Horses · Lessons from a Mule

Lessons from a Mule #12- Going Blind is Scary.

As you know, Miss Mule went mysteriously blind in one eye this summer. What started as a cloudy film over half her eye now covers the entire thing, and has left her with no vision on her left side. She may see shadows. It’s hard to tell exactly what she sees, but she is most definitely severely vision impaired on that side.

She has immune mediated keratitis, but the worst form of it, the form that doesn’t respond to medication. We tried powerful steroids multiple times, but there was no change.  I was assuming the eye would have to come out, but my vet advised against it, since she isn’t in any pain and the eye isn’t damaged in any other way. She just has a bad eye, and probably will for the rest of her life.

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For a while, while she still had partial vision, I was still riding her and letting a friend ride her as well, because she has always been trustworthy under saddle. She was the same old girl on a trail ride, all business and knew her job. On the ground though, she was getting more and more spooky as her vision got worse. On a ride about a month ago, my friend was on Miss Mule and riding in a treeless saddle. The saddle slipped while trotting, my friend came off, the saddle slipped all the way around so it was hanging on Miss Mule’s blind side, and Miss Mule PANICKED. She turned and bolted into the woods. I went after her on Olaf but couldn’t get anywhere near her, and she bolted back out of the woods toward the road. I chased after her, still riding Olaf since she is comforted by the presence of another horse, and eventually found her standing by the gate to her pasture. It was a completely overblown, but understandable reaction, and it showed me that she needs more time to adjust to the blindness before we carry on as usual.

She’s always been skittish on the ground, very untrusting of people, even me after owning her and handling her daily for almost 2 years. I am still the only person who can catch her when she’s loose. The blindness adds another level to her suspicion. Now I have to be extra careful not to startle her, so I talk to her constantly to let her know where I am. Every now and then, I accidentally spook the poor old girl, and she jumps sideways or starts to take off before she realizes it’s just me. The other day I had her tied to the trailer and she spooked and pulled back so hard that she broke the metal snap on her lead rope. She’s always been jumpy; now it’s much more pronounced.

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Since going blind, she has become extremely attached to Olaf. She likes to be near him at all times, and they even eat from the same hay pile when there are enough piles for everyone to have their own. She just likes to be close to him. She frets and calls to him the entire time if I take him out on a ride, so I’ve started letting her walk loose behind us. I don’t even have to pony her; she follows like a dog.

I tried riding her a couple days ago. She is okay around the barn, because it’s part of her comfort zone, but I would not ride her off property at this point. When she is afraid, her first instinct is to run away from me, instead of running toward me for safety the way most horses would. If she’s scared, she’s getting as far from humans as possible, since in her mind we are the scariest thing of all. That doesn’t make a particularly safe animal to ride out on trails or take somewhere where there will be a lot of other horses and people milling around. A very large, terrified, half blind mule getting loose is a disaster in that situation. If I came off of her out in the woods, she would bolt away from me. Not ideal.

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Miss Mule has been a challenge since day one, in the sense that building trust with her has been tediously slow. She’s very well behaved and wonderfully athletic, but she doesn’t like or trust people, even after two years of being treated with nothing but kindness by everyone at my barn, not just me. (The one exception is children. She has a sixth sense about children and likes them far more than adults.) The blindness is just another challenge we have to overcome. It’s made her more reactive, but it’s also teaching me to be a more sensitive and skilled handler. At this point I’ve pretty much given up on riding her, but I do let her tag along on rides with Olaf. It gives her exercise, gets her out of the pasture, and helps her get used to her vision impairment. I think it’s important that she has a job and a purpose. It’s very heartwarming to see how she follows along behind us. Here’s a YouTube video of us on a ride together. She’s a good mule with a very kind heart. It’s a shame she is so distrusting of people.

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