When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Sometimes simply knowing the facts is a blessing. The frustration of working with a horse who just isn’t responding as you expect disappears the moment you learn it is vision-impaired.
I have two horses, one who is going blind quickly and another with a severe sight deficit. Shiner, one of my two soon-to-be 15 year old Appaloosa geldings, is losing his sight rather quickly. We started mapping his eyes a year ago when the vet stopped in for the annual Coggins and dental checks. I was pretty sure he had a vision problem because he was insecure in the early morning or late evening when shadows were long.
Dr. High was here again a few weeks ago and estimates that Shiner has lost another 10-20% of his vision. Shiner has central vision, but no peripheral vision. It explains a lot.
My two amazing grays traveled to the vet clinic the next week to smooth out a few sharp places on their molars. Those who are familiar with Amazing Grays, Amazing Grace know that 8 year old Swizzle has blessed me in her own unique ways since she was born.
“Each blind [visually impaired] horse is different – physically, in its disposition, and in its training – and so each blind horse’s potential, and limitations, need to be assessed on an individual basis.
Just because a technique works well for one blind horse doesn’t mean it will necessarily work well for all blind horses.” – Susan Straumann
Swizzle was a model horse-infant and toddler. I expected her to be the easiest horse I ever started under saddle. Instead, she has been a puzzle and challenge since the first time I rode her. Swizzle bucks. When she bucks her hind feet go way over her butt. When that happens I hit the dirt.
Swizzle and I have worked through the problem for six years. I thought we had it mastered. When Swizzle isn’t ready, I don’t ride her. Then it happened again. Unexpectedly. Again. My orthopedic surgeon did a wonderful job of making it possible for me to ride and train again. Flying through the air into the arena sand is no longer an acceptable option for me. I am too old and have too many repaired parts.
Read more about Swizzle – “Jesus Loves You Till Your Bucking Bubble Breaks“
There has never been an identifiable reason why Swizzle bucked. It has nothing to do with how long she’s been ridden or what she’s doing. She has never bucked in response to something I did. When it happens it always comes as a complete surprise – and she is terrified.
The easiest way to explain Swizzle’s problem is that somehow a switch is thrown and she reacts in a big way. I figured if the switch can be turned on it can be turned off, and I am committed to figuring out how. So, Swizzle and I began a new basis for learning together. We were making progress, one tiny step at a time.
After Swizzle’s teeth were done I asked the vet to check the only thing I had yet to rule out as a possible reason for Swizzle’s bucking. I asked him to check her vision. Unexpectedly, she has bilateral congenital cataracts, with peripheral vision and no central vision. In bright sunlight the vet thinks that images come into her brain like shards of light, making it difficult for her to process what’s happening around her.
“Horses need time to adapt to any recent change in visual acuity, even small ones. If a horse has been totally blind for a long period of time, chances are it has already adapted and thinks of blindness as second nature.
A newly blind horse, like a newly blind person, needs to adjust to the idea of being blind and learn to compensate for its blindness in the way it interacts with its environment.
How quickly a horse went blind (over a period of years due to disease or suddenly due to injury) may influence how well it handles its blindness and the period of time required to adjust to it.” – Susan Straumann
No wonder she doesn’t like doing obstacles or jumps. She can’t see them. Swizzle has had impaired vision since she was born. In time I’ll know if her vision is stable or if it is deteriorating. In the meantime. she continue to bless me and I intend to bless her in return.
That means a few things will have to change.
“And they follow Him, for they know His voice.” – John 10:4
Beginning Again with a Vision-Impaired Horse
Shiner and Swizzle are both learning verbal cues to take the place of physical cues. Body language may be the primary means of communicating with a horse, but if they can’t see your body — there isn’t much communication.
Simple Cues to Teach a Blind or Visually Impaired Horse
- Step up and Step down – let them know that they are about to step onto a different level. I am using “Hup!” for up and “Step down” for down. Pretty simple for me to remember.
- Left and Right – Shiner and Swizzle don’t make the prettiest turns when working at liberty. Now I know it’s because they don’t see the corners until they’re too deep into a corner to make a nice turn. Now I’m using Left and Right at liberty and on the long line. They’re already beginning to make better turns at liberty. [Note: if you are more mature — be sure to keep your directions straight. One day I used Left for both left and right. Shiner looked at me oddly. I fixed it.] Body language is such a habit that it’s totally automatic for me. Introducing verbal cues requires precision. I’m working on beating the “senior moment” challenges.
- Practical leading – Shiner sees in front and Swizzle doesn’t. I no longer expect them to stay precisely in position off my shoulder. I am teaching both of them to “Walk with me” as a verbal cue and making sure they know where I am instead of holding them completely accountable for positioning.
- Verbal encouragement – Horses who are well schooled at liberty, on a longe line, or under saddle continue to do what they’re doing until the rider or trainer asks for something else. Working a blind horse is a little different. On the longe line or at liberty I use a periodic rhythmic cluck (smooch for canter) so Shiner and Swizzle know they’re doing the correct thing and it allows them to gauge how far away from me they are by using my voice to calculate distance. If I want a bigger trot (or lope) I use a double cluck or double-smooch. So far it’s working really well.
- Balance visual stimulation – Shiner and Swizzle have opposite types of vision loss, but I started working both of them in a flymask. If your horse is totally blind this won’t help you, but if your horse is partially sighted or losing its sight, it might be an idea to try. Swizzle no longer has sharp blasts of light and Shiner doesn’t have as much trouble with long shadows and light/dark contrasts he can’t process. The flymask seems to level out what each horse sees so it is easier to process and they can focus more on my voice.
Be Safe, Be Secure, and Get Help with your Blind horse
A visually-impaired or blind horse is often more reactive than a normal horse. In other words, don’t open yourself up to increased risks. If you’re not sure you have the skills to work with a blind horse, get help. Highly trained equine professionals get hurt on highly trained and well-mannered horses every day. Don’t get hurt and don’t put your horse in a position to be injured.
If your horse is already vision-impaired, today is a good day to begin preparing for the day he or she loses all meaningful sight. Use every possible opportunity to give the two of you the best chance at a long, joyful, productive life together.
Articles on working with vision-impaired horses will appear on a regular basis as Shiner, Swizzle and I work through the days ahead.
Blind Horse Care Website – Susan Straumann – Quotes used by specific permission.
Read Shiner’s Story (“He Came Looking for Me”) to learn how his rescue proves that Christ’s promise of a mansion in heaven is true. You can also find Shiner’s Story on Youtube.