Derrick the Jumping Horse: Blind Horse's Journey Inspires Children's Book

Kelley Pierce
DERRICK and owner Terri Herrera

Derrick is no ordinary horse. Born in the Netherlands in 2008, Derrick was purchased by his current owner Terri Herrera and shipped over to the United States in 2015. Derrick, whose intended career was as a competitive hunter, had his dream abruptly cut short when after only six months of being in California, he developed a cataract in his right eye.

After consulting her veterinarian, Herrera made the decision to trailer Derrick to Univercity of California, Davis veterinary hospital – an eight-hour drive from Derrick’s home near Long Beach.  Equine ophthalmology specialist Dr. Mary Lassaline oversaw Derrick’s care and diagnosed him as a victim of Equine Recurrent Uveitis (ERU). ERU is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks its own tissues in the eye.

To combat this, Lassaline decided to insert cyclosporine implants into each eye, which release the immunosuppressive drug cyclosporine directly and continually into the horse’s eye to lessen the severity of the disease.

The damage in his right eye was determined irreparable, but the surgery proved successful in saving the vision in his left eye, and within two days Derrick was back home and beginning to work. Though there was an intense adjustment period during which Derrick had to become accustomed to only seeing through one eye, within five months he was competing in several shows throughout Southern California. Not only that, but he took home a few winning blue ribbons and championships, as well. 

However, within the year, Herrera noticed that Derrick’s vision was deteriorating. A cataract had developed in his functioning left eye, threatening complete loss of sight. Horses are prey animals, which means they rely on their vision and hearing to protect them from predators. When faced with fearful or unknown situations, their sympathetic nervous system responds, more commonly known as fight or flight response, and they typically run away.

Without vision, a horse can become a danger to itself and others. The half-ton animal must rely only on his hearing to determine threats and can often misinterpret loud noises as dangerous, causing the horse to rear or take off. Because of this, many owners choose to euthanize their blind horses, for the safety of everyone involved.

Believing nothing could be done, Herrera came to the very difficult realization that Derrick needed to be euthanized.  On the day before Derrick was set to be euthanized, Herrera cancelled all future appointments with Dr. Lassaline. Within minutes however, Lassaline called Herrera back, unwilling to give up. Herrera now had hope, saying, “He looked right at me and nickered. At that moment, I knew Derrick’s life was not over.”  Lassaline and Herrera decided to attempt cataract surgery to save Derrick’s vision in his left eye.

For the next 40 days, UC Davis became Derrick and Herrera’s temporary home, as Derrick received around-the-clock care from Lassaline, other veterinarians and students and Herrera. However, despite their best efforts, Derrick lost his eyesight.

Herrera brought Derrick home and began preparing him for his new life without sight. She took precautions to keep him safe, including lining his stall with rubber mats, allowing him to bump into the walls without injury.

Derrick adapted amazingly well to his lack of vision, and is currently back to walking and trotting under saddle. Though loud noises can still spook him, he is remarkably brave and deeply trusting of his owner and handlers in guiding him.

This emotional journey inspired Herrera to write a children’s book about Derrick’s life, called “Derrick the Jumping Horse Has Eye Surgery.” She wanted to give hope to both children and horse-owners dealing with vision problems. “I hope Derrick’s story and his new life’s purpose will encourage others,” said Herrera.

Children are already being inspired by Derrick’s story. Chloe, age 10, explains, “I love this book because I go to vision therapy and I feel that Derrick is just like me.” The book was released March 17, and a portion of proceeds go to the UC Davis Equine Ophthalmology Department and The National Eye Institute – Pediatric Eye Research.

Herrera, who already has a second book in the works, says, “Now I know the truth: Derrick’s purpose was — and still is — to inspire others to discover their true purpose, which oftentimes is not what it initially seems.”

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