by Hope Holland
The old-time auction standard for selling a horse as “sound” was always considered to be sound of eye, wind and not a cribber. If an unscrupulous dealer slipped a horse through an auction with any of these problems not clearly stated he would find himself on the wrong side of the law, the auction and public opinion in short order.
As with everything today, modern medical practices have rewritten what was once a pretty simple situation. Sound of wind covers a lot of distance in this day and age with all of the new medical technology and treatments available whereas back in the day it generally meant the horse was not afflicted with “heaves” (an equine form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD) and was not a “roarer,” a respiratory disease which has a negative effect on a horse’s upper airway. A cribber was a horse who had developed a habit of either simply chewing wood or grabbing a stationery object and sucking wind into his belly with an audible gulping sound — a habit which could lead to colic if it was not stopped by the wearing of a neck strap.
But sound of eye, even in those days, was easy to check. Most of the diseases were fairly easy to see if they had left scars within the eye itself and the standard quick check for vision in a horse was to flip your hand up and down a time or two behind each eye. If the horse blinked or tossed his head a little to the side away from the motion, it was considered a pretty good indication the horse had at least working vision in the eye.
In those days wind problems in a horse betokened the eventual doom of the animal as a working animal. Cribbing was a destructive habit, which was an annoyance, but it could be lived with if the horse was otherwise exceptional in one way or another and the cribbing strap worked to alleviate the habit.
Eye problems were an absolute “No Sale.” The reason for that attitude was although the old horseman may not have known what [eye problems] stemmed from, he knew they were often recurrent and each recurrence damaged the eyes more.
Horses back in the old days needed to be able to work not only in the day but often at night as well and the lives of the people they carried or pulled were at risk if the horse could not see well. That being said, many draft animals worked with one eye seriously damaged by accidents, but the temperament of a draft animal lends itself to adaptability in the face of problems. Also draft animals were usually worked at slower paces and often in teams so the horse could be hitched with the non-seeing eye to the inside.
The idea of using a blind or partially blind horse for riding was unheard of.
All that is changing now due mainly to the upgrading of the horse from a domestic working animal to the status of a companion animal. Never has the idea had more publicity than when Patch, a three-year-old novice in high-stakes races, ran in the Kentucky Derby with only one eye. The fact he placed 14th in the race made no difference to his millions of fans across the country all of them hoping and betting on this plucky underdog who had lost his eye some 11 months to a baffling infection. Again, it was Patch’s calm temperament which led to his being able to adjust to the complications of his new condition.
While racing is highly unusual for a partially blind horse other things are not, including being used as a dressage horse. A 22-year-old gelding, Goodybye Little Town (Smokey), which has been completely blind since the age of eight from cataracts, successfully competed at Second Level with his owner/rider Angie Egberg. Many horses today are being used with not only seriously impaired vision but also completely blind. Even trail riding, when done with a strong companion animal, is not out of the question.
All of that being said, it requires not only calm temperament in a horse but also a high degree of training as well as a handler who can think beyond the moment and view problems which might arise in order to create a safe environment for the blind horse to work in. Noted trainer and equine clinician John Lyons’ wonderful Appaloosa, Bright Zip, lost his sight in 1995 from a freak allergic reaction to antibiotic medication. After some initial adjustment for both man and horse, John Lyons continued to ride Bright Zip and use him for his popular clinics, performing spins, sliding stops, roping — he even worked bridle-less and helped Lyons work young horses in a round pen. This was especially tricky because Bright Zip was also hearing impaired.
The older horse that gradually loses its eyesight has better odds for living a successful life sight. Many people have faced life with an aging horse that is losing its eyesight. Finding a “seeing eye” pony that is also older, wise and quiet, is often the answer to giving a companion horse a good life as his world goes dark. Making sure turn-out is safe and free from obstructions and has “blind horse benign fencing” just in case of an unforeseen occurrence is also necessary. Just as with a person who has to navigate life without sight, the fewer obstructions the better in your horse’s new environment.
Never trust the horse without sight to a handler who is not competent to deal with the aspects of life for the horse they are leading; doorways can be fraught with hazards as can something as simple as turning or being turned loose at the gate. All of this can be assimilated but it takes understanding and foresight.
For more information about the blind horse go to www.blindhorses.org/eye_disease.html which gives practical information as well as clinical insights into treatment and a list of the types of blindness associated with different breeds of horses.