Riding a one-eyed horse

Thankfully, my horse Spiker is back on track after his injury 10 months ago. He had a small tear in his suspensory ligament on the right-hind leg after a freak paddock accident in September. After lots of rest, hand walking, Atravet (acepromazine) and wrapping (so, so, so much bandaging with my favorite Back on Track No-Bows) he is back to work. He was slowly introduced to turn out over a 2 month period, and is now living 24/7 outdoors.

Now that we’re back to riding again, I feel like I have bit more insight on working with a one-eyed horse. Here are just some general observations/comments that I feel could help other owners.

  • While Spiker was being introduced back to turn out, he was fairly heavily sedated to prevent himself from re-injuring himself during his newfound freedom. This included being sedated while under saddle. WHAT A DIFFERENT HORSE I have! While we were only walking (and lightly trotting), it was the spooking in the arena I was concerned about. The tranquilizer really seemed to take the edge off (too much he was sleepy, too little he was bucking with joy) and get him “used” to the arena again with less drama. If you have a horse that has recently undergone enucleation surgery, talk to your vet about mild sedation for the first few weeks under saddle if your horse is a high-wired/spooky type. Thanks to the tranq and regular work in the arena, he is unfazed by flapping birds/horses cantering by on his blind side/banging noises outside/etc. Although he has not been sedated in several months, he is much more accepting of his environment. I wish someone had mentioned to me when his eye was first removed!
  • Turnout, turnout, turnout. Now that Spiker is living outside, he is much more accepting of “the unknown” than before. He is all around much less spooky and “ready to work” when he comes into the barn. While he lived inside, he had a lot more time to ruminate about life and the dangers of the world. Consider leaving your horse outside, even if just for the first few months, so that he can “re-adjust” to his new world.
  • Allow your horse to “look”. When Spiker used to spook, I would bend his his head and neck away from the object and leg yield him slightly towards it. Now if he spooks, I allow him to put his head wherever he likes but still move towards the object. I find he feels much more comfortable with the freedom to examine objects in the manner he feels best.
  • Stop and smell the roses. Similar to the previous point, if you are out hacking or in a new environment, allow your horse to stop and take a look around if he or she is feeling uncomfortable or tense. I tend to keep a deep seat and allow my reins to the buckle (do not do this if your horse has a tendency to buck/bolt!) so that as we walk, if he starts to tense up he can stop and look around of his own accord. Once he starts to relax, I can then ask him to move on. Sometimes we do get a spook/spin, but if I stay relaxed and centered he suddenly realizes that if I’m not upset, neither should he be. We then proceed onwards, usually without incident.
  • My horse has become extremely one-sided, with the strong side being the one with the remaining eye. When you train, be sure to pay attention to any weakness in the blind side so you can address muscle development and prevent your horse from becoming unilateral.
  • This may seem like stating the obvious, but always be medically cognizant of your horse’s healthy eye. Be sure to include an ocular check by a veterinarian at least once a year, and call your vet IMMEDIATELY if you notice anything unusual or different about the remaining eye. Many eye conditions can be averted if treated right after symptoms present themselves, so be sure to check the eye yourself EVERY time you see your horse. If you are going to be on vacation for an extended period of time, ask someone knowledgable at your barn to keep tabs on your horse while you are gone.

    Having a one-eyed horse felt like the impossible after Spiker’s diagnosis in the fall of 2008. I had never knowingly ridden a horse with impaired vision; how the hell could I guide my horse through this uncharted territory in equine care? Thanks to knowledge from my vets, other owners of blind horses online and taking things slowly, Spiker is a model example of how a horse can recover after enculeation surgery or vision impairment and continue to be a happy, healthy and (hopefully!) competitive horse.