"He will eventually go completely blind." Learning of our gelding's glaucoma in September of 2010 was a shock and a heartbreak. We'd purchased Skips Golden Silk, a double-registered palomino Quarter Horse, in 2008, when he was 22 and Victoria, my daughter, was 8. The sweet, well-mannered gelding had been a show horse all his life; his prior owner had wanted him to have a permanent home with a little girl to love him and give him a purpose.
Now one of his eyes had to be removed, and the vet said his other would eventually be lost as well. It would be a long and expensive course of treatment and rehabilitation, and the end result would be a blind horse. Was this reasonable, given that he was already 24?
We decided that it was. My daughter began working with Skip to fortify his bond of trust so that perhaps he could still be the show horse he'd always been, even after his sight was gone.
The Real Journey Begins
Two years passed, and in April of 2012, it was time to remove his remaining eye. Tori had helped preserve it as long as possible, dutifully inserting drops three times a day. She'd also worked Skip extensively from the ground before returning to riding him several times a week. But now it was time for that final step.
Our vet, however, said that because of Skip's age, he should be put down instead. Distraught, I made an appointment to have an eye specialist perform the surgery, even though I couldn't afford his fees. In a last-ditch effort to convince my local vet to do the surgery instead, I printed out several articles about the quality of life a blind horse can have if given proper care, and dropped them off at his office. That evening he called me.
"Thank you for those articles," he said. "You've changed my mind. Skip is an amazing horse and deserves this chance. I will remove his eye, but only because Skip is Skip."
He made good on his word the next day. Skip was now out of pain, but his real journey was about to begin. We put a cowbell on Zipper, the pasture mate we'd gotten to be Skip's buddy and "guide."
We also put a wind chime above the water trough, and plastic bags on the wire fence to help Skip "hear" where the fence was.
Over time, he adjusted beautifully to his new condition, establishing routines for eating, drinking, and moving about the pasture. More amazing, Tori was still able to ride him. The first time she tried, he tripped a few times, but then adjusted and began picking his feet up higher. Before long, they were trotting around the field, Skip trusting his rider to guide him safely.
I videotaped the moment and sent it to the vet who'd performed the surgery. I wanted him to know that he'd done the right thing, and needn't worry about Skip's quality of life.
Skip in the Show Ring
Tori continued to work consistently with Skip at home. We even began hauling him out for lessons (he learned to load into the trailer with verbal commands). They both got better and better.
And then, in July of 2012, just two and a half months after Skip became completely blind, he and Victoria competed in our local northern Wisconsin State Fair show. I guess you could say they were ready: They took the grand championship in Western pleasure and reserve grand in western horsemanship.
Ironically, the pleasure championship was sponsored by the vet who'd removed Skip's eye. When I later showed him the trophy, he asked for a picture to publish in his newsletter.
But that's not the end of the story. In October, Tori and Skip competed in a Wisconsin Interscholastic Horseman Association show at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls. Though Tori is only in middle school, the high school allows kids her age to participate on its Division A equestrian team, which competes against the biggest teams in the state.
Out of 24 entries, most of them high-school kids, Tori and Skip took first place in horsemanship and fourth in Western horsemanship/bareback, helping her team advance to the state finals later that same month.
And there they placed third in horsemanship and eighth in Western bareback, proving beyond question how incredibly much can be overcome with hope, care, hard work, and love.
Mary and her husband live with daughter Victoria and two sons in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Skip, now 27 and still going strong, was Tori's first and only mount until Zipper joined the family as her gaming horse and Skip's "guide." Nancie Carlson, Skip's original owner, also helped with this story.