Training Within the Dark World of Horse Blindness

Two blind horses adapt to a sightless life with the help of dedicated trainers who didn't give up on them. Their training methods work on sighted horses, too.
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Two blind horses adapt to a sightless life with the help of dedicated trainers who didn't give up on them. Their training methods work on sighted horses, too.
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At the united states equestrian federation festival of Champions a couple of years ago, Jeanette Sassoon and her dressage horse Valiant performed a musical freestyle and demonstration so moving it brought audience members to tears. While flawless execution can bring about goose bumps, what was so extraordinary about the performance was just this: Valiant is blind.

The Dutch Warmblood gelding started life as a normal, albeit extremely spunky, horse, born of high-performance bloodlines. Sassoon began training him in classical dressage, and despite his frequently spooky and difficult nature, she decided to give Valiant a chance at a show career.

And then Valiant stepped on a nail. An infection developed and attacked the soft and vulnerable membranes of his eyes, a condition called uveitis, known more commonly as moon blindness. For many months, Sassoon cared for Valiant around the clock.

About the time Sassoon and the now-blind Valiant's show career was taking off at the exclusive Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida, a filly of indeterminate bloodlines was born in New Jersey. Nikki, who arrived at Rolling Dog Ranch in Montana as a 4-month-old, never knew what the world looked like. Born blind, Nikki came to Rolling Dog, a sanctuary for disabled animals, many of whom are blind, as a last resort. Her owners didn't want to deal with a blind baby horse and had planned to donate her to medical research when the sanctuary, through a series of equine and other animal rescue groups, arranged Nikki's transportation (with a goat buddy) to Montana.

The two horses couldn't be more different: Nikki is calm in temperament. Valiant's future seemed doomed from the beginning, when a high-level dressage trainer told Sassoon that Valiant's hot, crazy nature made him unsuitable for dressage. Nikki's been blind since birth. Valiant became blind at the age of 6. Nonetheless, the two horses share a similar story: Both are poster children for the productive, happy, and safe lives that most blind horses can have.

Out of Sight
Think of how important vision is to the horse, the ultimate prey animal. His eyes are set on his head high and wide to afford him nearly a 360 degree field of vision. He has only one real "blind spot"-over his body. Nature does that kind of thing for a reason: As prey animals, horses catch a glimpse of a potential predator with enough time to flee. Horses also have extraordinary night vision. They have the largest eyes of any land mammal.

Although horses have five senses, just as we do, research shows that about one-third of the horse's sensory input comes from the eyes. A much larger percentage of the brain is devoted to processing and reacting to sight messages than from those of the other four senses.

From a behavioral standpoint, sight is responsible for most of a horse's flight-or-fight reaction. Often, it's just the mere glimpse of something that portends danger to the horse. He flees before actually identifying whatever it is that causes him to spook in the first place. For example, when a plastic bag skitters across the trail behind the horse, it may cause him to shoot forward. But once he composes himself, he may turn abruptly to look at and decipher what it actually was that momentarily scared him.

But imagine the horse without that ability to see. A startling sound or smell might cause him to panic, and he may just keep running until he collides with something. Or he may run in circles, since his ability to determine space and distance is disabled. He may spook every time he hears an unfamiliar noise-after all, he can't see the tractor, or the kids, or the car-and land on his handler. Or he may be unable to maintain a respectful space between himself and his human.

For those reasons and others, blindness is sometimes the end of the road. Veterinarians frequently recommend euthanasia, since some blind horses can be difficult-and dangerous-for inexperienced handlers, especially during the adaptation phase. Sometimes, horses will be unbalanced, panicked, or terrified of leaving their stalls. Even Sassoon, who had trained many horses before Valiant to the upper reaches of dressage, was challenged by retraining her excitable blind horse.

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A Different View
But vision loss doesn't have to spell the end for a horse. Given time and training, many horses do adapt and learn to use their senses of touch, smell, and hearing, to compensate. Rolling Dog Ranch, for example, cares for 30 blind horses, all of whom have a high quality of life and aren't dangerous. Indeed, horses adapt quite well to life in the dark, writes veterinary ophthalmologist Ann Dwyer, DVM, who has studied blind equine behavior. Although there's little research, blind horse observers note that, like human beings who lose their eyesight, horses develop acute alternate senses.

Naturally, horses respond most to the human voices they already know and trust. They've also been known to "map" their environments, learning to navigate through woods and hills and rocks just as a sighted horse would. Frequently, they hook on to an equine or goat companion who becomes a guide. And although the initial time period after the horse becomes blind takes patience on the part of the handler as the horse adapts, generally the horse's temperament before he went blind and after remains very much the same. Sometimes, as in Valiant's case, their trainability actually improves because they put all their trust in their handlers.

Valiant's Story
The first months of Valiant's blindness were nerve-racking, to say the least. His balance was precarious, Sassoon says, and he spooked at every noise: kids screaming, dogs barking, tractors starting up. Even the smallest sound-Sassoon sometimes didn't hear it herself-would cause an explosion.

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Sassoon first solicited the help of a local cowboy who had some experience working with blind horses. She also learned that clinician John Lyons was coming to Florida, and that John's long-time equine partner, Bright Zip, was also blind. Sassoon felt if anyone could help her, it was Lyons. She phoned and was accepted as a rider in the clinic.

The trip to the fairgrounds posed some challenges, and Sassoon wondered how Valiant, who was already terrified of noises, would react to an arena full of people. Sassoon, who was showing horses that day, raced to the fairgrounds to rendezvous with her horse.

