Turning Out A Blind Horse

Rocky looking for grass in the snow.

Once Rocky and I started going outside every night, things just began to click and Rocky seemed to trust me more and more.  We got so I could start to jog and he’d jog along side me.  When I slowed down, he slowed down.  When I stopped he stopped.  I began to just say turn or cluck when it was time to turn and he knew to turn.  Maybe he felt me turning too, I don’t know, but he somehow knew. 

Even when winter came, I still took him out every night.  I tried to stay out at least an hour each night, but there were nights when it was pretty cold, so I’m sure it was less.  We’d always go out to the grass and even in winter he’d eat a little here and there.  When it snowed, he’d take his hoof and paw through it or wiggle his nose down into it to find the grass.  Even in the coldest of winter, the grass stays a little green right at the base and he’d look for that.

It could get hard too.  I was exhausted going out every day.  I really devoted my time off to him almost completely.  It was hard if something else came up.  If I didn’t go out, I felt horribly guilty and wondered if he was waiting for me, wondering where I was?  I’d dream about building him an outdoor paddock and of getting him a companion.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t my horse, so I couldn’t do much more than I was doing.

Seeing him, however, was most often the best part of my day.  Even if I felt tired, and less than thrilled to go out, once I got there, most times I felt better when I got there and started hanging out with Rocky.  Then, the hardest part was bringing him back in.  Many nights I had to tug on him a little to get him to walk back in to the barn.  He’d usually fight me one time and try to put his head down to eat, but if I insisted, he’d resign himself to it and walk with me back in.  It really broke my heart some nights knowing he’d spent most of the day in his stall already.

If you have a blind horse, they are very capable of being turned out.  They learn where things are.  It may take some time for them to get used to it, and they will need you to help, but I know of other blind horses that get turned out daily – some by themselves, some with other gentle horses –  and they do fine.

Moving Outside

I’m sorry to say it took me probably nine months or so before I decided to take blind Rocky outside on a regular basis.  At first he was very reluctant to walk down the aisle and outside, but once out, he seemed to have more energy and it began to be easier and easier to exercise him.

When we were outside, he never stopped and started like he did in the indoor arena, but would walk faster with his head held high.  Then in the Spring, I started to let him graze after walking him for awhile.  This he loved!  When I’d come at night, he became much more animated and couldn’t wait to get out of his stall. 

We began to walk all over the farm.  It turned out there were lots of grassy areas – most of them unused.  When it was very hot or rainy, we’d find a place under some trees.  When it was nice, there was a small area near the road that we’d go to.  I felt like I had added another dimension to his life allowing him to have a little more of the life a horse should have.

Every once in awhile he would spook though. If a car door slammed unexpectantly or if a loud car or motorcycle passed, he’d run to the end of the lead rope, that I was always holding, and then turn back.  Horses, of course, are prey animals and when they get scared, they run.  A blind horse can’t run too far without running into something and a sighted horse can’t run too far if attached to a lead rope (unless he chooses to ignore the lead rope and pull it right out of your hands). 

I read in one of the books on horses that I am always reading, that moving their feet is something that helps a nervous horse calm down.  So, when Rocky got scared, I didn’t pull on his rope or force him to stop, I let him walk, sometimes in a circle, sometimes straight ahead. He knew he was blind and needed me on the end of the rope.  He never went too fast, he never pulled the rope out of my hands, but there were times when he was nervous and he just needed to move.  Each time, he’d move around until he calmed down and then continue grazing.

I began to apply this to Major and Princess as well.  If I saw they were getting nervous about something while on the end of a lead rope, I allowed them to move their feet if they needed too.  If they were really scared, they’d just run and there was nothing I could do.  That’s just a horse’s survival mechanism.  But a horse that is just not sure of something and is getting nervous, can be calmed down many times, simply by allowing them to figet around a little. 

I see many people holding a horse insist that he stand perfectly still.  If your horse starts to move a little and get figety, look around, there may be something that’s bothering him or her.  Sometimes if you just allow them to move a bit, it defuses the situation and they calm down.  If you insist your horse stay still, you end up beating them or yanking on them or they end up bolting away because they can’t calm themselves down.

