How to adapt yourself and your farm for a blind horse.
Are you adopting a horse that’s blind or going blind? When dealing with vision-impaired equines, the adaptation process can involve a lot of questions and confusion. But it’s not as challenging as many people think. There are some basic dayto- day practicalities to consider when it comes to caring for a blind horse, but all are relatively straightforward and for the most part don’t involve any more effort than reprogramming your thinking.
Preparation is Paramount
A little preparation before bringing a blind horse to your farm can go a long way toward easing his transition, for both of you.
• Inspect the horse’s stall, run-in shed and corral for holes in the ground and sharp or protruding objects that could injure him, and make repairs.
• Remove any stray objects a blind horse could unexpectedly trip over or run into from his stall, run-in shed and corral. At best, colliding with an unexpected object will cause him unfair and unnecessary stress. At worst, it may spook him and/or result in direct injury to the horse or yourself.
• Place the horse’s hay, feed bucket, salt lick and water sideby- side along a single wall of his stall or run-in shed, so that when he finds one, he can easily locate the others. This also physically places these essentials off to the side where a blind horse is less likely to inadvertently trip over them.
• If the horse has specific healthcare needs related to his blindness, educate yourself on those needs, as well as related costs, before making yourself responsible for caring for the horse on your own. Purchase and have on hand any medical supplies needed for his routine care. If a disease caused the horse to lose his eyesight, learn about the disease and any continuing effect it may have on him. For example, painful episodes of Equine Recurrent Uveitis (ERU) could from time to time affect his demeanor due to headaches and eye pain until the occurrence passes and he feels better again.
• Carefully consider which other animals will be located in the same physical area as your blind horse. A bully horse, goat or other animal in the same corral with a blind horse can be a recipe for disaster. Have a backup plan for separating animals from the blind horse in the event your initial plan doesn’t work out.
• If possible, turn off the electric fence for the blind horse’s immediate physical environment, since he won’t initially know where fences are in his new home. Don’t punish him for being blind by shocking him because he accidentally bumped into a fence line while exploring his new environment. Also, a blind horse can follow a fence line to help him navigate his new home.
• Blind horses typically have above average hearing and can use sound reflections from nearby physical structures and objects to identify their presence and avoid bumping into them. If it is your general practice to leave a radio playing in your barn, turn it off and leave it off. A radio will prevent a blind horse from hearing these subtle sound reflections and deprive him of an essential navigation tool.
• Try to make arrangements to haul the blind horse in a fully enclosed, well-maintained trailer with a ramp. An open-air, slat-sided trailer will subject him to wind and traffic noise during transport, and also tends to rattle more, all of which will be upsetting to a blind horse. Ramped trailers are preferable to step-down trailers.
After his arrival at your farm, give the blind horse time to adjust to his new environment and to you. It is understandable for any horse to be uneasy in a new and strange environment, especially one that cannot see.
• Make it a rule of thumb to always give your blind horse a verbal notification before making any kind of physical contact
• Allow the horse to explore his new environment by himself and at his own pace, under your supervision. If he is not newly blind and is comfortable with his lack of sight, he will usually by nature proceed cautiously, and it’s possible your supervision during this familiarization process may not be needed. Ultimately, exploring on his own is the primary way the blind horse will learn and become comfortable with his new surroundings. Never trim a blind horse’s facial whiskers; they can be used as an aid to identify the presence of objects in the environment. Allow the blind horse to have quiet time so he can listen to background sounds and get used to what sounds are normal in his new home; as he’s exploring, he can pay attention to subtle sound reflections from nearby physical structures and objects that will help him navigate and avoid bumping into them. Develop a routine when handling and interacting with your horse so that he knows what to expect
• Leave a halter permanently on the horse, so you have a physical means to grab hold of him in case of an emergency situation (assuming you could do so without endangering yourself). If a sudden squall or nearby gunshots or fireworks spook your horse, there won’t be an opportunity to get a halter on him then.
• After your horse is comfortable, you might consider having an equine ophthalmologist evaluate him to determine if there is any possibility of restoring or improving his vision, slowing the progression of blindness if he is not yet completely blind, or improving his comfort level. Blindness caused by cataracts is often correctable with surgery. Blindness caused by certain infections is sometimes correctable by treating the infection. Progressive vision loss from ERU can sometimes be slowed with regular treatment. Long term side effects of ERU can sometimes be surgically corrected; these include an oversized eyelid (caused by reduced eyeball size).
A Little Thought Goes a Long Way
Once you have learned to incorporate these adaptations, caring for a blind horse isn’t much different than caring for a sighted horse. For additional information on general care, as well as special considerations for training and riding a blind horse, consult blindhorsecare.org.
Maintain a Consistent Environment and Routine
After a time, the length of which will vary from horse to horse, a blind equine will memorize his immediate physical environment and learn to function within it remarkably independently. You can simplify this process by minimizing physical changes to the environment and always interacting with your horse in a consistent manner.
• If possible, gates that need to be temporarily opened should be opened outward (away from) the blind horse’s corral and not into the corral, so that he doesn’t stumble into a gate he doesn’t expect to normally be there.
• If cleaning while the blind horse is in his corral, keep wheel barrows and muck buckets either outside the corral fence or behind a permanent object known to the blind horse, like a tree.
• If an object that is not part of the horse’s normal day-to-day environment must be kept temporarily near him, develop a system for letting him know something is there. For example, give a verbal notification and rap gently on the object a few times. Do not leave the horse unsupervised until the object has been removed from his environment.
• Always supervise anyone working with or around your blind horse. Discourage them from making sudden unexpected actions and noises that might startle him, or leaving equipment where he could trip over it and injure himself. Even experienced horse people such as farriers may not be used to being around a blind horse and are unlikely to have the level of awareness that you’ll develop through your day-to-day interactions with him.
• Maintain a safe environment by making timely repairs. If a strong wind blows down a tree branch into your blind horse’s corral, it needs to be removed. If a board on his corral fence gets broken, exposing a jagged wooden edge or nails, it needs to be replaced.
• Maintain a regular routine when handling or otherwise interacting with your horse. Regular routine gives him an increased comfort level because he understands what you expect from him, and more importantly, what he can expect from you.
Susan Straumann operates Shambhala Farm, a sanctuary for special needs animals, one of which is retired Standardbred racehorse TJ’s Khan (“TJ”), now blind from ERU . Since arriving to Shambhala Farm in 2004, TJ has become an ambassador for blind horses, teaching equestrians worldwide that disabled does not mean unable. Disclaimer: The information in this article is being provided as a public service intended for the betterment of the plight of blind horses. Use of this information is entirely at your own risk, and no liability is assumed on the part of the author through your voluntary use of the material provided.