California Riding Magazine • July, 2008

Ask Charles Wilhelm:
Don't Handicap a Blind Horse.

Reader: I have been following your articles for several years and I wonder if you have any advice for me on handling a horse that has gone blind in one eye. I have tried to research this area but have found very little information. I would like to know about handling, riding and doing ground work with a blind horse.

Charles: Over the last 15 years I have worked with a number of blind horses, probably three or four dozen. Most have been blind in one eye, some totally blind. Through practical experience, I’ve come to find that when a situation like this happens, the horse wakes up one morning and can’t see, but life goes on. Unlike the human reaction in which our mental processes and rational minds understandably fall apart until we come to terms with it, they don’t have the trauma of the loss of something and they don’t have the emotional stress.

I think with horses that are blind in both eyes, they learn to rely on other senses just like humans—hearing, smell and also a level of acuity. Like humans, they utilize their other senses to adapt to the best of their ability. Obviously, it is easier for a horse that is blind in only one eye, but I have worked with horses that were blind in both eyes. I was able to take them out on the trail, do arena work and probably 99 percent of the normal activities.

The only difficulty would be with cutting because a horse has to be able to see to cut. Once you put a horse on a cow, the horse must start tracking that cow. That would be the only activity limited by blindness.

With a horse that is blind in one eye or both eyes, it is really important to establish a strong foundation. With a foundation you establish cues, and they start trusting those cues. We have a horse here now that used to be a cutter. Now we use him as a reining cow horse and take him down the fence. We have to show him when to cut into the fence, but that is the only help that he needs. He is fine on the trail and is actually more calm and relaxed on his blind side. With his sighted eye he starts seeing things that he wants to react to.

I treat both sighted and blind horses the same. I sack them both out with objects and train them both to do round-pen work, with inside and outside turns. The thing to remember is that when you approach a horse that is blind in one eye or both eyes, it is important to let the horse know that you are approaching. Eventually, they gain a perceptual sense of where you are at.

For example, we pony our horses from one end of the ranch to the other with a golf cart. The partially blind horse we have here now had to learn to gauge his distance from the cart on his blind side. We helped him learn this by teaching him to move off of pressure with ground work first. When, at first, he got too close to the cart, I just reached out with my arm and bumped him away. I also used a dressage stick, which gave me more length, to tap him on the shoulder, move him away and show him where he needed to be. Now we don’t need to do this. He has learned to gauge his distance from objects through sound and feel.

Don’t Bubble Wrap a Blind Horse

When working with a blind horse, most people want to placate and protect it. In other words, they want to help the horse by limiting him. We are not helping the horse by making him feel handicapped. I don’t treat a blind horse differently than a sighted horse. I start by teaching concentrated circles and teaching them to back up on both sides. The only difference is that when I step over there, I cluck and let the horse know where I am. With the horse I have now, I no longer need to cluck because he has learned to feel and sense my presence.

A horse that is blinded can still be very functional. We are teaching this horse to do ranch versatility since he has one eye. A horse that is blind in both eyes can certainly do arena work and go on the trail. A totally blind horse can be turned out to pasture and can certainly be turned out in a corral by themselves. You just have to let him know where the boundaries are. He can be turned out with other horses and can benefit from a buddy, but you have to make sure the other horse is not aggressive. You need to watch them closely at first to make sure they get along as a blind horse is easily bullied and can get hurt easier than a sighted horse.

The only thing that may hinder the learning of a blind horse or determine how quickly he learns is the horse’s personality and his emotional level. If you have a horse with a high emotional level it will take a little longer for him to understand the lesson. If you have a real willing horse, a horse that likes to learn and moves off of pressure easily, he’s going to learn quicker. I hope that answers your question. Treat him like a sighted horse but just be aware that he can’t see.

God Bless,

Charles Wilhelm
Remember It’s Never, Ever the Horses’ Fault