I realize there are times when you need your horse to stand still and he needs to respect that, but I believe your horse will be more inclined to respect you at those times if you’ve remained flexible at other times and respected his need to make sure he’s safe.  This means allowing him to move until he’s reassured himself that he’s okay.

Grazing

Rocky and I with Garfield the barn cat
Rocky and I with Garfield the barn cat

I am a huge reader.  I typically have two or three books started at a time.  And, in the last year or so, I’ve had a Kindle, which I love, and which also makes it easier for me to acquire books.  As I continued to interact with Rocky and Major and Princess, I looked for books to read and videos to watch to help me learn about horses.  One of the best, most life-changing books I’ve read to date is The Soul of a Horse, by Joe Camp.  I also read “Horses Were Born to Be on Grass” and “Horses Without Grass – How We Kept Six Horses Moving and Eating happily, Healthily on an Acre and a half of Rocks and Dirt” both written about the experiences of Joe and his wife Kathleen Camp.

They talk about the huge benefits movement and grazing are in a horse’s life.  Our horses, at the time, were fed in the morning in their stalls, turned out in the day on dirt paddocks and brought into stalls in the late afternoon and fed.  I was suddenly not at all satisfied with how my horses were living.

I read these books in the middle of winter in Illinois, and since there is very little grass to be had at that time of year in my area, I started bringing my own grass hay to the barn and leaving it in piles scattered around an outside paddock. I’d then take Major and Princess out and let them graze for awhile.  They loved it and began expecting it and neighing for me each night when I walked in. 

When Spring finally came, I asked the barn owners if I could rope off a big, unused, grass field they had and turn out my horses in that in the evening.  They agreed, so I went to the local Home Depot and bought green, metal posts and rope and created a very flimsy pasture.  I started small, but as time went on, I kept moving the posts back and making it bigger until I used the whole field.  Till then, the field had only been used in the early Spring for riding, but then the grass would quickly get so tall, riding was impossible and no one used it.  Now it was being used and loved by some horses and the grass was being kept low if anyone wanted to ride out there.

I believe that horses were created to graze.  A wild horse grazes up to 18 hours a day.  Their stomachs were designed for that.  Not only does it help them physically, I believe that a horse that gets to graze on grass is mentally more balanced and more relaxed as well.  I encourage everyone to read The Soul of a Horse which talks about this as well as many other ways to enhance your relationship with horses.  The author, Joe Camp and his wife Kathleen also have a blog that is very informative and fun to read.

Princess and Major, grazing

Horses are Herd Animals

Rocky and me in the barn

Even though I love spending time with my daughter, Rachael’s horses, Major and Princess, blind Rocky quickly became the real reason I went out every night to interact with the horses.  Some nights he’d come right out of his stall, ready to go.  Other nights I’d pull and plead, cluck and kiss to try to get him to walk forward.  Even though he did want to come out of his stall, he wasn’t thrilled about walking around the arena. He loved being groomed, he loved being rubbed and petted, he loved treats, but working – he didn’t love so much, even though his muscle tone was very poor and he really needed it. 

One thing that I noticed fairly soon was that if another horse was nearby, then he was very willing to go their way.  He would step up in order to follow close behind them.  It became obvious to me that he really craved the company of other horses.  

A blind horse typically gets beat up by most sighted horses.  Horses are herd animals and their survival in the wild depends on a herd hierarchy.  There is an alpha horse and every horse in the herd fits in its place on down the line to the bottom horse.  The alpha horse and the ones close to his level eat first, go where they want to and push the other horses out of the way if they choose to.  The ones on the bottom wait and move. If they don’t, they get bitten or kicked.  Blind horses don’t know when to move and therefore typically get beat up.  So anyone who handled Rocky was instructed to keep him away from other horses and he had been mostly alone for at least two years when I met him.

