Horse Behavior: Dealing With A Blind Horse

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Question Category: Horse Behavior

Question: Dear Julie,

I am a bit intrigued by all the writing you have done on equine behavior…..especially since my horse has lost his vision, and I was wondering if you might be able to help me deal with this challenge.

My horse is a 14 year old Arab/Appaloosa and has been rough boarded with pretty much the same herd for the past ten years. He was diagnosed with Uveitis five years ago and we had his left eye removed (non-functional) four years ago. On Memorial Day weekend this past year, the disease stole what was left of his vision.

A few questions that I have are:

1.) Do other horses in the herd know that something is wrong with my horse– that he cannot see– and help to compensate for the disability? One thing that I’ve noticed is that even though they threaten him when he comes into their space, they don’t strike out at him! Not with feet or with teeth; I’m not sure how he knows of their warning. Does he sense something by smell or feel? Or does he just know by the smell, which horse it is and he best leave them alone?! I’ve seen him literally walk into those horses; could they be cutting him some slack because of his blindness?

2.) Because he is now blind, how will that differ in trying to teach him. For example, I imagine round penning is out of the question?
I must admit, he is one of those pesky critters that frisks you for treats. He will push the envelope until he senses that I’ve reached my limit, then back off for awhile. I have always figured that I was about a half step up on the pecking order ladder from him.

Always looking for ways to improve the communication between me and my horse, even more so now that he is blind.

Sincerely,

Jean & Houdini

Answer: Jean,

Unfortunately, Uveitis is very common in Appaloosas; I lost an awesome school horse to total blindness, after years of being vision-impaired, but he was a little older than your horse. It has been my experience that when a horse loses his vision, he becomes a liability to the herd and loses all status in the herd and on some occasions, the herd will be quite vicious and run the horse off.

Blind horses will generally do better either isolated from the herd or with one friendly companion, than in a larger herd setting. Often, the companion horse will become a guide-horse and will go out of the way to protect the blind horse. This is made much easier by putting a small bell around the neck of the guide horse so the blind horse always knows where he is.

With any horse low in the pecking order, there is a lot of daily stress from having to constantly watch the dominant horses in order to keep out of trouble and to try and find a spot at the trough. With a blind horse, this stress is incredibly exacerbated because the herd will naturally pick on him even more and he is unable to see them coming and protect himself. Sometimes in his effort to run away from a dominant horse, he might run into a tree or other object that can cause injury.

Certainly blind and partially blind horses rely more on their other senses, just like visually impaired humans. A horse’s senses are much keener than ours for the most part, so with vision impairment, his other senses will get even keener. Normally, horses rely on all five of their senses for identifying other horses and objects in their environment. So your horse is simply using his hearing, smell, tactile sense and even taste more than horses that can see.

Horses with vision impairment can function remarkably well as useful mounts, if they were well-trained and experienced prior to their vision problems. With the input of the rider and especially with other horses around them being ridden, they have a lot of guidance to know what to do and where to go. Riding in rough terrain (where the horse has to pick and choose where he plants his feet) or encountering lots of obstacles may not be easy for him. However, once the horse loses his vision entirely, his usefulness as a safe and reliable mount is questionable; he may still be willing but it may not be worth the risk.

As for teaching your horse, obviously your visual cues will not have much impact. Instead, I would focus on audible cues and touch. I would use an audible cue always before I touched him so that he could come to rely on that and be prepared for a touch, so that the touch does not startle him. Although your horse will not be able to see your body language, he can hear you moving and walking and know when your feet are moving quickly and when they are moving slowly. Horses are pretty easy to voice train and you’d certainly want to use more voice cues with a blind horse.

I would suggest doing lots of lead line work with him, walk-trot-halt transitions, backing, turning, circling around you, so that he learns to listen to your cues and movement and follow with his focus on you. This would be better than trying round pen work, because on the lead line, he has a direct or physical connection to you. The slightest change in the lead he will feel and respond to. Just remember that he has to think a lot harder than a horse with normal vision so you need to have even more patience and not work him too hard.

When it comes to your relationship with the horse, not much has changed. Either he is the leader or you are the leader, in your herd of two. Be careful that your sympathy for him does not turn into spoiling him. He needs a strong benevolent leader now more than ever, so that he can feel safe. Good luck with your horse!

Julie Goodnight

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