By Dan Ross
For an animal blessed with the seemingly incompatible traits of bone-china fragility, jiu-jitsu flight instincts, and combustion engine top-speeds, the horse is understandably yoked to its vision for avoiding harm’s way. Because of that, sight is arguably the sense most artificially manipulated in the racehorse to “enhance” performance.
Blinkers. Cheekpieces. Hoods to fool the recalcitrant into the starting gate. Mesh goggles for the fractious. Nor does the loss of an eye render a Thoroughbred’s evolutionary purpose obsolete. Far from it.
One-eyed wonders like Hard Not to Love–recent winner of the GI La Brea S.–and the aptly-named Patch–a 2017 Kentucky Derby contender–have both given “Rooster” Cogburn a run for his money in the mythology of America’s monophthalmic.
But can any horse, Thoroughbred or other, not only survive without eyesight but thrive? Common sense says not. On the outskirts of Eugene Oregon, however, an Appaloosa by the name of Endo proves otherwise.
“He likes to go fast,” said Morgan Wagner, 32, Endo’s owner and the person who, with the autodidact’s stoic resolve, has dedicated a large portion of her life to give Endo his own constitutional take on the pursuit of happiness. This includes jumping, trail riding, traveling and competitions. Oh yes: both his eyes were removed roughly ten years ago.
“He just wants to go,” said Wagner, who learned to ride on Endo. “He knows I steer him and keep him safe.”
“It’s going to happen to the other one.”
It was towards the end of last year I took the 5 freeway from Los Angeles down along the frothing Pacific coastline to the Del Mar Horse Park–a good stone’s throw from Del Mar racetrack–to meet Wagner and Endo as they waited to compete that afternoon.
All the accoutrements of the show world surrounded Endo’s stall. Buckets. Bales of straw. Bulging tack boxes. Gleaming bridles and saddles. Certainly, the horse inside the stall–glossy-coated with a round belly betraying the owner’s liberal approach with the feed scoop–certainly looked the part, save a muck stain on his quarters. But a closer inspection revealed that he lacked two of those show world accoutrements essential, surely, for success.
“Around eight years old, he started having problems with moon blindness when he went out into the sun in the summer,” Wagner explained. Moon blindness is a chronic eye disease that causes agonizing inflammation. Flare-ups started becoming routine, she said. Sometimes in one eye, sometimes in the other. Then both.
“It was very painful,” Wagner said. “He stopped eating, kept his head in the corner of the stall.”
Eventually, her vet removed one of the eyes. “He said get ready, because it’s going to happen to the other one.” Six months later, that prophecy was fulfilled.
Ordinarily, this is where the story ends. With one eye, a high standard of life was pretty much guaranteed. Eyeless–well, Wagner and Endo were entering uncharted territory blindly, so to speak.
“The vet had been with Endo all his life, knew he would be in a safe environment,” said Wagner. “He just needed to be safe and happy.”
“He was very dizzy”
That work to equip Endo with the necessary survival tools began after he lost his first eye–Wagner would place a bag over the one remaining and give him lots of reassuring pats until he was ready to take a small step forward. “The first time I did it he just stood there and shook.”
Eventually, however, Endo learned how to remove the bag himself, and before Wagner felt they had made any meaningful progress, the witching hour arrived.
“When he went blind, we just had to figure it out,” she said. She went online for advice and found a black hole. Wagner was on her own, no blueprint, with the extensive Liberty work–a series of training exercises to heighten the bond between horse and human–she had conducted with the fully-sighted Endo lending a foundation from which she built anew, bit by bit, day by day.
For the first couple of months, Endo was stall-bound. “He was very dizzy,” she said. “He didn’t want to walk anywhere on his own.” Then, she began to take him out for short walks, grazing around the property.
The walks grew longer–the grass grew shorter. Wagner eventually took Endo to his paddock, walked him around to acclimatize him to the dimensions, graduated to leaving him loose. Bit by bit, day by day.
Firstly, she remained in the paddock. Then, she would leave him as she worked in the nearby barn, returning every so often, “so he knew I wouldn’t abandon him,” Wagner said. “Then, when he started hollering for the horses back home, I put him to work.”
