Blindness is not uncommon in horses, sometimes the result of trauma, but more often caused by “Moon Blindness”.
I am doing theses stories to show how remarkably well many totally blind horses get along. The horse’s other senses are so keen that the sense of smell, hearing and the tactile sense, especially via the whiskers, all compensate for the loss of vision to a great degree.
I was called once to see an Appaloosa gelding at a boarding stable. The owner, a middle aged gentleman, said, “I’m tired of the teenaged girls at this stable telling me that my horse cannot see well. I ride him in the arena and up the trails in the nearby hills all the time and he never has any problem. He is so obedient and responsive. I’m willing to go to the expense of a veterinary examination if you will give me a written report so I can shut these kids up.”
When I examined the horse I did indeed find him to be completely blind in both eyes. The owner was shocked, and of course, disappointed.
“If he can’t see why is he such a great trail horse? He responds to my slightest signals and never seems confused.”
“Well”, I explained. “You are his Seeing Eye Dog.”
The observant teens at the stable had correctly observed the horse’s inability to see. But the extreme perceptivity of horses allowed him to function so well that his owner was unaware of the disability.
Lester Buckley is one of the great horsemen involved today in the Natural Horsemanship Revolution begun by Tom Dorrance and his disciple Ray Hunt.
I met Lester many years ago, in Hawaii, before he was well known. We became friends and have done many clinics together. I saw his potential and encouraged him.
Lester now lives in Kentucky, but while he was still in Hawaii he telephoned me. One of his horses, a great Western performer, had Moon Blindness and was now completely blind.
“He can’t cut or rein or rope anymore, but I figured out what he can do.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“He can do dressage!”
“Lester”, I said, “You’re going to try to sell a blind horse as a dressage prospect?”
“Sell him?” Lester protested. “No! I love this horse. He loves to work! He can do dressage with the right rider. So I signed up to take a course in dressage in Germany at one of the world’s best dressage schools.”
I was speechless. This Texas-born cowboy was going to study at a European dressage school so that a horse he loved could continue working.
Lester returned the second year for additional lessons, was hired as an instructor at the European school, and is today recognized internationally as one of the most versatile teachers of horsemanship in the world.
As for the horse, as he aged he became a blind but dependable horse for Lester’s students.
Lastly there was Sally, a twenty-year-old mule out of a Tennessee Walking mare, owned by Ray Ordway, well known in California as one of the best of the traditional California Vaqueros. Sally, he told me, had dragged over ten thousand calves to the branding fire, but now she was slowing down. She was still sound, but handicapped by Moon Blindness. So he decided to find a good home for her.
“I know you like mules”, he said, “and you are a vet, so I’d like to give her to you.”
Now every veterinarian is offered patients like that, but I had always turned such offers down, because I felt that if I accepted, I would be forever obligated to take care of the animal which I had accepted responsibility for.
However, because I knew his reputation, and because he said that Sally was spade bit reined and completely sound except for her eye problems, I agreed to see her and then, if I felt that she was suitable, I might accept his offer.
Ray lived 500 miles north of me, but we arranged to meet halfway, at a ranch owned by a mutual friend.
So, my wife, Debby and I drove all the way to Paso Robles, on the Central California coast to see an old mule with eye disease who needed a new home.
We arrived before Ray and Sally, and when they showed up our mutual friend asked Ray if he would do him a favor.
“See that bull on top of the hill?” he said. “We missed him when we gathered that pasture yesterday. Would you mind bringing him down, as long as you have that mule saddled?”
Ray said, “Sure!”
Then he mounted Sally and went up the hill. I watched that mule’s Walking Horse gait, her ears flopping rhythmically with her legs. I saw the slack reins and her immediate responses to Ray’s slightest finger movements.
Long before Sally reached the bull, I knew that I was going to accept her, Moon Blindness and all.
Sally became our favorite animal of all time.
My daughter decided to enter her in an English horse show. After four days of jumping lessons, for the first time, she won the Open Jumping class. She beat young mules at Bishop Mule Days in a variety of classes. I roped on her. She was in parades and comedy classes. We trail rode on her, took her on some of my client’s round ups. She became a beloved member of our family.
At 32 years of age she became completely blind in one eye. We decided that if she lost the other eye we would put her down.
But, when she did go completely blind the next year, she was so at home and completely functional, that we decided to just let her enjoy her retirement. She had earned it. She did fine and seemed to enjoy life.
Then, one day, my wife and I went for a trail ride a few miles from home. I decided to ride Sally. So we loaded her and Debby’s horse into our trailer, and went to a Wilderness Area Park.
Sally did great. I was careful to select smooth trails for her. As we returned to our trailer we came to a fork in the trail.
Sally made it obvious she was not ready to give up this adventure. So, we let her decide. She chose to continue and not turn back towards our trailer.
Although completely blind, Sally used her nose and her whiskers to identify where she was around our barn and the corrals. She lived well and continued to enjoy life, her equine and human friends, and her secure retirement home.
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