On guard against EYE IN­JURIES

EQUUS - - Equus - By Karen El­iz­a­beth Baril

On guard against eye in­juries

Of all the in­juries and ill­nesses that can be­fall your horse, those af­fect­ing the eye prob­a­bly don’t rank too high on your worry list. But it’s im­por­tant to be ready to han­dle them if they oc­cur.

Lara knew some­thing was wrong as soon as her mare came to the gate. Al­le­gra’s lower eye­lid was hang­ing loose and blood oozed from what looked like a fresh wound. The mare squinted as she faced the morn­ing sun. Lara walked the mare into the shade of the barn and called her vet­eri­nar­ian.

Dan’s geld­ing was squint­ing slightly one Sun­day morn­ing, and tears trick­led from his left eye. Dan rinsed the eye with cold tap wa­ter, but the geld­ing didn’t seem to be in any dis­com­fort. An emer­gency call to the vet­eri­nar­ian would be costly on a Sun­day, so Dan de­cided to wait a few days and let na­ture take its course. Af­ter all, money was tight. “It will prob­a­bly heal on its own,” he rea­soned.

Only one of these sto­ries ends hap­pily. It’s not hard to guess which one.

“Equine eye in­juries al­ways war­rant a call to your vet­eri­nar­ian,” says Alyssa Warneke, DVM, with the Myhre Equine Clinic in Rochester, New Hamp­shire. “I’ve worked on many cases where in­ap­pro­pri­ate eval­u­a­tion of a seem­ingly mi­nor is­sue, like a small le­sion, has led to in­fec­tion and com­plete loss of vi­sion.”

The ap­peal of a wait-and-see ap­proach is clear. And it isn’t just about avoid­ing a hefty vet­eri­nary bill. Dan’s horse didn’t seem to be in any dis­tress---other than squint­ing, he be­haved nor­mally. But don’t for­get that horses are, by na­ture, stoic. They’re hard­wired to hide weak­ness from the rest of the herd and, of course, from preda­tors. It stands to rea­son that a horse with vi­sion prob­lems will try to carry on as if noth­ing is amiss. And that means your horse’s eye trou­ble could be worse than he is let­ting on.


Many eye in­juries are ob­vi­ous. Your horse greets you at the gate, like Lara’s mare, with a lid hang­ing or an eye swollen shut. Some­times, how­ever, more sub­tle signs of eye trou­ble might es­cape your no­tice. Know­ing what they are and why they mat­ter will help you spot trou­ble as soon as pos­si­ble. In­ves­ti­gate fur­ther and call the vet­eri­nar­ian if you see any of the fol­low­ing signs.

• Swelling of ei­ther of the eye­lids, the tis­sues that sur­round the globe or the head around the eye.

• A lack of sym­me­try: A horse’s eyes are roughly the same size, so if one eye ap­pears sud­denly smaller than the other, it may have sunk deeper into the or­bit.

• Squint­ing or fre­quent blink­ing.

• Reluc­tance to go from dark to bright ar­eas.

• A con­stant stream of tears.

• White, yel­low or green dis­charge.

• Head shy­ness or sud­den spook­i­ness.

• Cloudi­ness or change in color of the globe.

• Fre­quent rub­bing of an eye. Check the in­side of your horse’s knees for mois­ture if you’re un­sure: That’s typ­i­cally where he’ll rub his eyes.

• An un­usual eye­lash an­gle: Nor­mally, both sets of a horse’s eye­lashes ex­tend out­ward per­pen­dic­u­lar to the eyes and just about par­al­lel to the ground. If the lashes of one of a horse’s eyes point down­ward, it could be an in­di­ca­tion of sub­tle swelling.


Few things are more dis­turb­ing than dis­cov­er­ing your horse has had some sort of eye trauma, but even if the sit­u­a­tion doesn’t ap­pear dire, it’s al­ways a good idea to call your vet­eri­nar­ian for ad­vice. Here are some of the most com­mon equine eye in­juries.


How it hap­pens: All sorts of things can get in your horse’s eyes---from frag­ments of hay to grit to bits of wood, twigs or burs. For­eign ob­jects tend to make the eye tear pro­fusely and some­times cause the lids to swell shut.

Signs: Ex­ces­sive squint­ing and tear­ing of an eye. A horse may be re­luc­tant to let you ex­am­ine the eye, and even if

you can, you may or may not be able to see the ob­ject.

What to do: Bring your horse into the barn or an area pro­tected from the sun, in­sects and wind. Call your vet­eri­nar­ian im­me­di­ately. Try to keep the horse calm and pre­vent him from rub­bing the eye. As you wait for the vet­eri­nar­ian, don’t try to re­move the of­fend­ing ob­ject, par­tic­u­larly if it is em­bed­ded, be­cause you may ex­ac­er­bate the dam­age.

