Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Caring for a blind horse: Talking points

Last week a BTB reader asked me to write about moon blindness because her horse was diagnosed with it. My emotional response was to feel sympathy and the slight discomfort of wondering-what-to-say. Having no familiarity with the disease, it struck me as a pretty depressing topic. What I have read about it since has been anything but a downer. So many owners have helped their horses rise to the challenge of lost eyesight to lead productive, happy lives. Amazing lives, really.

Disclaimer: I don't own a blind horse and don't have experience with blind horses. The content below is a summary/compilation from the excellent resources at the end of this article.

Advice from experts, relayed by a mere blogger
If you are the owner of horse going blind, or newly blind, the first order of business is to find a good vet to advise you. Well-meaning friends may not have the knowledge or experience to give you good information.

Horses going blind are in crisis, according to experts, and their behavior may be upsetting or even dangerous. Most horses do become more cautious in their movements, so they are not likely to run full tilt -- but they may collide with things. Circling, calling, panic-responses, spooking, loss of ground manners, and aggression are common behaviors of horses going blind. About 10% never adapt, but others go on to be just fine. Some horses will not adapt until they are completely blind (seeing shadowy movement is scarier than seeing nothing). It is also important to remember that temperament may determine whether a horse can or cannot ultimately adapt to blindness. Owners can play a vital role in helping a horse adapt. Here is a compilation of advice from the resources below...

  • Expect the adjustment period to last a few weeks to a few months. Partial vision loss may be harder on the animal than full vision loss.
  • Provide a safe, confined environment during the crisis period.
  • Talk to the horse so s/he knows where you are.
  • Contact a vet to assess whether the horse is in pain
  • Blind horses are in the bottom of a social hierarchy and they cannot read threatening cues from herd mates. Turn a blind horse out with a non-agressive buddy.
  • Some herd members will choose a social role of guide horse. Make use of this rare talent and put a bell on this horse for the benefit of the blind horse.
  • Remove obstacles from pastures or put gravel or tires around it to cue them
  • Help the horse make a mental map of the pasture by leading them around the pasture and tapping the fence -- demonstrate the boundaries to the horse. Horses are remarkably good at spatial memory.
  • Get safe fencing -- not barbed wire or electric (horses can't "sense" it as some have claimed)
  • Horses will make use of sounds, touch, and smell to orient themselves. Do not clip whiskers, and try to control the environment so that all senses provide reliable information.
  • Tie flags to the fence so they can hear it.
Here is a quote from the Practical Management... article that seems to convey what really matters:
The biggest factor that determines the success of adapting a formerly sighted horse to a life of blindness is the dedication of the owner.... The best human partners create a new handling, and sometimes a new riding, vocabulary."
RESOURCES Caring for a newly blind horse from The Horse Magazine Blind horses: top five tips and myths Leading the blind from Equus Magazine Practical management of blind horses by Ann Dwyer Blind equines: Information and support Navigating the dark world of horse blindness from Top five myths about blind horses (from Rolling Dog Ranch)


  1. Stacy, you write so eloquently about horses. And your blog does such a great job of expressing what I can only imagine must be great joy that comes from the bond between humansand horses. Have you read John Hawkes novel Sweet William? It's a memoir of a horse. If you have, I'd like to know what you thought of it.

  2. Great informative post. It's a horrible thing for a horse to go blind but you have given a lot of information to owners on how to deal with this if it does happen.

  3. Thank you! I have seen the book Sweet William but not read it -- being a librarian, I can request it through interlibrary loan, think I will do this now to read over tgiving break. Good suggestion! My hero as far as equine fiction is Jane Smiley. She has captured the heart of what it means to love horses. Her depiction of Justabob in her novel Horse Heaven made me weep repeatedly. It made me love thoroughbreds all the more.

  4. Thanks for the information. I agree with the grandpa- you write informatively but with pizazz. You could earn a living putting science into laymans terms. We had a mare board with us who was blind in one eye. At first she was fairly anxious being handled on the ground but in the year that she was with us, she was a gem. Very steady and great for a beginner rider. She did kick other horses once or twice, but it makes sense that she would feel extra defensive. Besides the fact that her eye was slightly cloudy you couldn't really tell that she was impaired.

  5. My 25-year old Hannoverian mare has one eye and she is the absolute Queen and Goddess of our farm. Her eye was removed years back when she was still in Germany. She is on pretty equal footing with my herd leader Hano. gelding (19) but she bosses the herd far more than he does.

    We have retired her from riding this year now that she has the two miniature donkeys to oversee, but as recently as last year she was still doing beautiful dressage work and would lunge perfectly either way. The amazing thing is that on the ground she responds correctly to cues given on her blind side, that are silent, and that she can't possibly see. She has wowed a number of trainers with this behavior. She still looks stunning when she turns on her extended trot in the field.

    She is a wise old girl, and when I bought her my thought was that she would be a wonderful therapy horse. She is - but as it turns out, she's much more MY therapy horse than anything else. She's the heartbeat of the farm.

    One thing I'd add for anyone who happens to have a horse with one eye - Salina had a perpetual "tilt" to her head b/c of the way she used her good eye to see, and as a result her atlas joint was very locked up. I had no idea if horses could get headaches, but I sometimes felt she might be. We have a wonderful chiropractor who has adjusted Salina about every 6 weeks for going on 2 years now, and the tilt disappeared, as did the behavior that made me think she was experiencing discomfort in the poll.

  6. What a wonderful story! I have to agree, you're a terrific writer. I'm captivated by your blog, being a life-long horse lover who no longer rides. Well done!

  7. When I read this post I automatically thougth about Valiant. He is a blind Duth Warmblood gelding that competes in dressage. I belive he does fourth level but I am not completly sure.

    You can checkhim out at:


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