The Eyes Have It

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Horse eyes are sensitive to injury or irritation. Living in a dusty environment can lead to chronic irritation of your horse's eyes. A few management changes can help you minimize your horse's dust exposure.

For instance, if you're dumping sawdust bedding, do this well before the horses come in so the dust settles. Sweep the barn aisle after the horses have gone out. Always check your horse's eyes after riding in dusty conditions. It may help to routinely flush his eyes after working in those conditions.

Those Dirty Flies

For much of the year, flies and other insects are problems for horse eyes. Flies can irritate your horse's eye directly and by spreading bacteria and dust onto the cornea.

A small amount of clear mucus is normal for most horses.

A small amount of clear mucus is normal for most horses.

A fly mask can work well to keep flies off your horse's eyes. Make sure the mask fits properly and doesn't rub on the eye itself (see Horse Journal May 2011).

Other solutions for fly control around the eye are spot repellents that are rolled on or wiped around the eyes (see our Favorites box). You can also use essential oils ? such as rosemary, lemongrass or citronella ? and put them on by hand around the eye.

Don?t spray fly repellents directly on your horse's face, as the chemicals could be irritating to the eyes.

Small Injuries

Use gentle pressure to pull the horse's lower lid down.

Use gentle pressure to pull the horse's lower lid down.

If your horse comes in from the pasture with a slight clear tearing or a small amount of clear mucus in the corner of his eye, you should be fine simply cleaning the eye gently and observing him for the next 24 hours. Some horses routinely have a slight amount of discharge especially at times of high pollen.

Reasons to call your veterinarian immediately include any pus-like discharge, blood, wounds to the eye lids, thick mucus, squinting or a shut eye. These are potential emergency situations that require a veterinarian?s help.

Otherwise, if your horse's eye is open, with no thick drainage, it may well simply be irritated. Check the eye carefully with a small, bright flashlight, shining the light across the cornea (outer clear layer of the eye). Any changes on the outer layer of the cornea or within the eye should be evident. The cornea should be smooth and glistening.

Shining the light directly into the eye will also reveal how the pupil responds ? it should contract with the bright light.

Since your horse has two eyes, if you're concerned about something you notice, check the other eye as well. This will give you a good comparison for normal/abnormal.

If you notice any debris or foreign material in the eye or on the lids, you may want to gently clean out your horse's eye with an eye wash.

Eye Cleansers

Put drops in from the top to slide onto the lower lid.

Put drops in from the top to slide onto the lower lid.

If you need to flush your horse's eye you can use a sterile eye wash or sterile saline contact-lens-rinse solution. Artificial tears work, but the bottles are small and may not have enough liquid to adequately flush the eye.

?Sterile saline rinse solution in an aerosol-spray container is especially effective. It has a strong spray and a reasonably long shelf life. Contact lens cleaning or storage solutions should never be used,? said veterinary ophthalmologist Nita Irby, DVM. A commercial boric-acid solution would also work.

You can choose a product right from your own pharmacy, such as:

Rite-Aid Sterile Eye Wash

BioMed Wash Spray, or

Walmart Equate Sterile Saline Solution.

Your tack or feed store may carry animal brands, such as:

Farnam Clear Eyes or

Gimborn R-7 Sterile Eye Wash.

If your horse still has some tearing the next day, it's time to contact your veterinarian.

Gradual Changes

The ointment tip rests on the lid and a small amount is expressed.

The ointment tip rests on the lid and a small amount is expressed.

Other changes you may notice in your horse's eye include generalized redness, inflamed conjunctiva (the tissue around the eyeball) or a cloudiness of the eye. Cloudiness in the eye could be due to corneal edema and irritation or to a cataract in the lens of the eye. These are changes that should be evaluated by your veterinarian as improper treatment could lead to blindness.

In some states you can purchase an antiobitic opthalmic ointment, like Terramycin, over the counter, but it's wise to avoid using any antibiotic ointment or medicated ointment in your horse's eye unless you know exactly what you're treating. Improper use of medication might get in the way of an accurate diagnosis, treatment and healing.

Horses have powerful muscles in their eyelids. If they've squinted their eye shut, they are in severe pain. A horse who doesn't voluntarily open his eye when he is startled or distracted should never have his eye forced open.

?If a corneal perforation or laceration is concealed behind those tightly shut lids, forcing the eye open could cause a partial or complete evisceration of the eye. This turns a potentially salvageable eye injury into one that requires removal of the eye,? said Dr. Irby.

Even if the injury is a simple corneal scrape from a grass seed stuck under the lid, it may require an eyelid nerve block and possibly sedation to safely remove it.