A Special Sort of Horse

Chip Returns to Preliminary

by Amber Heintzberger

Mikki Kuchta, a 5-star eventing rider, started 2023 with Special Reserve, her Off-The-Track-Thoroughbred, at the top of the U.S. Eventing Association’s Preliminary Horse Leaderboard. But a couple of years ago, she wasn’t sure if the handsome dapple grey would ever compete again. The 10-year-old gelding, affectionately known as “Chip”, was in a stable accident at Kuchta’s farm in Putnam County, New York in November of 2020. 

Special Reserve was on the cross ties when something happened – perhaps he was stung by a wasp – and he pulled back. When he did, he hit his left eye on a piece of plastic gutter. “It was a very traumatic injury . . . initially I was assuming he was going to lose the eye. But the vet told us that the most common eye injury is a detached retina, and she could see that that was not what had happened. We were elated that he would probably be fine.”

Over time, Kuchta said that Chip seemed to improve, although he still could not see out of the injured eye. When Kuchta moved her operation to her farm in Aiken for the winter season, she had him examined by Dr. Lauren Ray at Southern Equine Service. “She thought he looked okay. But his vision wasn’t improving, so we brought in an equine ophthalmologist. It turned out the lens had been fractured and he would never get his vision back.”

At the time, she wondered if he’d just be a pasture ornament, but the ophthalmologist was encouraging and pointed out that there are plenty of one-eyed horses doing just fine. There was even a one-eyed eventing horse, Viscera, who competed with Therese Viklund for Sweden at the Tokyo Olympics. 

Mikki had bought Chip as a 5-year-old in 2018 from a jockey in Oklahoma and she had already brought him up to the Preliminary Level when the accident happened. After the initial injury healed, she started him back in work, and evented him about five months later, dropping down to Novice Level. She moved him back to Training and then Modified, and in early 2023 he won his first few events at Preliminary, making him the top horse of that level in the country. 

Kuchta said that she was surprised to discover how well her horse adapted to his limited vision. “I started riding him and tried poles to test his depth perception and he felt like the same horse to me. It was really incredible.”

She noted that his other senses are definitely more heightened. “He hears me from a mile away. If I’m talking in the barn aisle he’ll prick his ears and look at me. We do carrot stretches on both sides and teaching him that was a little tricky – he could sort of follow the scent and try to grab blindly. I just kept the carrot closer to his nose and he discovered his range of motion. We try to trailer him with the other horse on his right side, but overall he functions like any other horse.”

In the saddle, Kuchta said that the only thing she’s had a little trepidation about as they have moved back up the levels is making left-hand turns. “The higher the level, the shorter the distance, and if you have a corner four strides away on a left hand turn, there’s a reaction when a horse sees a jump – they lock on and you can feel it. My only adaptation was to really make sure I turned him in time. He’s never tilted his head or turned his head; he keeps his head very level.”

She added, “Funny enough, the only time he runs into things is when someone is leading him . . We’ll make sure to turn wide, and I tell all my working students they have to be responsible for what’s on his left side. One time getting into the trailer, he bumped into the divider. But as soon as you’re on his back, that goes away. I don’t know what the difference is.”

As Chip has returned to FEI competitions, where a soundness jog is part of the competition, Kuchta knew she had to give her horse a little extra help to compensate for not being able to see his handler out of his left eye. She taught him voice commands for things like “halt” and “trot,” as well as the word “watch” to signal that the trail is getting rough. 

Kuchta said that for about a year, she wouldn’t let anyone else ride Chip because she didn’t want to put that responsibility on anyone. “Now my daughter, Bridgette Miller, who’s my assistant trainer, rides him, too. My working students are great and know him and ride him. I also had a client whose horse got hurt and I gave her some lessons on him because he’s really lovely on the flat.”

Though the gelding is brave and talented enough for higher levels, Kuchta plans to keep him at Preliminary. “He’s capable of going higher, but for me it’s enough just keeping him at the level he was at before. Trying to teach him new skills would worry me, even though he’s very brave. We’ll probably try some Second and Third Level dressage, and we’ve done some show jumping to jump some bigger jumps. I wouldn’t go skidding around a high-speed jump-off with him though!”

For Kuchta, it is enough just to have Chip happy and healthy. “We weren’t sure if he would ever be able to do any competing again, and we were fine with that. He would have a wonderful life with us forever, no matter what. But he is amazing and we’ve had the most wonderful journey to where we are now.”