Roughly a year after Endo lost his second eye, Wagner decided to ride him again, bareback to begin with. Bit by bit. Through the Liberty training she had employed for Endo’s dizziness, the two had perfected very specific cues, voice and otherwise. “If he was falling in, he had cues to fall back out,” she said. “Leg cues to weave in and out of poles.”
When it came time to jump, she set up a small cross-rail, led him over for a sniff, then let him walk over it. “He picked his feet up high, so he definitely knew,” Wagner said.
When it came time to clear the cross-rail with Wagner on his back, Endo was already primed with the necessary tools–a cue to rear followed by a “kiss, kiss” for forward momentum, which Wagner subsequently changed to “jump, jump.” (In what can only be described as a grimly doctrinaire approach of the rules, judges mark Wagner and Endo down for using voice cues in competition.)
Now, Endo’s routine differs little from his days with vision, she said. This includes trail rides, his default role at the head of affairs–if he doesn’t begin the ride in pole position, he’ll power-walk his way there–often with a beginner on his back and a bumbling squadron of greenhorns in hot pursuit.
“I have a little girl who does lessons with me,” Wagner said. “We went out for ride. She led the way on [Endo]. My horse was freaking out–it was a training horse. But Endo was the perfect lead.”
“Makes a picture in his mind”
At this point, the questions turn to why Endo is able to function so highly. Wagner’s had plenty of time to sit and ponder this, and she credits in large part the Liberty training and the vast tool-box of cues they’ve developed over the years. Voice cues in particular.
Indeed, Endo knows between 50-60 different words, she said. “I raise my voice a little so he knows that I’m now talking to him.”
Just how sophisticated are his language skills? According to Wagner, if she places a single apple slice among a pile of carrots and tells Endo to find the lone apple, he will. “When he’s really good, he’ll do the opposite–find a carrot in a bunch of apples. He likes that game,” she said. “I’ll do this a lot in the winter, when he can’t go out as much.”
As for his navigational abilities, this is where we enter the murky territory of speculation. Understandably, his other senses–hearing and smell in particular–have heightened to compensate, she said. He’s able to distinguish Wagner’s footsteps from a crowd, for example. In what she believes is an adapted form of echolocation, like a bat, Endo knows when to duck his head when entering a stall.
His tactile senses, too, are vital. On the trail-ride, “you don’t have to steer him,” she said. “He senses the grass and the leaves.”
Endo forms a kind of mental spatial map from memory, Wagner believes. “He absolutely remembers where things are in his area.” But over the years, this cognitive skill has sharpened, becoming even more evolved, prescient, so that in surroundings completely unfamiliar, he’s able to navigate himself safely without first being shown around. Wagner shared an anecdote of this from the day prior.
They had just arrived at the Del Mar show grounds on their first ever visit. Wagner was in the middle of the stable area chatting to a group. Endo stood quietly at her side, loose. Suddenly, he strolled off into the lone empty stall nearby, looking for hay, lifting up his feet so as not to trip over a rail across the entrance. “He knew it was open without being able to see it.”
Accidents, I remarked, must have been inevitable–especially when Endo was getting accustomed to the dark. Bumped hips leaving the stall. Stumbles over the cross-rails. Wagner shook her head.
“We fell once, when he was two, the first time he cantered,” she said. This was when Endo’s vision was fine. She was riding him on wet grass, she said, and he got up and stood over her. “He understood I got hurt.” Since then, theirs is a relationship forged on mutual trust–think Alexander and Bucephalus. Should Endo accidentally bump into her, Wagner pets him, says “it’s okay,” she said. “Me being hurt really bothers him.”
“This is an exceptional horse”
A blind horse that does everything his full-sighted peers can? Prior to meeting Endo and Wagner, I’d never heard of such a thing. Nor had any of the vets and trainers and other backstretch folks I quizzed. And so, I turned to a couple of equine behaviorists for their assessment (though it should be noted neither have direct experience with Endo).
“This is an exceptional horse with or without eyesight,” said Jim Heird, an internationally-renowned equine expert based at Texas A&M University. Like Wagner, he believes that Endo’s other senses have evolved to compensate. “Their sense of smell is much higher than ours, and their sense of hearing is much greater than ours,” he said.
