Question of the Week: Blind Horse
Is it safe to ride a blind horse?
Q: A few months ago, I bought an older Appaloosa gelding. He was severely underweight and had heaves. I brought him to my vet and he had his teeth and feet done, was dewormed and received medication for his heaves. The vet said that he was blind in one eye.
Now he's at a healthy weight with a glossy coat and his heaves are under control, but he is completely blind in both eyes. I am able to ride him around the pasture at the walk, trot and canter and he totally trusts me, but my parents don't want me riding him unless there is someone right there watching. I think he's as safe as a horse with normal vision as long as he's in an enclosed area. So my question, is it safe to ride a blind horse? Are there precautions I can take to make it safer?
A: Blind horses are surprisingly adaptable to their environments, learning to rely heavily on their other senses, especially their ears, to provide clues as to what’s going on. When you are riding or simply near your horse, he then also relies on you. Trust is an extremely important part of any horse/rider relationship, but especially so in your case. You have become your horse’s eyes and when you are on his back, he trusts you to tell him where to go and that it is safe. Looking at the situation from the horse’s point of view, he is a prey animal by nature, relying on mostly sight and sound to tell him where danger is so he can flee at any moment. Losing his sight, he is now at a huge disadvantage out in the wild, so to speak, having to now rely more on his hearing and sense of smell. This can result in a horse becoming more reactive to his environment, that is, spookier. He has less information regarding his environment, therefore has no choice but to react in a more explosive manner to a situation that a horse with sight might decide is not life threatening. Fortunately, many of our domesticated horses are not quite as “on the alert” as their wild counterparts out on the prairies, and from your description, sounds like your older gelding is fairly calm, which works to your advantage. It appears he has lost his sight gradually as well: first in one eye and then in the other, thus making it easier for him to adapt to his handicap.
It can be safe to ride a blind horse, as long as a few precautions are set in place. Firstly, your parents are right to insist on having a third party present when you ride your horse. Always have someone else around, just for the off chance your gelding spooks at something he hears, smells, or thinks he feels. Secondly, take care with the environment where you are riding. An indoor arena with soft, level footing is the ideal location. Obviously remove any obstacles, even if they are located out of the way in the center of the ring. This includes mounting blocks and jumping standards. I would not recommend riding out in a field or pasture; this invites too many unforeseen circumstances such as deer suddenly running by, other horses coming up to greet you, a rogue plastic bag fluttering in the wind, etc. Thirdly, always wear a riding helmet. In terms of what to do when under saddle, any flat work is great. Walk, trot, and canter are all fine, and serpentines, flexing, and collecting exercises will help keep your older horse’s body in good shape.
When on the ground, it’s a good habit to always let your horse know where you are. Talking to your horse and keeping a hand on his body are two simple things to let him know not only are you there but also that you are there for him.
--Anna O'Brien, DVM
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Question of the Week: Blind Horse