The work horse trainer Morgan Wagner has done with her horse, Endo the Blind, is a fine example of how blindness is a disability that you can work with, rather than an inability to live life.
She’s demonstrated how the real problem with blindness isn’t the blindness itself but rather how people generally think about it.
Despite the many misconceptions surrounding blindness in horses, the blind horse is not psychologically or mentally different from the sighted horse. He is neither especially blessed nor especially cursed, he has simply put in the hard work to adapt.
And like any other horse, the blind horse needs a job and opportunities to grow – not pity or constant reminders of his vulnerability. He does need some accommodations to make life work but these are, in essence, no different than us getting glasses to aid our vision or wearing smartwatches to track daily water intake and exercise heart rates.
Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge
And this is vitally important for the blind horse.
Many people have done work that has shaped modern life for all of us despite – and even because of – their disability. Beethoven continued composing long after he went deaf and Louis Braille (blinded by an accident in early childhood) invented the tactile code that has allowed blind people to read and write efficiently, so there’s no reason to think that a blind horse can’t live a full life.
“When they [people] think of a blind horse, they think he’s just stuck in a stall, not moving, in a safe little box. But he wants to go out there and eat grass and run and play with his pony,” Morgan told FEItv. “It makes me feel proud that he’s inspired other people with their horses, to do stuff with their horses, that their horses have potential even though they’re now disabled.
“I want to inspire people to go out and play with their horse, not just riding around in a circle, but building that relationship, because the horses like being with you.”
It’s the attitude of pity that causes the bar to be lowered for performance. This cannot and will never be helpful. Adjusting to a disability simply requires adapting to a lifestyle in highly practical ways and finding the workarounds that suit you and your horse.
It’s important to remember that though a disability is with a sense or the body, an inability is in the mind and soul. Endo certainly thinks no less of himself for being blind, in fact, he loves reenacting his story in a performance they routinely perform at events:
Endo charmed Morgan from the very beginning
When Morgan was 13, her grandmother let her pick a horse for herself from the herd. Morgan saw that Endo had a different presence than the other foals – his strong and unique personality shone through at just a few months old.
He had a different presence compared to the other foals. There were prettier foals, more outgoing foals – but he was different. He still thinks that he’s the greatest thing on four legs!
When she first got Endo, neither of them knew how to put a halter on. Morgan didn’t have any experience with horses and Endo was completely untrained. Through trial and error, Morgan learned what worked and what didn’t – and, today, she’s almost entirely self-taught.
Morgan speculates that this learn-as-you-go approach has helped her and Endo on their journey because this close way of working proved very effective once Endo lost his vision.
Endo wasn’t always ‘the Blind’
At around eight years old, Endo started having flare-ups with sun exposure – sometimes in one eye, sometimes in the other – and Morgan noticed that he started squinting a lot. As soon as she realised there was a problem, Morgan had the vet check Endo’s eyes.
His eyes were painful and often weepy during the summer months, and Endo was soon diagnosed with Equine Recurrent Uveitis (ERU), glaucoma and cataracts.
ERU is a chronic, painful eye disease and is the most common cause of blindness in horses. It is thought to be the first veterinary disease ever documented as there are depictions of ocular problems (showing uveitis or a very similar disease) in cavalry horses in the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, dating back 4,500 years.
It was named “moon blindness” because in the 17th-century people believed that the recurring infections were related to phases of the moon. ERU occurs in horses of all breeds all over the world, yet the cause is still unknown – even though it’s the most common cause of blindness in horses.
Research has shown that certain breeds, such as German Warmbloods and Appaloosas, are more at risk of developing ERU. Appaloosas, in particular, are 8.3 to 12 times more at risk of getting uveitis as well as more likely to become blind as a result.
Together with the vet, Morgan worked tirelessly to lessen Endo’s painful flare-ups by eliminating dust and other things in his environment that could irritate his eyes. He was only let outside at night and was given daily anti-inflammatory medicine orally.
His vet came to see him several times a month to treat him with a prescribed eye ointment as well as with stronger oral medication. But nothing seemed to help.
Endo’s eyes were getting more and more painful
Even with all the veterinary treatments, Endo was often in severe pain. He stopped eating because it hurt to chew and the medicine he was given to reduce inflammation was affecting his appetite.
When he had a very damaging flare-up in his right eye, the decision was made to remove the eye in order to reduce the amount of pain he was in.
