Those large, equine eyes that are so good at spotting predators or conning unsuspecting owners out of carrots also excel at acquiring damage. While certain breeds of horse, such as the Appaloosa, may be more prone to chronic or recurrent diseases of the eye, horses in general have a knack for causing their own ocular havoc.
© 2012, Carien Schippers
The characteristics that make a horse so good at seeing movement while grazing – large eyes, prominently set on either side of the head – also make those eyes more vulnerable to trauma and debris than the deeper and narrower set eyes of predators. While, as any rider who has fallen victim to the “plastic bag monster” knows, horses are great at perceiving movement, they aren’t so talented at depth-perception. This combination of factors makes horse eyes prone to trauma from bumps, scrapes, lacerations, punctures, and foreign material.
So, what can horse owners do to prevent eye injury, what are the signs of a damaged eye, and how should an owner respond?
- Minimizing the likelihood of damage to the equine eye is a matter of environmental vigilance.
- Horses like to rub. Check stall walls and fences frequently for protruding nails, screws, staples, splinters, or sharp edges.
- Trim low hanging tree branches in pastures.
- Watch pastures for plant awns (foxtails) in late summer – some horses will push their noses past the taller, dried weed heads in an attempt to get to the last bits of low grass. Corneal ulcers resulting from foxtails in the eye are very common in some regions in summer time.
- If your horse has a healing wound or sutures on the face, ask your veterinarian about an “eye saver” mask if you notice him rubbing. As wounds begin to heal, they itch.
- Practice good fly control in barns and paddocks. Flies cause eye irritation and spread parasites that cause disease of the tissues around the eye.
- Never swing a lead rope, rein, or other piece of tack or equipment at a horse’s head as a form of reprimand.
- Place UV limiting fly masks on pink-skinned, blue-eyed horses who are outside during the day. These horses are more prone to UV radiation induced skin cancers of the eye and eyelids.
- Avoid high-pressure or spook-inducing situations in confined areas such as trailers or stalls.
Check your horse daily for signs of eye pain, irritation, or damage (see below.)
Trigger won’t walk up with his hoof clapped over his eye, saying, “It hurts!” What are some signs of an irritated or injured eye?
- Excessive tearing, particularly in one eye more than the other.
- Mucous discharge (more than the occasional small thread.)
- Swollen eyelids
- Horse keeping eye closed or squinting.
- Head-shy-ness (sudden) on one side.
- Cloudiness or “blueness” of the cornea (surface of the eye.)
- Scrapes, scabs or nodules of the eyelids (especially in light-skinned horses.)
- Redness of the sclera (whites of the eyes) or conjunctiva (inner portion of the eyelids or the third eyelid.)
- Any combination of the above.
If your horse shows any of the above signs, what do you do?
- Call your veterinarian.
- As a rule, most suspicions of eye injury or disease should be treated as an emergency. Treatment for eye problems is most effective when it is instituted promptly.
- If you see a piece of plant material such as a foxtail lodged under the lid and can grasp it with clean finger tips, you may remove it, as long as your horse will allow you to do so safely. HOWEVER, you still need to call the veterinarian! Foreign objects can scrape the cornea and cause damage that may become infected. These corneal scrapes are often invisible without special staining.
- Put it off. While mild tearing (especially on a windy day) or a small scab near an eyelid can be monitored for a day or two, most of the “eye signs” indicate an urgent situation. Prompt medical attention is important not only for the success of treatment but for the welfare of the horse. How would you feel if it was YOUR eye?
- Put any medication in the eye without your veterinarian’s knowledge and approval. Signs of eye damage and disease are non-specific. The signs of a corneal ulcer and eye disease such as Equine Recurrent Uveitis (ERU) can look very much the same. However, appropriate medication for one condition may actually make another condition worse. So, even if you or a barn buddy have a tube of ointment or a bottle of drops “left over” from when this or another horse had a condition “that looked exactly the same,” don’t use it without talking with your veterinarian.
- Get hurt. Horses are big and they don’t enjoy having their faces messed with under the best of circumstances. When their sight is impaired and they hurt, they become even more resistant. Don’t fight your horse trying to “see what’s wrong.” Your veterinarian will probably need to sedate the horse to do a physical exam anyway, and he or she has the appropriate drugs and knowledge to get the job done safely.
- Stop treatment early “because it looks better” or “because I can’t get the medication in anymore.” Follow-up and follow-through are critical to treatment. If your horse is resisting medication, let your veterinarian know immediately. There are devices and methods for administering eye medications to resistant patients. If the eye looks better sooner than anticipated, great, but you still need to check with your veterinarian before discontinuing treatment – you don’t want it to flare up again.
The equine athlete needs eyes as well as legs. Think of all that the four-legged half of your riding team does for you, and keep an “eye” on him!