One night when my daughter was visiting and out with Major, I decided to give Rocky a chance to interact with Major.  I was extremely nervous, terrified someone might get hurt – human or horse?  Each of us held on to the lead rope of our horse and Rocky and Major sniffed and then began grooming each other.  First their necks, then their backs.  Not only was it wonderful for Rocky, but Major was the alpha in the herd he was turned out with and he was usually on his own and rarely just got to bond with another horse – until now.  From then on, when no one was at the barn with us, I’d let Rocky interact with either Major or another older horse who was arthritic and didn’t move fast.  Usually the sighted horse would groom for awhile, but then tire of it and move on.  But I like to think it helped Rocky feel just a little bit more like a horse.

Where Do I Even Start?

Major, my daughter’s ten-year old, Percheron, gelding.

When I first started to become involved with my daughter’s horses, I thought that I needed to learn to ride.  I was drawn to the more “natural horseman” methods and found an instructor who taught with the horse primarily in mind.  I was only able to take lessons from her once a week for two months however, as I just didn’t have the money to continue.  I didn’t learn to ride in that short time, but I did learn two important things. One was that working with a horse on the ground was as important as working on his or her back, and two – she told me of a horse trainer and clinician from Colorado named Mark Rashid who has a number of books and videos on the market.  I promptly bought and read his book “Considering the Horse“.  I’ve since read most of his books and seen a number of his videos.  He concentrates on building trust with a horse, and communicating with it in the softest way possible.  His books are easy to read and full of wonderful antidotes and stories to illustrate his way of training and relating to horses.  I was fast becoming fascinated with horses and how they think and react much more than I was interested in riding. 

Princess, showing off.

After packing off my daughter to college, I began spending every night after work at the barn walking Major, a very large, white, 10-year old, Percheron (draft horse) gelding, Princess, a smallish, black, 7-year old, Morgan, Saddlebred mare and Rocky, a 25-year old, blind, quarterhorse gelding.  I’m sure most of the other boarders at the barn thought I was crazy leading, walking, jogging, jumping, zig zagging with these horses, all from the ground.  Some days I thought I was crazy.

When I first started, I’d go with butterflys in my stomach.  Nervous and unsure, everything was foreign to me.  Some days, I’d get dragged around the arena, other days things went smoothly.  But little by little I was getting to know these giant animals and they were learning to trust me.

Rocky, a Blind, Quarterhorse, Gelding

Rocky in his stall, February, 2001

Rocky spent a lot of years going blind.  I didn’t know him then, but I believe he had episodes of pain and as a result threw his owner a number of times when she was riding.  By the time I met Rocky, he had been completely blind for at least two to three years.  He had spent most of his life being turned out in the daytime with other male horses, but one day, after he had gone completely blind, another horse kicked Rocky and he spooked and ran through two board fences.  At that point, the management at the barn believed it was too dangerous for Rocky to be put out with other horses, so he was only turned out in the indoor arena by himself or left in his stall.  When I met him, I don’t believe he had even been outside the barn more than a handful of times for two years and rarely interacted with other horses.  He had accepted his fate long ago though, and was gentle and calm for the most part.  I believed he was very lonely and very much in need of exercise.  I really just felt sorry for him.  So, eventually his owner gave me permission to work with him.  I began by taking him out for short periods at night, walking him around the indoor arena (on foot) and brushing him.  He wasn’t fond of the exercise and kept stopping.  I didn’t know much about horses, so wondered if maybe he was dizzy or just needed to get his barings.  If I walked in a circle with my eyes closed, I would have needed to stop too.  I wrote to an organization that rescues blind horses called Rolling Dog Farm and asked them about it and they replied that he was probably just teaching me to stop because he most likely didn’t want to work.  So I spent a lot of time pulling or tugging to get him to keep moving.  At that point, Rocky knew a lot more about people than I knew about horses, but he was already beginning to teach me.

The Beginning

My daughter had been the one in our household that was crazy about horses.  I was mostly scared of them.  She began taking lessons at ten and now at 20 owns two of her own.  I was just the mom who picked her up and dropped her off (before she learned to drive) and the one who financed everything.  When she decided to go away to college, I decided that I needed to get involved with her horses, so that they weren’t just left at the barn with little human interaction.  So, I began going to the barn where we boarded.  Little did I know then that’d I ‘d meet a blind, quarterhorse gelding that would change everything.