"Valiant was right over by the door," she says. "John came over and said, 'Wow he's really beautiful,' and put his hands on him and gave him some pats. Then he asked, 'Would you mind if I just worked with Valiant tonight?' So he dedicated the entire evening to Valiant. I was concerned in many ways, but knew he was in good hands. John worked with me on feel and how we could better communicate."

By the end of the evening, John had the crowd screaming and clapping, and the sound system was turned all the way up. Sassoon led and rode Valiant without incident. She learned to tune his attention to her and away from whatever noises or sensory distractions he was experiencing. John taught Valiant and Sassoon the true meaning of partnership, she says.

Since then, Sassoon has given demonstrations and shown Valiant through fourth-level dressage. And although dressage shows are supposed to be quiet, they rarely are.

"Now Valiant knows to focus on me more than the noises," Sassoon explains. "He knows that he's safe with me. We have mutual trust, and I will not lead him into anything that will harm him."

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Nikki's Story
For Nichole Zupan, the trainer for Rolling Dog Ranch, Nikki (so named because she was saved in the nick of time) presented a new challenge. Zupan has extensive horse experience, but she'd never trained a blind horse before. Steve Smith, who owns the ranch, decided Nikki should be trained for riding so the gentle filly could show people that blind horses need not always be euthanized-that they can live well.

Often horses will be panicky and difficult when they first go blind, Smith says, which is understandable. Imagine how a human reacts to sudden blindness. He, too, has to learn to navigate his environment and cope in a newly obscure world.

"What we've learned is that how a horse adapts to blindness has everything to do with personality and nothing to do with the disability," Smith says. "If he's a high-strung, spooky stallion, he's going to be that way blind. Horses who are, by nature, calm and easygoing have an advantage. Those that are high strung will be less able to adapt to living in a dark world." That doesn't mean they can't adapt-just that it will be a more difficult journey.

Zupan notes that training Nikki was similar to training a sighted horse. The only difference was more extensive use of voice commands rather than body language to send important messages. "I cluck to get her to go forward; anything harsher and she knows that was not right," Zupan says.

Nikki also tends to run in a circle when she gets nervous. "It's because she's lost her boundaries and doesn't know what to do," Zupan observes. Now, though, Zupan can ride the blind mare out in the field with weeds touching her belly, and as long as Zupan stays calm, Nikki does, too.

Shared Experience
With subtle cues, both trainers communicate to their horses when mounted by shifting their weight slightly to direct them. Sassoon calls her work with Valiant the "ultimate in dressage," which aims for perfect harmony between horse and rider. On the ground both horses are supersensitive to their trainers' voices.

Training Modifications
With help from John Lyons, Sassoon developed a program for Valiant's groundwork that helped strengthen their human-horse partnership. In turn, Sassoon now gets hundreds of emails from people asking for help with their blind horses.

"I always advise them to observe their horses, watch them in different situations, and write down what the horses do. How is the horse moving? Is he tilting his head? Does he like certain horses? The idea is interpreting the body language so we can help them adapt to our world," she says.

If the horse leads, Sassoon advises beginning his dark-world ground training by carrying a 2-foot long stick to cue him with whenever he gets too close-something she had to do with Valiant.

"I would put the stick on his shoulder and say 'Hey Valiant, too close.' The voice has a certain vibration at a particular distance, so he learns that from double reinforcement, the stick and the voice."

As the horse learns to correlate voice and distance, it's time to work on "whoa." This may be the blind horse's most crucial command.

"They need to stop or they could bump into something," Sassoon says. "If they are cantering to me, I want them to understand when I say, 'Whoa, stop,' they stop. I keep reinforcing it. I always go back to whoa."

Sassoon then practiced groundwork at the trot. She would jog alongside Valiant, using her voice and the stick to keep the appropriate distance between them. Both she and Zupan note that blind horses become very sensitive to pressure on the lead line-an example of that acute sensibility they develop to compensate for their lack of sight.

When teaching Valiant to longe, Sassoon used the command "out" to move Valiant from a small circle onto a larger circle. She'd say, "Out, out," while throwing the longe line toward his shoulder. "We'd start to walk on a 10-meter circle until he equated the distance with the sound of my voice. Then, I'd throw out more line." Once Valiant mastered that lesson, they worked on it the other direction. Eventually, Sassoon was able to longe Valiant at the trot, but this took months of working with him almost daily.

Sassoon adds that once she unhooked Valiant from the lead line, she let him make some mistakes. "When I'd say whoa and he didn't listen, he trotted into the rails." That's how he learned.

Zupan notes that Nikki also knows voice commands and, perhaps because she was a gentle filly to begin with and was born blind, she learns quickly.

"In the round pen, at first I kept her on the longe line and had her work circles around me. It's important to use patience, consistency, and repetition. I use a lot of verbal clues. I cluck to her to ask her to go forward, for example, and she's learned to listen to the tone of my voice," explains Zupan. She now rides 3-year-old Nikki out in the open arena, too, without incident.

"We walk, trot, and lope in both directions. Nikki moves her hips and shoulders independently. Next we're going to work on lead departures and flying lead changes. She's a smart little filly."

More Reasons to Cheer
At the end of Valiant's United States Equestrian Federation performance, Sassoon dismounted and took the horse's bridle off.

"We did a whole performance with him running alongside me on the ground. I can tell him to stay while I walk away 20 yards and change my position. When I call him once, he comes to me wherever I am. If I say trot, he trots. He'll stop right before he gets to me. He amazes me every day with that extra sense."

Sassoon says John Lyons and Bright Zip inspired her to do such things with Valiant. And she's philosophical about the influence this blind horse has had on her life. "If we allow the horses to speak to us, we can learn so much from them and about how we connect with the universe."

Of course, that's one important lesson that has little to do with vision-and everything to do with insight.