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Nervousness in 21-year-old Appaloosa

From: Jacklyn

Hi! I have a 21 year old Appaloosa Gelding. He is great! Until this summer that is....He's gotten very nervous. We have 2 other horses. One who he's been together with for 18 years and the other who we just got in April. The Appy used to be the head of the pecking order, but the new one is now. The new one is VERY aggressive and mean to the others. Especially around food. The Appy stays out of the way and trots around the new one to get away from him. (But they sometimes share the same feeder...I know. Weird!) I have had disabled people ride him, given lessons on him. Our 6 year old daughter has been riding him since she was 2 1/2. He was so docile & calm. But when my husband and I went out for long ride he loved to run and was pumped. Sometimes we had to work to hold him back once we'd been out for awhile. Now I hesitate to put anyone new on him.

He sometimes tosses his head, and backs up now. He never did that before. He's constantly alert, waiting for something to spook at. I used to be able to take him out from his buddy and go for a long ride by myself with no problems. Now he's very nervous. Jumping at things, spooking at imaginary things etc. He just never did this before.

Is it the other horse that has made him nervous? We are planning to sell the newest addition, as he's just not right for our family. Or is he just going sour? Could it be eyesight? Hearing? Teeth? I don't know what to do... I guess I thought most horses get more docile as they get older.

His calmness is why we bought him in the first place. Any ideas? Your insight would be wonderful.

I should add he is a VERY easy keeper and just looking at hay or grain makes him overweight. My husband says he's overfed and under exercised. But this is how we fed him before our newer horse.


Hi Jacklyn! When I read the first line of your letter, I thought "Oh-oh, an older Appaloosa going blind," and the rest of your letter, unfortunately, bears out that first reaction. You need to have your vet come out and take a very close look at your Appaloosa's eyes; if necessary, take the horse to a veterinary hospital where an eye specialist can give you a second opinion.

Your horse may be overfed and underexercised - your husband is right, those two factors can make a horse more nervous and flighty than usual. But I think you are seeing the effects of deteriorating vision. Many of the actions you've observed and described - tossing his head, backing up, jumping and spooking for no apparent reason - are very typical reactions of a horse that's losing his sight.

Blind horses can do very well if they're kept in familiar surroundings with familiar companions. On the other hand, you have to be very careful when you take a blind horse somewhere else, and you also have to be very, VERY careful about introducing any new horse to the "herd". Bringing in a new horse, especially an aggressive one, is likely to create big trouble if one of your horses is blind.

Horse language is not primarily vocal - it's a language of body posture and movement. A blind or partially-sighted horse is at a great disadvantage when confronted with an unfamiliar horse whose personality, habits, and social skills are unknown. Since a horse that can't see won't be able to observe and interpret the tiny movements and postural adjustments that make up most of horse-to-horse communication in a herd situation, he's only going to be able to "read" the very loud, clear signals that call for immediate action on his part - for instance, if he perceives the other horse to be coming towards him, he will probably scramble out of the way as quickly as he can, because he has no way of guessing the other horse's intentions, and putting distance between them is the most safe and sensible thing he can do. However, living in constant fear or even constant nervous apprehension isn't pleasant, and that's likely to be your horse's state of mind as long as the new, aggressive horse is allowed to share space with him. I'm glad that you're planning to sell the new one; whilst you're waiting for the right buyer, can you shift the horse to another pasture or paddock, away from your Appaloosa and his buddy? If you can, you're likely to see your Appy relax somewhat.

An overall veterinary exam for health and soundness is always a good idea when any horse begins exhibiting a new set of behaviours, especially if the horse has gone from quiet, calm, and happy to nervous, anxious, and spooky. As I said, when I hear of changes like these in an older Appaloosa, my first thought is "eyesight", but of course there could be other problems as well, and a good equine veterinarian will be able to help you identify and deal with those problems.

Appaloosas are wonderful horses, but all owners of older Appaloosas need to be aware of the fact that eye trouble seems to be a particular problem for older Apps, and should be suspected whenever they notice that their horses are exhibiting "personality changes".

It would be a good idea for you to begin planning how to keep your horse safe and feeling secure in case his vision IS gone or almost gone. Be sure that the fencing in his field is horse-safe, so that if he can no longer see it and happens to hit it at speed, he can bounce off it unharmed. Check your field daily, and be sure that it doesn't contain any surprises that could cause problems for a blind horse. Be sure that you don't leave any equipment in his field, even just for a few moments! A tractor parked in the field, a manure fork and basket left just inside the gate, even another horse's lost halter could cause an accident. Similarly, if you've been planning to add new trees to the pasture, or to build fences around existing trees, WAIT. "Surprise" fences and "surprise" holes can be fatal to a horse that can't see them. And speaking of holes, if you have any hole-digging animals in your area, be extra careful when you walk and inspect your horse's field. Groundhogs, for instance, can create holes overnight, and not just holes, but holes that are wide and deep enough to catch a horse's hoof and lower leg.

Please get your veterinarian to come out and check your horse thoroughly. Don't rely on home "tests" - I've seen owners of blind horses insist that "MY horse can see - watch, when I wave my hand in front of his eye, he blinks!" The air movement from the hand-wave can cause a blink or a twitch in the eyelid, even if the eye itself is nonfunctional. Another thing to consider is that the conditions that often lead to failing eyesight and eventual blindness - recurrent uveitis and eventually glaucoma - can be extremely painful for the horse. That in itself would justify bringing the vet out for a visit.

I wish I could offer you some great training information that would solve the problem, but I really believe that you're up against an eyesight issue and that your horse is probably doing the best he can to cope with his new condition. Please write to me and let me know what the veterinarian says - you'll be in my thoughts.


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