LAFAYETTE, Wis. — Victoria Czech eased onto the back of her 27-year-old palomino quarter horse, Skip, and took him for a ride around a 2½-acre pen at her home, preparing the animal for its upcoming performance in the junior horse show at the Northern Wisconsin State Fair.
Victoria, 13, gave Skip a variety of voice commands, and used her legs and a rope to guide him.
Skip needs the help, because he can't see. He no longer even has eyes, the Leader-Telegram reported (http://bit.ly/1312D6W).
Skip was diagnosed with glaucoma a few years ago. Rather than have the otherwise healthy 1,000-pound horse put down, the Czechs decided to have the right eye removed in September 2010. The other eye was taken out in April 2012. The eye sockets have been completely stitched closed, with a ball placed in each one to keep them from collapsing.
"His eyesight started going bad three years ago. His eye completely turned blue and got puffy during the testing," Victoria said. "We knew he was going to go blind. So, we tried to train him to be ready."
Training meant purposely walking him on a variety of terrain to prepare Skip for not being able to see where he was going.
The right eye was removed entirely after it turned blue and it was apparent he couldn't see out of it.
"He kept scratching at it," Victoria said.
Because the left eye also was going bad, Victoria would put eyedrops in it two to three times a day in an effort to stave off that eye also going blind. However, it was removed when it also turned blue.
Veterinarian Joel Mayberry of Chippewa Veterinary Clinic near Chippewa Falls was impressed with the Czechs' decision to save the horse.
"It's pretty rare — I can't say we've ever done that before," Mayberry said, adding that he didn't do the surgery. "It takes a lot of commitment from the owner, and that's a good thing. Not many people would do it."
Victoria admits she was fearful that Skip — who she has owned for five years — might not rebound from surgery.
"I didn't know if I'd be able to ride him," she said. "I didn't think he'd let me ride him. So, I was sad thinking we were going to have to put him down."
After the surgery to remove the second eye, Victoria said she eased Skip into getting by without seeing.
"We stalled him up for the first week and had to take care of his stitches," she said.
However, after just one week, she decided to see if he would let her ride him.
"I was wondering how he'd do — I didn't know if he would trot. I was scared to get on him," she said. "He acted like nothing had even changed."
David Czech, Victoria's father, said he was startled watching Skip in the pen one day after the surgery, as the animal ran around the field, pulling up just before he struck the fencing.
"He just must have known from memory and was testing himself," he said.
David was impressed that his daughter made the commitment to care for the animal, noting that Victoria was only 10 when Skip started to lose eyesight.
With several horse shows coming up, Victoria said she tries to ride him four times a week, either in their pen, around the family's property, or at the dirt pen at the Northern Wisconsin State Fairgrounds.
"I walk him through puddles, just to test him — he doesn't like it, but he does just fine, because he trusts me completely," she said.
Skip will compete in a variety of categories at the fair, from showmanship to "western pleasure" to trail walking.
While Skip is a bit more jumpy after a strange noise now, Victoria said he does fine at shows.
"People can talk (at shows), but they aren't loud, because they don't want to spook the horse," she said.
Only afterward when people approach her and Skip do many people realize that his eyes are stitched shut.
"Most people say, 'I don't even know how you do it,' " Victoria said.
Skip has regained his winning form, pulling in a few prizes last year. Victoria hopes to win some more competitions this weekend as well. She doesn't think the fact that he's blind sways judges' decisions.
"He truly is that good," she said. "He won competitions before he lost his eyes. I don't think it gives him an upper hand or extra credit. I wouldn't want it to."
Victoria said Skip has the right temperament for a show horse.
"He's calm," she said. "But he does have personality — he will test you."
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Leader-Telegram of Eau Claire