When Morgan realised she was soon going to have a blind horse, she felt lost. “I didn’t know what to do or where we’d end up,” she recalls.
Immediately after the first surgery, Endo was scared. Morgan remembers finding him in his stall shaking when she went to check on him the first night post-op. She decided to stay with him that night as her presence seemed to offer him comfort.
Since the vet had estimated that the same procedure would have to be repeated on the other eye in less than a year, Morgan decided that she needed to begin preparing Endo for a life without the use of his eyes.
She began blindfolding him for brief periods of time and though it scared Endo so much that he would just shake, afraid to move, she kept trying. Talking to him and petting him, she tried to reassure him that it was okay. After 15 minutes she finally got him to take a single step forward and immediately removed the blindfold as a reward.
The second time she blindfolded Endo, she was able to lead him around the arena with the blindfold in place. However, by the third try, Endo figured out how to remove the blindfold as soon as Morgan put it on!
“When he was down to one eye, that was blind, he could still see light for ‘up’ and dark for ‘down’,” Morgan explained to FEItv.
Despite the challenges, Morgan pushed on. The strong bond that they had built up over the years, learning how to live and work together, was a solid foundation for Endo to venture into a new way of life with Morgan’s guidance.
Morgan began searching for a permanent companion for Endo before the second surgery
Unsure if he would be able to go out in a herd again, Morgan wanted Endo to have a companion so that he wouldn’t be alone in his darkness. And she found a miniature mare called Cinnamon who was in bad shape and in need of a good home.
“Cinnamon was a starved rescue and she tried to claim the hay pile. Endo put up with her kicks for two weeks before he decided to gently grab her by the mane and put her on the other side of the stall,” Morgan says.
“Now they’ve come to an agreement,” she continues. “Initially Cinnamon knew to sneak his apples from his blind side. After a few months of no eyes, she figured out that she could take them quietly from either side.”
Today Cinnamon is a constant companion to Endo and she lives with him in their stall and in the pasture. She’s more herd-bound than Endo, though, so she stays home while Endo goes travelling to shows and expos.
Endo has adjusted well to life on the road without his little mare friend but he’s always happy to find her waiting for him when he comes back home.
When was the left eye removed?
Within about six months of the first surgery, the second eye also had to be removed. Endo’s recovery from the second procedure went more quickly because of the confidence he built up after his first surgery.
Morgan thinks that all the time she spent with him, helping him to learn how to adapt to life without sight and sensing his surroundings without visual cues, made his transition easier.
Though rehabilitation still took a long time and a lot of effort, and there were some additional adjustments required by his mind and body after the second surgery.
Even with just one badly damaged eye, Endo was able to stay balanced. After the second surgery, he had no balance and he had a hard time with circles and would quickly become dizzy.
They started doing liberty work so that Endo could relearn how to balance his body and move his body without Morgan on his back.
I ask Morgan what adjustments she’s made to accommodate Endo’s sightlessness in daily life and she tells me there are two ways to answer this question.
Firstly: “In the beginning, it was just his stall, then time in different stalls on the property. He was guided by his nose at first to know the dimensions. Then it was pasture time and walks off the property,” she recounts. “Now I can turn him out in an unfamiliar stall or pasture and he moves around like he can see the walls, trees, fencing etc. without needing someone to guide him around first.”
And secondly: “He’s spoiled as much as possible. I ask for him to face incredibly difficult tasks and he always rises to the challenge – so he lives like a king!” Morgan says. “Turnout twice a day with additional arena roll time. He has his own pony, he lives in a stall four times bigger than normal – with fans when it’s hot – and I live 10 feet away in the barn. His feeder is always full of alfalfa and local grass hays, he gets three different types of grains so he doesn’t get bored with the flavour, and dessert consisting of half a bag of carrots or apples every evening.”
What does Endo’s name mean?
Endo is a prefix from Greek endon meaning “within, inner, absorbing, or containing”. Morgan came across the term in a medical book and wanted to finish the name with a beautiful or powerful meaning but it took her a long time to complete it.
Finally, she decided to finish the name as she changed her Facebook page from “Endo the blind horse” to “Endo the Blind”. With his name completed, he now represents the power, courage and determination inherent within blindness.
The way Endo relates to the world has changed since he became blind. “Now, he listens more,” Morgan says. “I’ve also learned that I have to stop and listen because a quick glance might not tell me what he’s processing in this world. Breathing, footsteps etc. tell you a lot more than we tend to realise.”
