse. You will need to find a horse that does not have a dominate personality. A horse that is very laid back in a herd situation and typically at the bottom of the pecking order is probably the best type of companion for your blind horse. They will need to be a horse that will not take advantage of your blind horse during feeding times and will be comfortable wearing a small bell in their mane (the bell will tell their blind companion where they are and will also help orient the blind horse in a larger pasture). The reason it is best to purchase two horses that would make a good companion horse for your blind horse is simple. If you need to take your companion horse to the vet or want to take them for a ride, you blind horse is often upset when they are removed from them.
Remember that being blind is not the end of the world for your horse any more than it is for a person who goes blind. They just need help to learn a new way of doing things and they will take a bit more work. They will need patience and understanding and time to adjust. Things will not be easy at first as you and your horse adjust, but the bond you will forge with your horse will change your life. They will go about their days in such a way that most people will never even know they are blind until you tell them. Donít give up on your blind horse and they wonít give up on you.
Need more information on blind horses? Check out http://www.blindhorses.org/ Blind horses.org is a website created by Rolling Dog Ranch Animal Sanctuary. This is a place that specializes in horses and other animals that are blind. There is information on eye diseases, care of blind horses, and inspirational stories of horses that are blind.
Want to connect with other owners of blind horses for support and resources? Try the yahoo groups: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BlindHorses and http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Blind-Horses2 The people on these groups currently own blind horses and are a wonderful group of people willing to answer questions and share experiences with new blind horse owners. They have been a valuable resource for me!
If you decide that blind horse ownership is more than you can handle, please feel free to email me and I will do all that I can to help you. There is help available and if you feel that you need to find a new home for your blind horse, there are rescues and sanctuaries that specialize specifically in blind horses. There are people who already own blind horses who may be able to take in your horse. There is no shame in admitting that owning a blind horse is overwhelming and that you need help, all of us have been there.