WILLMAR -- From a distance, the beautiful gray Arabian nuzzling his young owner looks just like any other horse -- and he is, except he's completely blind.
The 23-year-old show horse registered as Positive Vibes lost his sight in May, but his owner, Mercedes Schueler, 10, of Willmar, has never given up on him.
Steering and leading him with her body and voice, Schueler maintained Vibe's trust and quickly became his eyes.
The pair has competed in seven shows together this summer.
"Every Friday night, we're grooming and cleaning; and Saturday morning we're on the road," said Kristine Schueler, Mercedes' mom.
With five horses, Mercedes and her siblings: Dylan, 16, and MaQuelah, 14, have been riding and showing horses for as long as they can remember.
Mercedes started showing horses for 4-H when she was 5, but it wasn't until last year that she found Vibes.
When Mercedes first rode Vibes, he was completely blind in his left eye due to an unknown injury that occurred about 10 years ago. The left side is the side you always lead from, so Mercedes had to tell him where to go using clucking sounds and kissing, Kristine said.
Mercedes rode Vibes several times before showing him at the Kandiyohi County Fair and making the final decision to keep him.
At that point, there was no doubt that he was coming home with us, Kristine said.
Mercedes rode and showed Vibes for the rest of the summer with a red rose marking his blind eye. He would tilt his head to the side and ride further from the rail when he turned left, but he could see and make his way around.
During the winter, Vibes began losing vision in his right eye.
He would run into the wall and get lost in the barn, Kristine said. "It was getting worse all winter."
Dr. Steven Rumsey, owner of South 71 Veterinarian Clinic in Willmar, discovered a cataract in Vibes' right eye in May. A cataract is opacity in the lens of the eye that affects the vision. It is caused by inflammation in the eye, inherited genetic traits or toxic substances.
Kristine said Vibes was no longer responding to movement by blinking or shifting his eye. His vision was completely gone.
The Schuelers were presented with a couple options: put Vibes down or take him in for surgery, which they could not afford.
Rumsey said it's uncommon for horses to go completely blind, but when they do, they are usually put down.
"If they have a specific purpose and can no longer fulfill that purpose, they are typically put down," he said. It's in kindness to the horse because they get over excited and run into stuff.
The Schuelers weren't ready to let Vibes go, so they learned to adapt.
One of the family's other horses, Breeze, became Vibes' pasture buddy.
Breeze started taking care of Vibes and leading him around the pasture, Kristine said.
Mercedes learned patience steering Vibes, so he wouldn't run into walls.
"It's OK, buddy. It's OK," Mercedes says reassuring him as she leads him down the path.
She started talking to him more and giving commands to lead him through the trails.
"It takes a good temperament from the horse to make it work," Rumsey said. "And, of course, owners that are willing to work with it."
Kristine said she remembers Rumsey saying, "(Vibes) seems like he has the most wonderful personality."
Vibes' calm personality shows as he softly nuzzles his head against Mercedes when she brushes him. He remains calm as she mounts him with the help of her mom.
"It's a very neat relationship they have," Kristine said. "Everyone sits there and says 'it's amazing he trusts her'."
Mercedes could ride a different horse, but she said Vibes is her favorite.
"I ask her if she wants to ride (another) horse and she says, 'No, I love my Vibes,'" Kristine said.
Mercedes is comfortable with Vibes but said she prefers outdoor arenas because she feels more confident. Indoor arenas are typically smaller and she said she worries he's going to hit a wall.
The hardest part is remembering to steer him, she said.