“But I think the secret to what she’s doing is he’s developed an unbelievable level of trust in her, And she’s done it correctly–the only way you can do that is he’s obviously never been hurt or scared to any extent, and so, he’s obviously built this incredible connection with her. He trusts that he’s not going to get into trouble,” Heird said.
“It may have been an advantage that she didn’t know she wasn’t supposed to do this. An experienced horse person would have said, ‘Oh, this will never work,'” Heird said, adding that horses are innately gregarious. “They want connections. In fact, there’s a lot of stories about how two horses will bond if one can’t see.”
Sue McDonnell, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, has had hands-on experience with fewer than five totally blind horses, she said. Two of them were breeding stallions, who, with training, could navigate around the breeding shed.
“You could just tap on the dummy mount and they could orient to it,” McDonnell said. “If you didn’t know the horse was blind, you might wonder why the veterinarian was tapping on it.”
There’s a dearth of research into how the equine brain adapts to blindness, “but I think you can presume” that smell and hearing are particularly important, McDonnell agreed. And she suspects that vibrissae–the thick, long whiskers on the head which are connected to the brain–play a significant role.
“I’ve seen blind horses who, if they sense they’re coming to an object, they will give out an audible blow,” she said, adding that the information returned through the vibrissae is a form of echolocation informing “how close” and “what kind of an object” is before them. “They get three-dimensional space information from these vibrissae,” said McDonnell.
And while research into the sensory import of vibrissae in horses is limited, other research shows that a “huge” portion of a cat’s brain responds when their vibrissae are touched, McDonnell said. “You can make assumptions that it’s really important information coming from those whiskers,” she said.
“I miss so much”
Endo was a foal, unbroken, when Wagner got him. She’d never had a horse before, couldn’t ride, and so through trial and error, she and Endo together acquired their skills–a symbiosis which attains another layer of profound mutual preservation when you consider how Endo similarly helps Wagner manage her Lupus, a debilitating autoimmune disease, which renders her officially disabled.
If Wagner suffers a dizzy spell out on a ride, for example, “he’ll just stop when I’m leaning to one side,” she said. “He keeps me upright.”
As Endo nears his 20th birthday, Wagner has started to cut back the competitions and the shows and the traveling. Though perfectly healthy, Endo’s advancing age compels his owner to better chronicle the minutia of their relationship.
“I miss so much,” Wagner said, which is why she aims to purchase a go-pro camera and attach it to her lapel to capture some of the more inexplicable examples of his behavior–like the time she had lined up trotting poles out in his paddock as part of a dressage court and turned him out without showing him them.
“I was watching him, and he trotted over it and didn’t trip. I thought, ‘This is lucky,'” she said. Endo did it again. The third time, he cantered over them without tripping. “I don’t know how he did that,” she said.
His relationship with other horses brooks similar exploration. Wagner rescued a miniature horse as a companion. “I didn’t want him to be alone,” she said, “and I didn’t know if he could go out with other horses again.”
Those fears turned out to be unfounded–she not only turns Endo out with other horses, he’s a schoolmaster for the young and obnoxious. Wagner believes he can read their body language through breathing and the dance of their hooves. And do the other horses intuitively treat him with an over-abundance of caution? Depends, said Wagner.
“He can tell when a horse is pinning their ears at him,” she said. “But then, some horses, like this mare who came to us, are just really gentle, and if he bumps into them, they don’t pin their ears back or say, ‘Get out of my space.'”
All too quickly, it was time for me to get out of their space, the competition looming. “Yesterday was dressage,” said Wagner. “Today’s the speed day.”
But on the long and less than speedy drive back to Los Angeles, I felt as one does when given a formula to solve a mathematical conundrum. You’re not yet quite sure why it solves the problem, or how it fits another. But it works. No ifs, buts or maybes.
And as horse racing continues along the road of dismantling and rebuilding using the Copernican model of putting horse welfare at the very center, maybe there are a few equine versions of the mathematical formula that we can glean from this story. For as the great Galileo–the man who picked up Copernicus’s mantle–put it: “The authority of thousands of opinions is not worth as much as one tiny spark of reason in an individual.”