An Advocate for Blind Horses

Finding herself the owner of two blind horses, Christine discovers how much they still have to offer.

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Two mares graze together
Christine fought for her blind mares, Red and Sanibel, to live a dignified quality of life, even after many people told her not to bother.

When I think about my experience owning two blind horses, I’m instantly drawn to the proverbial phrase, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

My first horse, Sanibel, started losing her vision at the age of 14. After accepting the verdict that she would eventually go blind, I reached out to as many resources as possible, only to find a horrible conclusion. It seemed the common answer for blind horses was to put them down.

I was willing to accept her eventual blindness, but I did not accept ending her life. At the time, Sanibel was in her prime and had so much spirit. She was my best friend, and we still had much more to do together. I fought to find a way.

In this pursuit, I struggled to find support. When I began making phone calls to find boarding for a blind horse, I was given “no” after “no.” That is when I learned how deep the stigma against blind horses was. Some calls even resulted in people scolding me, trying to shame me for keeping a blind horse, and how cruel it was.

This only hardened my resolve. I needed to make a point that my horse could not only survive without her vision, but she could thrive.

After turning every stone, I found our sanctuary, the perfect home that supported her needs and kept her safe.

For a few months, I breathed a little easier until my other horse, Red, also started to go blind. At least the second time around I was prepared.

The cause of their blindness was a mystery at first, but when Red started to go blind, I went on a hunch and had her tested for leptospirosis. She was positive. Although I never tested Sanibel, I assume they both were exposed. (This bacterial disease accounts for 67 percent of recurrent uveitis cases in horses, according to Merck.)

Christine Olsen with her blind horse, Red
Red and Christine still have lots of quality bonding time.

Change in Focus

There have been downsides to this experience—many downsides. However, I promised lemonade.

Managing blind horses has furthered my education in ways that wouldn’t be possible without the experience. As I became more aware of how horses interact with their environment, I truly appreciated how important environmental factors are. Without their vision, my horses relied much more on their other senses.

I dove into a deep study of the equine sensory system to understand their experience. During this time, I also practiced strengthening my own sensory perception and discovered a stronger, deeper connection to my horses and my surroundings.

This self-prescribed perception practice helped me in an unexpected way. Prior to my horses going blind, I sustained a stabilized C2 (neck) fracture that ended my professional riding career. I was fortunate to recover, and still ride for fun, but at the time I saw the world through a pain lens. Everything I did revolved around a pain scale.

I didn’t notice right away, but I realized one day I’d stopped focusing on my pain. My new journaling and meditation habits replaced painkillers. I had my horses to thank for getting me through the injury and the initial rehab, but I had to thank them twice over for giving me my life back.

See What is Possible

My mares thrived, just as I knew they would. It took some time, but I eventually was able to understand that the large majority of negativity I encountered was because of a lack of experience and education or holding onto old beliefs. This turned into a great opportunity to reach out to local groups and individuals to help educate and advocate for blind horses.

I eventually found my people: the small but mighty blind horse community. Everyone I have talked to that has owned a blind horse is an open advocate. We understand the isolation and the fear, but we also share hope and offer support.

Through the years, I’ve even been able to directly help a few owners with their horses as they adjust to vision loss. In this way, I know my horses and their example will have a legacy.

In early 2020, I lost Sanibel to colic at the age of 22. It was a sudden and horrific loss. She wasn’t the first horse I’ve lost, but she was my first horse, and in many ways represented my childhood and my love for horses.

Unfortunately, there were more unexpected losses to come that year. I found myself thanking her once again for all the lessons she taught me in our 18 years together. It was in those memories and experiences that I found strength in my grief. I can’t help but smile in gratitude.

Red and I are currently enjoying casual rides, learning tricks, and exploring the fun of scent work. She gets around remarkably well, and many people who meet her have trouble believing she is blind.

I don’t know what’s next, but after owning a blind horse, I have learned to be open to possibility.

This article about blind horse advocate Christine Olsen appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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