Moon blindness is the layman’s term for equine recurrent uveitis (ERU). It is the leading cause of blindness in horses and has been known to man since the time of Alexander the Great, when they believed it to be associated with the lunar cycles, giving it the name still being commonly used today. Basically, the eye gets an infection, and the body’s reaction to the infection triggers an auto-immune reaction. It is painful, and it can be recurring or a single incident. If you catch it in time, steroids can help prevent blindness by reducing the swelling and pressure on the eye.
Our lovely little Shetland pony, Bonnie, has been blind for years from it. She had it when we rescued her and her son, Clyde, some ten years ago. At the time, her behavior indicated some sight in her right eye, and she developed a habit of continuously turning toward the light in that eye, walking in circles for hours. Even thought she is now totally blind, this behavior of walking in circles remains. Several years ago, her left eye got so painful that we had it removed. It was traumatic for both her and Clyde, and they erupted in whinnying to each other when she arrived home from the vet hospital. You can hear the whinnying and learn the details in our blog, Bonnie’s Eye Operation.
In late August, Chinook’s right eye began to weep. It was not cloudy, but a clear stream of fluid ran down his cheek. Many of the herd had eye and cough issues related to the smoke, so we did not immediately seek advice from our vet. This was a mistake. When our vet did come, he gave us the bad news that Chinook had ERU. He gave him a steroid shot and some ointments and medications to control the inflammation, but the swelling had already taken its toll. Chinook has certainly lost some of his sight in his right eye. My heart just sank at the news.
As I write this, the voices on my shoulder saying “could have” and “should have” are not soft whispers but harsh and loud shouts. I regret not taking immediate action. Chinook now pays the price for my lack of understanding, perhaps even my wishful thinking that it was “just the smoke.” I hope other horse owners will read this and understand that at ANY sign of weeping from the eyes, call a vet. The risk that it is moon blindness may be small, but the consequences if you don’t catch it early are huge.
After hours of searching on the internet and reading article after article about the disease, several thoughts have begun to dominate. One is to remember that horses can learn to move about in their worlds with partial or complete blindness in one eye. Secondly, sunlight has been identified as a contributing factor, so I ordered a new mask with goggles for him. It looks a little over the top, but it screens 95 percent of the UV rays from the sun. He will wear it every day for the rest of his life. I tell him he is a celebrity. Thirdly, some horse owners swear by herbal remedies for keeping the inflammation from returning. A bag of Chinese herbs specially mixed to ward off ERU is on its way to our barn. It certainly can’t hurt, and I’d like to believe that it will help.
Finally, there is much I can do now to train and help both Chinook and me for his new status and forge a wonderful future together. I have been following the Facebook page of a one-eyed horse and her rider named Sera (see Sera’s Journey). They ride the kind of trails that attract me: mountain trails with lots of obstacles and challenging terrain. It gives me hope and confidence to watch their videos and see the photos of their exploits since Sera lost her eye. Another website find is this delightful video about an older rider (like ME!) and a blind horse who continue to ride and enjoy life together. I take much inspiration from both of them. In fact, after first writing this, Chinook was used twice, once my Lindsay and once by Kelli, to lead a group of riders across the river. Both said that while he needed to look around more and was at time hesitant, he did well. I am confident that with time and practice, he will master the mountain trails in spite of his limited sight.
There is even a website for caring for blind horses. I did not pursue all of this information when it was Bonnie alone, as I knew she would not be put into difficult situations. Her role at Dunrovin is much different than Chinook’s. She carries small children in our arena with an adult closely supervising. She is never being ridden alone, and she is confined to only a couple of the paddocks at Dunrovin. Her life is much simpler and safer than Chinook’s. Plus, she has her faithful son, Clyde, as her guide and guardian. Chinook must deal with the entire herd, with several bullies among them. If Chinook were to completely lose his vision, we would separate him from the herd for his own safety and house him with a dependable and kind companion who would not take advantage of his lack of sight.
As our summer and fall seasons subside and the winter calm descends, I will be able to spend more time with him, riding him in my arena and teaching him to respond to my voice commands. My hope is that he can learn the commands while still able to see. That way, if the worst occurs and he becomes totally blind, we will already have established our dance together that I can be his eyes and still get out on the trails together. Whatever happens with Chinook’s ability to see, I will be sure that he has as productive and happy a life as possible. He’s my guy, and I’m sticking with him.
One thing for sure, I will miss looking into his beautiful eyes each time I am near him. He is such a gorgeous horse with lovely, soft and welcoming eyes.