Treat­ment: The vet­eri­nar­ian will re­move the ob­ject, flush the eye and ex­am­ine it for any corneal de­fects that could re­sult in ul­cer­a­tion. Fol­low-up care may in­clude daily flush­ing and top­i­cal an­tibi­otics.


How it hap­pens: Frac­tures of bones around the eye are most likely to oc­cur when a horse rears and strikes his head on the ceil­ing, trailer or other ob­ject, or as a re­sult of a kick to the head by a pas­ture­mate. Oc­ca­sion­ally, or­bital bone frac­tures oc­cur in falls or trauma to the poll rather than the eye it­self. The frontal bone and the zy­go­matic arch (the prom­i­nent bony process above your horse’s eye) are most prone to in­jury.

Signs: Se­vere swelling in the area sur­round­ing the eye. There may be an open wound but not nec­es­sar­ily.

What to do: Move the horse into a con­fined area and seek vet­eri­nary as­sis­tance---or­bital frac­tures can in­ter­fere with a horse’s si­nus func­tion and breath­ing. The vet­eri­nar­ian will ex­am­ine your horse’s face for asym­me­try and will likely take x-rays in the field to de­ter­mine the ex­tent of the dam­age.

Treat­ment: You can’t put a cast or splint on a face, but you can limit a horse’s ac­tiv­i­ties to al­low the bones to heal. For some horses, stall rest and pain re­lief may be that’s all that’s nec­es­sary. In se­vere in­juries, how­ever, large pieces of bones may need to be sta­bi­lized sur­gi­cally and/or small, loose bone frag­ments may need to be re­moved from the frac­ture site to pre­vent in­fec­tion and en­cour­age heal­ing.


How it hap­pens: In­juries to the eye­lid can oc­cur when a horse en­coun­ters tree branches, pro­trud­ing ob­jects or sharpedged fences, walls or other struc­tures in his en­vi­ron­ment.

Signs: Ob­vi­ous trauma to the area, most likely with pro­fuse bleed­ing.

What to do: Move your horse into a quiet area out of the sun and call your vet­eri­nar­ian.

Treat­ment: Eye­lid lac­er­a­tions are al­ways se­ri­ous but tend to heal well if treated promptly. Your vet­eri­nar­ian will ad­min­is­ter a lo­cal anal­gesic to numb the area and, depend­ing on your horse’s tem­per­a­ment, se­da­tion. Your vet­eri­nar­ian may use ab­sorbable su­tures if she can but will prob­a­bly want to sched­ule a fol­low-up visit re­gard­less. A lac­er­ated lid can dis­rupt the distri­bu­tion of tears over the cornea, lead­ing to an ul­cer­a­tion, so you’ll need to be vig­i­lant in mon­i­tor­ing the eye even af­ter the lid re­pair is made.


How it hap­pens: Corneal scratches or abra­sions can re­sult from trauma to the sur­face of the eye or when grit or a for­eign ob­ject be­comes trapped un­der an eye­lid. Corneal in­jury can lead to ul­cer­a­tion.

Signs: A corneal in­jury will cause squint­ing and pro­fuse tear­ing, and the horse will be par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive to light. If an ul­cer has formed, he is likely to be in ob­vi­ous dis­com­fort---ag­i­tated or very with­drawn---and un­will­ing to open the eye at all. If you’ve ever had a grain of sand or dust work its way into your eye, you know how painful it can be.

What do to: Move the horse into the barn. Do not ap­ply any­thing to his eye, even if you have med­i­ca­tion left­over from treat­ing a sim­i­lar in­jury. With­out a di­ag­no­sis, it’s im­pos­si­ble to know if a prod­uct will help or make the sit­u­a­tion worse. For in­stance, us­ing a steroid cream on an eye with a fun­gal in­fec­tion can lead to loss of the eye.

Treat­ment: Prompt treat­ment is nec­es­sary to save the horse’s vi­sion. The vet­eri­nar­ian will flush the eye and per­form a flu­o­res­cein dye test to de­ter­mine the lo­ca­tion of the ul­cer. If it’s mi­nor, it will likely be treated with top­i­cal med­i­ca­tion. More se­ri­ous ul­cers may re­quire a sub­palpe­bral lavage sys­tem---an oph­thalmic catheter that de­liv­ers top­i­cal liq­uid med­i­ca­tion to the sur­face of the cornea---for easy ad­min­is­tra­tion of med­i­ca­tion. Treat­ment fo­cuses on in­hibit­ing the break­down of the cornea, ward­ing off in­fec­tion with an­tibi­otics and/or an­ti­fun­gal med­i­ca­tion, and min­i­miz­ing pain and in­flam­ma­tion. A fly mask or oph­thalmic hood is used to pro­tect the eye from fur­ther ir­ri­ta­tion or in­jury.


