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Training Within the Dark World of Horse Blindness

Valiant, a fourth-level dressage horse, puts complete trust  in his rider Jeanette Sassoon  during competition and  special demonstrations.

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.

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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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