Life After Racing: Invisible Bond

Standardbreds are consistently showing their versatility, whether it’s riding or driving, for show or for pleasure. Hoof Beats is happy to share stories from readers about their favorite Standardbreds. This month, Charlotte Gelston writes about 20-year-old former pacer, Nipas One, and his doting owner, Pamela Rhodes.

One morning late in March 2014, Pam Rhodes went to get 17-year-old “Nipa” from his paddock. She discovered his left eye noticeably swollen and weeping. The vet came immediately, found nothing definitive, and diagnosed a reaction to an invasive foreign object. In a day or two the eye looked normal.

A few weeks later, Nipa’s right eye looked downright alarming. It appeared to be almost opaque with a reddish hue. This time the vet advised an immediate trip to the equine ophthalmologist at the New England Equine Surgical and Medical Center in Dover, N.H.

A few hours later, Dr. Nicholas Cassotis determined that Nipa had Equine Recurrent Uveitis in both eyes. ERU (commonly called “moon blindness”) is a cruel and complex condition that is painful, progressive, and incurable. Because it had gone untreated before Rhodes owned him, considerable damage had already occurred. Dr. Cassotis recommended an aggressive treatment plan, hoping to slow further deterioration. Although Rhodes was advised by another horse owner to put him down immediately, she chose otherwise.

Treatment involved two different ophthalmic ointments and one ophthalmic drop in both eyes, along with oral Banamine and doxycycline several times a day. This horse must have desperately wanted relief, because his calm, accepting cooperation made the grueling schedule possible.

After several weeks, Nipa improved, and for a few months Rhodes and Nipa were able to return to work. Nipa’s work ethic was covered in a story in the March 2014 issue of Hoof Beats titled “‘So Much Fun!’”

Then minor irritation returned. Since Nipa was the perfect candidate, Rhodes was advised to consider cyclosporine implants in both eyes to give him the best possible chance to maintain his remaining vision. After much soul-searching, she decided to go ahead with this innovative surgery.

Dr. Cassotis and Dr. Alison Clode successfully performed the surgery. For almost a year, Nipa had no further flare-ups. The implants were doing their job. In late summer of 2015, however, Nipa began bumping into things and going through fences. The grievous fact was that he had developed cataracts in both eyes – a secondary result of ERU. Nipa was going blind.

Rhodes relates the rest of Nipa’s story:

Despite 13 years on the harness racetrack, Nipa was fit, sound, willing, and extremely tractable. From the first day I worked with him, we clicked together so well, I did not doubt that we would continue to do so.

Now it was up to me to give a chance to one of many Standardbreds who give so much of themselves. Fortunately my barn owner was willing to accommodate us by giving Nipa a “paddock-within-a-paddock,” complete with his private run-in, water, food, and bedding. With patient guidance, he quickly learned the layout and even knows where he can safely have a good roll in the dust. He is still surrounded by his former pasture-mates, who can often be seen lying next to his fencing, or “conversing” over it.

Perhaps because Nipa lost his vision gradually, he adapted better than if he had lost it suddenly. We’ve always done a lot of groundwork involving odd patterns around obstacles, which a horse would never think of doing on his own, requiring total attention to the handler. Those exercises were not only fun, but have proven to be invaluable. Also, I have always spoken with him in a calm, subdued, monotone that emotes safety and comfort.

What kind of life does Nipa have now? Does he get adequate exercise? At least four days a week, we work together driving a pleasure cart, riding or long-lining in the indoor or outdoor rings and out in the fields. When Nipa is in harness, I trust him completely, because he responds to both hand and verbal cues just as if he can see.

If he’s in long lines, I can keep him in a secure frame allowing him to trot freely and do a variety of patterns. When I’m in the saddle, we’ve developed verbal cues, along with my leg and body aids, to let him know when we’re ready to go up or down slopes, or on rough footing where he must step carefully.

He does so well that occasionally someone comments, “He probably really can see!”  We can’t ask him to read an eye chart, but my veterinarians concur that he is indeed blind. If I don’t guide him very carefully, he will walk right into obstacles. As is expected, Nipa is now extra-sensitive to sounds, but he will never spook at a scary object like a trashcan monster!

This summer we were asked to give a long-lining demonstration at a camp for beginning riders and horse owners. It was a dreadfully hot and still day, but Nipa was a real trouper and rose to the occasion! He responded perfectly, showing complete trust in my verbal and minimal hand cues, performing patterns at the walk and trot.

One of our favorites is for Nipa to trot in a circle around me, and when I say “turn,” he never breaks the trot, but comes around to continue in the opposite direction. It is beautiful! Despite having given the audience an introduction explaining Nipa’s history and vision loss, one attendee was quite certain he could not be blind.

Just two other people have ridden Nipa since he lost his vision, and both were extremely impressed by how alert and sensitive he is to any cues from the rider. They felt perfectly safe on his back. Even our 2-year-old grandson had a pony ride on him!

Of course, I would prefer that Nipa had his vision, but he is really my horse now. We both know what to expect of each other and would not change anything to break the incredibly strong bonds of trust we share. Many people who come to the barn for lessons and training see a shining example of a handicapped horse enjoying a full life.

My message is three-fold. First, any equine eye problem should be attended to immediately by a veterinarian. Second, the relationship you build with your horse is paramount. Third, give your handicapped horse the chance to live a full and enjoyable life with you!”

by Charlotte Gelston

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