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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, April 27, 2002

Loss of sight fails to cloud mare's spirit

By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Staff Writer

"Chips" is blind but is about to do something that will literally open a lot of eyes.

Trainer Alice Kinneman says that because Chips, the appaloosa, is blind, she must trust the rider to see for her during a dressage competition.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

At about 1 p.m. on May 5, Iris Woolsey's 17-year-old appaloosa mare trained by Alice Kinneman will compete in the Aloha State Dressage Society Show at the Barbers Point Riding Stables. It will be the second time the horse will show since going blind five years ago.

Dressage does not involve jumping. It requires the rider to guide the horse through a series of complex maneuvers.

"I've never seen or heard of anything like it before," said Kinneman, a 29-year-old 'Ewa Beach native and Campbell High graduate who has been Chips' trainer for the past 18 months.

Kinneman said it is not uncommon for appaloosas to have sight problems.

"Most horses who are blind in both eyes are destroyed," she said. "But I think this sends out a message that even if a horse, or any other animal, is injured or blind, it doesn't mean you have to get rid of it. They can still be productive and useful."

Cindy Vimont of Lexington, Ky.-based USA Equestrian, formerly known as the American Horse Show Association, said "it's unusual but not unheard of" for blind horses to compete.

"We've had horses with no sight compete before ... and have no problem with a blind horse competing in dressage," Vimont said. "The horse is being controlled by signals from the rider."

Woolsey, who purchased the horse 14 years ago, said Chips lost her sight because of a genetic problem common to appaloosas compounded by glaucoma.

There may be partially blind horses or those with sight in one eye competing locally. But Woolsey said the horse's veterinarian told her that Chips, whose registered name is "Hiatus Frisky," is likely the only completely blind horse competing in Hawai'i.

"I think it's important to Iris for Chips to feel like a regular horse," Kinneman said. "Iris says this is a way for Chips to express herself. This is something she used to do when she was sighted."

Kinneman will be Chips' rider in the dressage competition, which is held in a 60- by-180- foot arena. "Not every horse could do this," Kinneman said of the competition. "It's a combination of trust. Chips knows Iris is a wonderful owner and trusts that I would never do anything to let her get hurt."

When Chips went blind, the horse decided her own fate, Woolsey said.

"It was her decision because she handled it," the owner said. "When she lost (sight in) one side, she was adjusting. It was touch and go for a while. If she couldn't handle it, I would have put her down. But she's trusting and an inspiration.

"How many horses who cannot see would trust someone on their back, trusting the rider to see for them."

Kinneman trains Chips three times a week.

"Stalled horses need to get out and stretch their legs to use up energy," she said, adding that Chips has a keen sense of smell that helps her recognize people. "She's amazing in the arena. If I say 'up' she knows she has to take a big step. When I say 'whoa' she stops right away.

"That's important because she can't see the fence or hole in the road. When I'm riding her, I have to watch for every hole, tree or fence. It keeps me alert."

The danger is that a frightened horse will take flight.

"Horses will run and, in Chips' case, it could be through a fence or into something that could really injure her," Kinneman said.

Reach Rod Ohira at 535-8181 or rohira@honoluluadvertiser.com.