I took Friday morning off in order to be present when my favorite vet came to call. There are two main equine vets in the area. One is a strictly mobile husband/wife team – the other is good sized clinic employing no less than 5 veterinarians at a time. The Clinic has significantly raised their prices in the last 5 years, and so they have been dropped by some, but my favorite vet (Dr T) remains on their staff so I continue to use them as much as possible. If I am looking for down-to-earth, straightforward, financially sensible advice there is no one better than Dr T.
My barn manager and her sister were just looking to get their horses’ falls shots, but I had other things in mind. During our ride at the Biltmore, and subsequently on another short ride since I had felt Pokey take a few off strides on his right hind. Incidentally this is the same leg he injured in March and had had most of the summer off for. Pokey was never actually lame, but I really felt he had had enough time off that it shouldn’t still be an issue.
As far as Pearl went, I had noticed her becoming increasingly spooky in the last few months. I guessed it was just a combination of her being ridden slightly less, and the move to SStables, but I asked Dr T to check her eyes just to be on the safe side.
First off, Dr T was able to confirm that Pokey had suffered a stifle injury. The extent of the damage is not evident without an X-ray, nerve block or ultrasound. He did say that a bute regiment could be considered to maximize comfort while he was in work, but that his lameness was minimal and that if G was the only one riding Pokey, it would probably not even be necessary.
But the biggest shock of the day came when he examined Pearl. I know that Appaloosas (and POAs) have a higher rate of ERU (equine recurrent uveitis) than most breeds. For that reason, I did ask him to examine her eyes. But being that her skittishness had mostly coincided with her move to SStables 6 weeks ago (AND due to the fact that he had given her a fairly thorough physical exam in June before I brought her home), I was fairly certain we had nothing to worry about.
We brought her into the darkest part of the barn and Dr T peered into her left eye. After a few seconds, he straightened.
“Well, she’s about 80% blind in that eye,” he announced.
I raised my eyebrows. Huh?
He moved around to examine the right eye.
“This one is much better,” he informed me. “But she has reduced vision here as well.”
“Oh dear,” I said. “That does explain why she spooks so violently to the right.”
(I was still oblivious.)
“It’s my guess that being an older Appy, she contacted uveitis at some point, and it caused cataracts.” Dr T explained.
“I never noticed any symptoms,” I said. Indeed, 4 of my mom’s horses suffered from moon blindness in the past, so I know what it looks like.
“Sometimes you don’t,” Dr T said. “See how she cranes her head around? She is trying to see out of her right eye. You might want to start leading her on the right side, mounting her on that side etc.”
“Okay,” I nodded. “We can work with this.”
“My guess is in 3-4 months she will be almost completely blind in her left eye,” he added.
“Okay. So wait. What? This is progressive? It’s going to get worse?”
“Unfortunately, over time, yes.”
“On her right too?”
“Well she’s got better vision, and thus more time on her right side. But eventually, yes. She will continue losing vision on her right side as well.”
“So how long do we have before she’s essentially completely blind?”
“It’s hard to say, but I estimate about a year.”
My jaw dropped.
“It’s not a death sentence,” he continued, “I have some clients who still ride their blind horses. The best thing you can do is put her out with a horse she will be with long-term, who can be her guide.”
I turned and looked at Pokey, who was curiously gazing at us through the bars of his stall. “Hear that buddy? You’ve got to live FOREVER now.”
I went on to thank Dr T profusely. I told him I was just glad to find out NOW before it had gotten much worse. I told him that we would work through it. It’s not the end of the world.
Dr T knows my family. He has been our equine vet since we moved to the area 12 years ago. So he knows better than anyone the real story.
I personally don’t talk about it much. It’s kind of painful. But it’s kind of directly related to this situation, so I’m going to just give you the brief version now.
Basically about 5(ish?) years ago, 4 of my mom’s Welsh Cobs contacted uveitis. It was like a plague. One at a time they all came down with it, with all but one going completely blind in the end. There is so little known about uveitis and how it spreads, that there was little to nothing they could do. I remember well how they looked when they were in the throes of the disease. Sunken, milky, weepy eyes, confined to stalls, on bute regimens for the pain.
But what really hurt my heart was when my old mare (whom I had purchased during my teenage years), was struck with it. After I moved out of the house at 18 yrs old, she had been passed onto my brother and he actually took her on to become a successful beginner novice/novice level eventing horse. She particularly rocked the dressage ring and I remember one random stranger made a lucrative offer for her one day, so impressed was she.
Then Misty contacted uveitis. She was confined to a stall for weeks and when she emerged she was completely blind. She eventually learned to navigate her small paddock fairly well. Unfortunately when turned out in the pasture some of the other horses would pick on her, so she would generally keep her distance from them. Nonetheless, she impressed me and my sister with her ability to overcome and adapt. She was no longer ridden, but she was still perfectly capable of living a full life.
Then my parents separated, and my mom kind of went crazy. She started selling horses right and left, asking (to my mind) outlandish prices for each of them. Then she euthanized her other blind mare, and I begged to take Misty. Even after all these years, I felt like she was still my responsibility. But I hit a brick wall when I discovered that A) my barn manager was unwilling to allow a blind horse on the property (even a carefully managed one) and B) my mother refused to let me have Misty back. My sister and I searched high and low for a rescue who would be willing to take Misty, but few ever got back to us. Those who did reply were either full, or unwilling to take on a blind horse. (This admittedly left a real bad taste in my mouth concerning rescues – out of the dozen or so we contacted across the East Coast only one responded with any kind of empathy, and that was the Central VA Horse Rescue.)
In the end there was nothing my sister or myself could do. My mom had Misty euthanized earlier this summer.
Maybe it was what my Mom believed was best, but her sense of reality is skewed. She believed Misty was “too old” and “too blind” to ever be of use to anyone again, even though she had adapted better to her blindness than any of the others. Mom still has the younger blind horses, because she feels they are somehow still worth something, and that someone will eventually want them (even though neither one is broke, and one of them is extremely skittish due to his handicap). From where we stand, my sister and I still feel that Misty was the one of the 4 that was owed a good retirement, and that simply giving up and putting her down was a shitty thing to do in the end.
Ultimately, as my boyfriend pointed, what happened with Misty was not my fault, nor my responsibility. I did everything I could up until the end.
But if Pearl is to suffer the same fate, I refuse to just idly stand by. I am going to start preparing her now. I owe it to her, and I owe it to Misty. I am going to prove that blindness in horses isn’t the end. Granted Pearl won’t ever jump again. She won’t be doing Tevis, or Old Dominion, or anything like that. But with time and training I honestly believe she can remain a competent trail horse and reliable mount.
If you haven’t heard of Endo the Blind, you really need to check out his official Facebook page. His story doesn’t have to be unique.
Anyway, enough with the motivational BS. I realize the past couple of posts have been slightly sad/depressing, but I really don’t mean for them to be. However I do have a couple new posts in the works – including an update on Justice, the story of my ride on Pokey at the Biltmore, and a little about some of the bits I’ve been trying with Pearl, as well as what we’ve been doing to fine tune her saddle fit. So stay tuned!