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If Only Horses Could Wear Glasses

How many horses who are dismissed as “useless” or “crazy” are really that way because they can’t see well?

By John Strassburger

Dec 13, 2014


With training and experience, Merlin overcame his eyesight problem. How many other horses cannot?

 

A few weeks ago I wrote in this space about one of my horses, Boogie, complaining of poor eyesight when we “talked” with him through an animal communicator. You’ll recall that I included a photo of Boogie wearing a giant pair of joke glasses. 

Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about equine eyesight. 

Boogie “said” that his jumping problem was his depth perception, so since writing that previous blog, I’ve purchased for him a racing shadow roll, to see if it would encourage him to look down at the bottom of jumps to help him judge his physical relationship to them. I’m very glad to report that, yes, it does seem to be working. He’s most definitely jumping straighter than he was—I’m suspecting he’s not fading left on take-off or making awkward leaps from much-to-deep distances because he’s seeing the jumps differently (and better). 

Boogie has also not been dramatically over-jumping everything in his customary style, and as a result of both of these changes he’s also jumping in a rounder frame and softer attitude, giving him a much better shape in the air. He feels great—he finally feels like a 6-year-old horse whom I’ve been training to jump for three years should feel. 

My experience with Boogie these last few weeks has made me ponder how many horses have eyesight issues? How many horses who regularly refuse jumps or spook at unfamiliar sights or objects are doing that because they can’t see well enough to feel comfortable? How many horses who are dismissed as “useless” or “crazy” are really that way because they can’t see well? 

In other words, how many horses could really use a pair of glasses or contact lenses? For millennia, riders have assumed that all horses see well, that natural selection has given them eyesight that fits into a much narrower range of “normal” than we humans do. But why couldn’t some of them have poorer eyesight than others? After all, they’re mammals, just like we are. 

The only other horse with whom I’ve “spoken” through an animal communicator was my wonderful partner Merlin, and we’d suspected that he had an eyesight problem long before the communicator confirmed it. 

Merlin’s weak eye was his left eye, and it was why he didn’t like going from light to dark. It was also why he spooked at things that were on his left side, why when he spooked he always spun to the left (so he could see whatever was scaring him with his right eye), and why he was far spookier at home than away from home. (At home he knew what objects were and where they belonged and got upset when they were moved, but at way from home he didn’t know where things were supposed to be, so it didn’t bother him as much.) 

When Merlin was a young green horse, at ages 3 and 4, he often ran out at jumps—always at jumps or questions he hadn’t seen before and always, always, to the left. But, with training and experience, his innate tremendous work ethic allowed him to figure out how to overcome his eyesight and he developed confidence in his ability to do just that, with help from his immense physical gifts. 

Racehorses’ running form often improves dramatically when the trainer puts blinkers on them. I wonder if that’s because those horses’ eyesight is so good that they get easily distracted by things around them, which racing people generally accept is the reason blinkers work? Or do blinkers work because those horses have poor eyesight and are worried about things around them that their poor eyesight prevents them form understanding, so the blinkers focus their vision in a productive way? Or is it both? Do some horses not like to run in blinkers because it makes their limited eyesight worse? 

I’m wondering if eyesight is one of the factors that make some horses more likely to knock down rails or refuse jumps than others. Boogie “said” he was hitting jumps because he needed to touch them to tell where the rails were, and it’s always been very challenging to get him to the jumps on the correct stride. On the other hand, it’s really hard to get my 5-year-old mare Bella to the jumps wrong. She’s always shown an uncanny sense of where she is in relation to the jump. I’m wondering if that’s because she has exceptional eyesight. 

Heather an I also recalled that, five years ago, we had a horse in training we were sure had an eyesight problem, because he was spooky and would always turn his head to one side to look with what we suspected was his good eye. And he wasn’t a brave jumper at all. I got him to jump clean at beginner novice (where he won an event) and at novice levels with his junior rider, but he never got around at training level with two other trainers (one of whom has the reputation that if the horse won’t jump for him, he won’t jump for anyone). 

Is there any way to solve the problem of horses’ eyesight, any way to correct the vision of horses with jumping or spooking problems? My glib answer is that it’s really hard to get horses to read the eye chart, especially because we first have to teach them the alphabet and how to talk. 

Seriously, what could we do? Could we put corrective goggles or blinkers on them? Giant contact lenses? It’s hard to imagine the FEI, USEF or racing commissions allowing horses to wear corrective lenses, because it would certainly seem to be a competitive advantage. 

At least it would be a good question for equine medical research, if only there were the money. You may recall that last February I wrote an article for the Horse Journal describing the U.S. Eventing Association decision to assess a $1 starter fee for every entry to help fund equine medical research. Well, I think that this would be another reason why every equine sports organization—USEF, USHJA, USDF, AQHA and more—should follow the USEA’s far-sighted lead.  

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