As the popular proverb states, “the eyes are the window of the soul.” Not only are a horse’s eyes an indicator as to what he’s thinking or feeling, they’re also one of his most functionally important attributes. Eye examinations should be a part of your regular care routine when you groom or tack your horse up to ride. Most of the time, simply checking the eyes for any signs of irregularities is all that you need to do.
Your horse’s eyes should be bright and clear with no tearing or discharge. Observe the eyes to make sure that he is not squinting or holding an eye closed. Any film on or cloudiness of the cornea is abnormal. A “red” eye, or swollen conjunctiva or eyelids are other causes for concern and will require further attention by your veterinarian. There are 3 main irritants that can affect your horse’s eyes:
If your horse’s eyes are open, bright and not painful, but discharge is present, he may have pollen buildup. The discharge seen is often yellow or white. Pollen buildup can be handled by flushing your horse’s eyes two or three times daily using a product made for equine eyes, artificial tears or saline solution. Your horse’s eyes should clear up in a couple of days as the plants move on in their life cycles.
Another big concern for your horse’s eyes is dust. Dust can blow into his eyes if riding in a dusty arena or during a trailer ride if the windows are open and airflow picks up. Road dust can blow across fields in times of drought, and horses that are fed off the ground in dusty or sandy paddocks may also get dust in their eyes. As with pollen, if your horse’s eyes seem normal except for some discharge in the corners, simply flushing may be all you need to do.
If your horse has some tearing, or squints or closes his eye, there is a chance that the cornea has been scratched. Some horses will express a corneal scratch by shying away when you get near the eye. Corneal injuries require veterinary attention because a scratch can become more serious quite rapidly. Your veterinarian will examine the eye with an ophthalmoscope and may apply fluorescein dye via a strip of thin paper or drops. She’ll then re-examine the eye to look for fluorescence on the cornea, as injuries will show up as bright green.
Corneal injuries normally require oral medication and sometimes dilation to relieve pressure. Antibiotic ointment is generally applied less frequently, but can be more of a challenge to get into your horse’s eye; however, drops usually require frequent application. The easiest way to apply eye medication is to gently pull the lower lid down and put the drops or ointment on the inside of the lower lid. It may be helpful to ask a friend to pet and distract your horse while you’re doing this.
The third major irritant to your horse’s eyes is fly contact. Flies are attracted to equine eyes because they feed on the secretions they produce. Since flies may bring dust and spread germs, you should make keeping flies away from your horse’s eyes a warm weather priority.
Fly masks will help keep flies and dust out of your horse’s eyes, plus provide some protection from UV light, which is important for horses with light pigment around the eyes, such as Appaloosas and bald faced horses. If your horse won’t tolerate a fly mask or is a master at losing them out in the pasture, consider using a fly repellent around the eyes. Your goal is to keep flies from getting to the eyes, so you may need to employ a complete strategy, including general fly control.
Unfortunately, the equine eye is susceptible to a variety of impairments, such as cataracts, that can cause partial vision loss or blindness. Cataracts involve a change in the fluid balance in the lens of the eye. The lens changes from its normal clear consistency to cloudy, blocking vision. They may be congenital (present at birth and observed in foals) or develop with age. Surgery is required to treat most cataracts.
Horses adapt quite well to the loss of an eye or blindness in one eye. Acute loss of vision in one eye is harder on them initially, but horses easily compensate for gradual vision loss. With a gradual loss of eyesight, your horse will have prepared a “mental map” of his normal surroundings. Even a totally blind horse may navigate his pasture and normal barn routine with ease as long as you don’t move things around.
Other than absolute blindness, it is difficult to assess vision issues in horses. There may be temporary vision loss, such as from the inflammation of a corneal injury, but picking out minor vision loss is extremely difficult. Your horse can’t tell you if he is suddenly seeing a bit blurry when he picks out cavalletti to walk through in trail class or when he clears a jump. Be aware that a sudden change in performance necessitates a thorough veterinary examination, including his eyes.
Luckily, most horses go through life with no ocular issues. It pays to check your horse’s eyes carefully at least two or three times a week, though. Eye injuries are notorious for going from mild to serious very quickly, but most can be treated successfully if they are caught early. Bottom line: don’t hesitate to contact your veterinarian if you feel that your horse may be experiencing eye trouble.