Pretty much the same mea­sures you take to gen­er­ally pro­tect your horse from in­juries and ill­ness will also help keep his eyes safe. But it’s worth giv­ing some thought to po­ten­tial eye haz­ards and do­ing what you can to min­i­mize them. In fact, eye in­juries are some of the eas­i­est to pro­tect your horse from, with just a few sim­ple steps.

• In­spect your barn and other farm struc­tures for eye haz­ards. Ded­i­cate an hour to walk­ing around your prop­erty with equine eye safety in mind. Be on the look­out for bro­ken bucket snaps, bungee-cord hooks and pro­trud­ing nails, all of which are in­fa­mous for caus­ing in­juries. If your horse likes to chew, pay par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to his plas­tic feed bin or bucket---hard poly­mers can cause nasty eye in­juries when frayed. Use a flash­light to ex­am­ine the boards

of all of your e and splits, an

sur­faces to feel for pro­tru­sions. Do sim­i­lar checks of trail­ers, pad­docks and run-in sheds. At least once per sea­son and af­ter ev­ery storm, check your wood fenc­ing for splin­ters, nails that work loose and downed tree limbs.

• Dis­cour­age through-the-fence graz­ing. Horses who push their heads through the lower boards or wires of fences to reach tempt­ing grass can bump and in­jure their eyes in the process or as they pull back through. If your horse thinks the grass is greener on the other side of his fence, pro­vide more for­age in­side his en­clo­sure and con­sider re­duc­ing the temp­ta­tion by mow­ing a 10-foot swath of grass short on the other side of the fence. A good de­ter­rent for cross-fence graz­ing is adding elec­tric tape or braid be­tween the rails.

• Con­trol prickly weeds in your pas­tures. Check your pas­tures for prickly bushes, weeds, downed limbs, and bur­dock plants. Bur­docks are a mem­ber of the this­tle fam­ily used in herbal teas and to treat top­i­cal skin con­di­tions, but if they end up in your horse’s fore­lock those po­ten­tially ben­e­fi­cial uses won’t be fore­most in your mind. In ad­di­tion to pos­ing a groom­ing/de­tan­gling chal­lenge, burs that get caught in a horse’s fore­lock can break up and end up in his eyes, caus­ing ul­cers.

• Re­duce ex­po­sure to in­sects. Flies are drawn to the mois­ture in and around equine eyes, and, in ad­di­tion to be­ing a nui­sance, they can cause ir­ri­ta­tion that leads to eye prob­lems. They may cause a horse to rub his eyes, which can re­sult in abra­sions and/ or con­junc­tivi­tis, an in­flam­ma­tion or in­fec­tion of the mem­branes lin­ing the eye­lids. Pro­tect your horse with fly re­pel­lent---roll-on or wipe prod­ucts are made for use on the face or del­i­cate ar­eas---and con­sider fit­ting him with a fly mask that not only serves as a bar­rier to in­sects but also of­fers UV pro­tec­tion. Min­i­mize the fly pop­u­la­tions on your prop­erty by com­post­ing ma­nure and clean­ing pad­docks daily.

• Adopt eye-friendly man­age­ment habits. Re­mem­ber how vul­ner­a­ble your horse’s eyes are to wind­borne dust and de­bris. If the wind kicks up when you’re out rid­ing, slow to a walk or stop un­til the air clears, giv­ing your horse a chance to lower his head and/or close and pro­tect his eyes. Back at home, keep your horse’s eyes in mind when you feed hay---a rack mounted high enough to keep his legs safe is likely to be so high that dust and hay par­ti­cles will fall in his eyes as he eats. Feed­ing hay from the ground is safer for his eyes and bet­ter for his res­pi­ra­tory health.

• Be care­ful when work­ing around your horse’s head. “I’ve seen eye in­juries caused by the owner ac­ci­den­tally hit­ting the horse in the eye with the tail end of a rope,” says Warneke. Most of us are not trick rop­ers … we do the best we can. When learn­ing to use new equip­ment, though, es­pe­cially ropes or dres­sage whips, prac­tice on fence posts and the like. Don’t use your rope or whip near your horse un­til you can hit a small tar­get on the fence. And take your time when pulling off your horse’s bri­dle or hal­ter so that the straps and buck­les clear his eye area safely.

Your horse’s eyes are the win­dow to his world. While you can’t pro­tect him from ev­ery mishap, spot checks on his en­vi­ron­ment and know­ing what to do if he has an eye emer­gency go a long way to­ward pre­serv­ing his vi­sion for a life­time.





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