Watching my heart horse recover from the surgical removal of his right eye (an enucleation, I learned it’s called) has been extremely humbling; Uno looked to me to lead, and I just didn’t know whether I would have the right answers for him.
Yes, his name was Uno prior to the surgery. A 21-year-old Louisiana-bred whose race name was “One Good Eye,” this 16.3 hand gelding must have suffered an accident of some kind to his right eye prior to being named.
The eye had a large, opaque scar in the center from the time I first met Uno in 2011, and as he aged it developed a cataract as well. Uno could see, the veterinarians said, since he’d close that eye if you waved your hand around in front of it. No one was sure just how much he could see, however.
That never stopped Uno from doing everything I asked of him, even if he occasionally (okay, often) became overly enthusiastic about the task. Uno raced 38 times with one win at Delta Downs, then had a lengthy career as a lead pony, a brief stint as an outrider’s mount, and finally settled on three-day eventing as his true love.
Uno LIVED for cross country, even with his presumably limited vision. There were several times the pair of us left a stride out of a massive combination (sorry, coach!), and more than one occasion on which he tested the strength of my arms as we rocketed around a course.
Unfortunately, Uno’s enthusiasm has not allowed him to have the best of luck in terms of his physical health. As horses are wont to do, Uno decided that the ideal time to develop a nasty ulcer in that bad eye would be just before an ice storm was forecast for most of the state of Kentucky. Three visits from the vet, multiple trips to the barn each day to apply medication, and dozens of photographs sent off to an ophthalmologist later, I made the call to take him down to Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky. before the storm made traveling impossible.
Equine ophthalmologist Dr. Claire Latimer diagnosed Uno with a corneal ulcer which had devolved into a ruptured descemetocele; the ulcer it had eaten all the way down to the third layer of the eye, then ruptured. After five days of intense treatment, he hadn’t developed any of the vascularization that would indicate healing.
Options were limited, but due to Uno’s already compromised vision we made the call to remove the eye completely. It turned out to be the right call; due to the old scar and cataract already on that eye, Dr. Latimer couldn’t see that Uno had also managed to tear the lens of the eye (she found the tear after dissecting the eye post-removal).
That tear would have severely impeded his healing ability, and likely left him in pain for months.
that said, I’ll admit to being scared when we made the decision.
First of all, Uno is 21 years old, and adapting to a whole new set of visual cues at that age couldn’t be easy. In addition, surgery at his age carries its own set of risks.
Second, it’s not like I can sit down with him and explain what’s about to happen, or to prepare him in any way.
Third, he’s an extremely sensitive, reactive OTTB, so I just wasn’t sure how he’d handle the transition.
And finally, though he doesn’t owe me a thing at this point in his life, I wondered whether Uno would ever be able to jump the way he loves again.
dr. Latimer and the vet techs at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital were amazing at handling him the first few days after the surgery, but I wasn’t sure what to expect when I finally took Uno home. He had to be on stall rest for a few days, and that was sure to make my high-strung buddy even more sensitive than usual.
I needed to remember to move slowly around him and give him more time than usual to process, and especially to allow him to move his head and neck around and not trap him when he was scared and couldn’t see.
To say I was amazed at how quickly Uno adjusted is an understatement.
For the first week Uno was very jumpy on that right side, but he soon realized that I’d talk to him every time I stepped out of his line of sight, so he always knew where I was.
The first time I hand-walked him, we stopped at least 100 times to allow him to turn and see what his ears were telling him was on that right side. Once he realized I wasn’t stopping him from doing so, he relaxed.
When I finally turned him back out in his pasture is when things really began to move in the right direction. Uno had lived in this field for the past 5 years, so he knows it well, and the freedom to gallop and play was the final piece to the puzzle.
Eight days after his surgery, I was grooming Uno on his right side and he turned his neck to bump me with his head. Instead of panicking the way he’d done the week before, he simply stood there and bumped me again, insisting that it was a good time for the cookies I had in my pocket.
A few days later I was able to start working Uno on the lunge line. We started to the left, practicing walking and trotting on voice commands, then changed direction so that his blind side pointed to me.
He was so hesitant at first, but by being patient, keeping light, consistent pressure on the line, and quietly encouraging him forward, Uno quickly figured it out.
There is nothing so humbling as a horse’s trust; he truly believes you when you tell him everything is okay.
Progressing to the first ride, Uno did have several moments of worry. Again, patience was the key to moving past those “scooting” moments, not stopping his need to move away but redirecting it so that he could see everything with his good eye.
By the fifth ride, when he bucked his way through the first canter circle, I knew my boy had regained his confidence. We’ve resumed trotting over poles on the ground, and given enough time to adjust to his new version of depth perception, I have no doubt he’ll be ready to fly over jumps again soon.
I expected to learn about managing a one-eyed horse over the past month, but Uno also managed to teach me a little something about trust: it’s a two-way street, one built on consistency and respect.
He trusts me to lead, and I have to let go and trust him to follow that lead.