They don’t have to shoot horses

by Charles Finn

The idea that you can keep a blind horse safely, that it can be pastured, ridden, that it can lead a happy, even productive life, flies in the face of conventional thinking.

Conventional thinking, however, is not Alayne Marker’s strong point. She and her husband, Steve Smith, operate Rolling Dog Ranch Animal Sanctuary in Montana, a nonprofit that’s home to 76 disabled animals, including 20 blind horses, 18 blind dogs and three blind cats -- I didn’t ask about mice -- as well as horses, dogs and cats suffering from deafness and other problems. Smith and Marker think it’s probably the only facility of its kind in the country.

When I pull in, Marker is standing just inside a wire enclosure. Travis, a husky mix with a fused jaw, knocks his tail against her leg, begging attention. Meanwhile, Blind Evelyn, a black lab, “sings” in a series of different pitched woofs, then drops to the ground, rolling on her back, four paws in the air. When Smith comes out of the house there are handshakes all around, including with the dogs.

For the next four hours we tour the ranch. Smith and Marker caution me not to feel sad for the animals, but the reminder is unnecessary. Except for obvious deformities -- a three-legged dog, a cat with leaky eyes, a horse with eyeless sockets -- it is impossible to discern what problem any of the animals has. When Marker calls a horse, it will lift its head, swivel its ears to the front and begin walking directly toward her.

Visitors, seeing the horses gallop across the open spaces, invariably ask, “Where are the blind ones?”

Smith and Marker say they never had to talk about their decision to start an animal sanctuary. They were working corporate jobs in Seattle, and over time collecting a variety of disabled dogs and cats. They saw a “niche,” as Marker puts it, and began working toward filling it. In 1998 they bought 160 acres in Ovando, roughly 50 miles northeast of Missoula, and began preparations. In 2000, Smith called home with news of their first tenant, Lena , a blind horse.

“The animals are a real inspiration for us,” Marker says, standing next to Lena, a blind horse. “Lena taught us. Essentially everything we’ve learned came from her first.”

Marker slides an arm around Lena ‘s neck and fits a halter. Lena came from a ranch in the Bitterroot, and from what Marker and Smith can piece together, her training consisted of tying the reins tightly behind the saddle so that if she reared up, she’d go over backwards. The idea was to teach her not to rear, but four successive times landing on her head and back -- the repeated ground-shaking blows -- ruined her optic nerve. She is now permanently blind.

There is a saying in the horse world that if you can’t ride it, pack it or breed it, you can it -- literally. The pun isn’t meant to be cruel, it simply extends the idea that a horse that has outlived its usefulness, been injured or is disabled in some way, is not worth keeping.

On a Friday afternoon last spring in South Carolina, a well-meaning veterinarian may have been thinking just that, drawing up a syringe to euthanize a horse. It was a newly dropped foal that had come into the world blind, her eyeballs smaller than a pencil eraser, a condition known as microphthalmos. The owner, a breeder, wanted the animal put down, but just before the injection was to be administered, the barn manager asked for one more day. Saturday morning, a phone rang in Montana. Smith picked it up.

Each animal at the sanctuary has a similar story — dogs with muscular dystrophy, another dog that had been beaten blind with a shovel, Winchester, a cat who was shot four times with a .22 and lived. All were rescued, and through the auspices of strangers found their way to Rolling Dog Ranch. The saddest call Marker says she ever got was from a woman who was sobbing on the phone. She’d just put down her horse, saying her vet had told her if she kept the animal, it would be the cruelest thing she’d ever done. Believing him, she’d euthanized the animal, only to afterwards discover the Rolling Dog Ranch Web site. Reading about Smith and Marker, the woman said she felt she’d betrayed her best friend. “Those are the people we’re trying to reach,” Marker says.

Charles Finn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes in Stevensvile, Montana. © High Country News