Blind horse inspires others to keep striving

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Posted May 14, 2021 | By Amanda Valderrama, Special to the Ocala Gazette

Ward is a blind 21-year-old, 1100-pound Appaloosa whose best friend is his seeing eye-donkey named Poppi.

A show horse in his youth, “Ward the Wonder Pony,” lost his vision in 2018 but continues to win over hearts as a certified therapy animal.

Recently, the horse visited the Florida Center for The Blind in Ocala after Sue Draddy, chief development officer for the center, saw a Facebook post about the horse from Ward’s handler, Maggie Hendel.  

“I saw Maggie’s post and thought, is there something here where we can make a connection,” Draddy said.

On May 1, Ward visited the center, spending time with others living with vision loss and impairments. Ward was showered with kisses and treats from about 20 visitors. The day started with a visit from children and toddlers, including pony storytime with Ward, followed by the arrival of adults and seniors.

Draddy said the event was everything she had hoped.

“I wanted this to show others diagnosed with blindness and vision impairment that they really can do anything, to live life to the fullest just like Ward. It is very inspirational, especially for the younger kids,” she said.

It was also an emotional experience for Hendel, who only recently got Ward certified as a therapy animal through Pet Partners of North Florida. She admits to being a little nervous at first.

“He always exceeds my expectations,” she said. “It was very emotional because this is something I’ve been trying to do with him.”

She said she heard from the husband of a woman who met Ward. The man said his wife hadn’t stopped talking about meeting the horse.

Hendel said she was thrilled that Ward’s visit was memorable. She said she felt an instant connection to Ward 12 years ago after their first ride together.  

But in 2010, the horse was diagnosed with Equine Recurrent Uveitis (ERU) and received treatment, but the autoimmune disease is the most common cause of vision loss in horses and has no cure. Eventually, veterinarians had to remove both of Ward’s eyes.

But the loss of vision hasn’t kept Ward from “trotting it up in the field,” Hendel said.

Ward can tap on an object or feel the touch of others to better sense his surroundings. Many people are often taken aback by his abilities. Through touch and sound, he can navigate his way around. Poppi helps guide him too.

Hendel hopes to continue other outreach events in the area, including taking Ward to visit seniors.

“I know he can do for others what he has done for me,” she said.

The Florida Center for the Blind offers free services to the visually impaired, including technology assistance, independent living skills, and job training. While based in Ocala, they cover Alachua, Bradford, Columbia, Dixie, Gilchrist, Levy, Marion, and Union counties.

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