CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Georgia Tien, working with her blind horse, Gypsy King, prepared for a dressage show this month.
Georgia Tien and her horse Gypsy King spend lots of quality time together at the beach, riding rigorous mountain trails and exploring the back roads of Waimanalo. While these may seem like typical outings for a horse and rider, these two face a special set of obstacles.
» Horse show: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
» Place: Hilltop Equestrian Center, Waimanalo
» Admission: Free
» Visit: alohastatedressage.com
Gypsy King, often referred to as G.K., has lost almost all of his sight, which leaves him dependent on his rider's cues and support. The Appaloosa horse has no sight in one eye and very little in the other, which makes him legally blind.
"People say, 'poor horse,' but losing his vision has made him a better horse," said Tien. "Now, his eyes can't play tricks on him. He looks forward to every day and completely enjoys himself. We really enjoy each other."
Gypsy King, also known by his show name, Moonlight Sonata, will participate in the dressage show sponsored by Aloha State Dressage Society this weekend at the Hilltop Equestrian Center. "Dressage is an excellent venue for this horse. He is in an arena by himself and we can concentrate on each other," Tien said. "Dressage is the foundation of most other disciplines of riding."
During dressage shows, a rider guides a horse through a series of complex maneuvers using gentle movements of the hands, legs and weight. Certified judges provide graded score cards for each horse. "Without eyesight, it makes thing more complicated. I need to provide more body support."
He's very sensitive to her balance, for example. "If I become slightly unbalanced, he trips or staggers." And because his other senses are more acute, coming across a sound or smell that he doesn't recognize can spook him.
Tien believes Gypsy King has learned verbal cues. "I warn him when turns are coming up. He has an excellent three-dimensional memory in familiar places." He remembers ranch layouts, places where he has slipped before, as well as trail ravines, even dogs that he's come across, she said.
It helps that he is "very easygoing and intelligent. If the horse was high-strung or neurotic, it could be an overload. He definitely has 'a ha' moments where you can see the light go on in his head."
Tien and Gypsy King work with trainer Olga Andersen in 45-minute sessions, once or twice a week. Gypsy King has passed all of the "baby levels" and will progress to the first formal level during the upcoming show, according to Tien.
"He will need to do simple movements -- circles, changes of direction and walk/trot/canter maneuvers -- to show his obedience," she explained.
Although Tien continues to introduce new tests to Gypsy King, she is not fixated on specific goals. "When I bought him, he was completely untrained and I'm an amateur rider," she said. "So, whatever we achieve, I'm very pleased."
When Tien purchased her horse four years ago, she knew he had some eyesight problems, but didn't realize it was uveitis, an auto-immune eye disease. He was diagnosed about 18 months ago, after suffering a painful attack that caused his failing eyesight to shift to near total blindness. Although he is now blind, the attacks can still occur, Tien said.
After the blindness set in, getting back out on the trails was no easy feat. "We would go out, walk around a little and call it a day," she said.
"He doesn't want to stand in a stall all day. He is eager to do things himself. Now, I intentionally take him to places and terrain that are unfamiliar to keep his mind flexible. We definitely have a relationship of trust and respect."
The extra effort makes a lot of work for Tien, but she's not complaining. "It takes up a huge part of my day, but it's work that I love."