A good example of this is how Endo knows what’s next in his tacking up routine:
Endo can do anything a sighted horse can do
Today, Endo’s disability isn’t holding him back and his life is much the same as it was before he was blind.
He uses sounds, smells, touch and vibrations in the ground to move around. He also knows approximately 50 or 60 words and Morgan uses other sound cues, such as the whip tapping on the ground to communicate.
Endo competes, goes on trail rides, travels, jumps, performs liberty work and eagerly participates in any new adventure that comes his way. He’s also accustomed to being the lead horse on a trail ride and will powerwalk his way up to the front if he finds himself further down the line.
At any event, he draws a crowd and is a huge favourite with the kids who love to hug him and feed him treats. Endo has demonstrated his versatility, intelligence and trainability at expos all across the US and Canada.
“One of the biggest misconceptions people have about Endo is that he’s scared to go forward,” Morgan reveals. “When in reality he’s fighting me to canter around. He likes to go and believes he’s invincible while I’m on him.
“Winning that national championship in working equitation at the master’s level (in 2019) was incredibly difficult with the steering and precision needed to navigate the obstacles. It was even more difficult when Endo was getting fussy and just wanted to move out and go forward.”
To see how they handle all kinds of obstacles, you can see the video below of Endo the Incredible:
There isn’t a whole lot of research into how a horse’s brain adapts to blindness
But it’s generally assumed that smell, hearing and touch grow to compensate (just like in humans) for the missing sense of sight and become more crucial than in a sighted horse. Endo, for instance, can pick out Morgan’s footsteps in a crowd and he can find a slice of apple hidden amongst a pile of carrots on cue.
The vibrissae, those thick, long, tactile hairs around the eyes, nose and muzzle are presumed to play a significant role in how blind horses navigate three-dimensional space. The vibrissae are specialised in tactile sensing, working as a companion to the skin.
And the vibrissae guard some of the most vital parts of the horse’s body against damage: they help protect the eyes and muzzle and, ultimately, the brain.
These hairs play an important part in sensing where the eyes can’t see and they help the horse detect the distance, texture and temperature between a surface and the lips.
They provide the horse with important information about what is safe and what is potentially harmful – and that’s just for horses with normal vision.
Echolocation is a method that both blind humans and animals are known to use
Making noise is a way for the blind horse to ask the surrounding world a question and get back an answer.
The reflected soundwaves help identify and build a mental map of the surroundings.
This can vary between “passive echolocation” when incidental echoes (such as footfalls when walking) are used to navigate, and “active echolocation”, in which the subject emits a noise in order to produce echoes.
Using footsteps a bit more loudly to get his bearings or sharply blowing air through the nostrils become second nature and the blind horse begins to use these almost without thinking.
Building a bond of trust takes a long time
Though it is possible for a blind horse to live a full life, adapting to life without vision takes a lot of work.
As a human companion to a blind horse, you have to become an extension of your horse. Both so that you can help guide your horse through the world and so that you can understand what he’s paying attention to.
I have to stop and listen because a quick glance might not tell me what he is processing in this world.
Morgan needs to be aware of, not just what she sees, but what she can smell, hear and feel as well.
Morgan gets many messages from people asking for advice with their horses and she feels like they’re often looking for a magical solution that can be provided in just a few words.
That, of course, doesn’t exist.
I ask Morgan how long it took her and Endo to develop their relationship to where it is today. “The full 20 years. Every day brings us to a new level,” she says.
Morgan’s tip for getting a better relationship with your horse
A major contributor to the seamless relationship Morgan has forged with Endo is the liberty work they routinely do together. At first, it served to rehabilitate Endo’s balance and later allowed them to refine how they communicate with each other.
Morgan intimately understands what Endo is feeling and can accurately interpret his moods, from frisking fans at events for treats to when he’s taking a nap while being shod.
Morgan’s favourite thing about Endo is his tenacity, his determination to keep going even when he’s charging into the unknown. She thinks that the biggest thing Endo’s been able to learn from her is confidence because she’s been there with him every step of the way.
When I ask Morgan what her advice is for anyone wanting to get a better relationship with their horse, she says that it’s important to take time when rewarding your horse.
When your horse knows that being with you is challenging, fun and rewarding, there’s nothing that can stop you!
Photos courtesy of Morgan Wagner. Feature photo: Michael T. Photography