MANHATTAN — More than a dozen people fill the operating room. Everyone in the Kansas State University Veterinary Hospital has a role — checking the patient's vitals, making sure the medications are working and performing the surgery. Other veterinary and ophthalmology students watch the surgery, and someone is on hand to rub the patient's belly.
All are working to restore the sight of a 6-year-old mustang named Levi.
Levi is a horse rescued by Jay Miller, a Tonganoxie man who first encountered him while offering to train the horse for an Extreme Mustang Makeover show sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management. The idea is for trainers to make wild horses more adoptable in 90 days.
It was only after they began working together that Miller realized his project was almost completely blind.
"Levi wasn't supposed to come home," Miller said. "But knowing he was blind and hoping it was reversible, I couldn't be a hypocrite and turn him back and get another one. The whole idea was to save a horse. I can't put one down and save another one. I played the hand we were dealt."
Enter the K-State Veterinary Hospital staff.
After a fundraising effort generated all but $600 of the projected $7,500 needed for eye surgery, Levi was sent to Manhattan to remove the sight-stealing cataracts, which block light from reaching the retina to form an image.
Rachel Allbaugh, a K-State ophthalmologist, on Tuesday performed the four-hour procedure — the total time Levi was under anesthesia — to remove a cataract from each eye. In contrast, human cataract surgery is done in a matter of minutes with a local anesthetic. The logistics of sedating a horse and securing it on its back on an operating room table are daunting and time-consuming in comparison.
The surgery, which Allbaugh said is performed on only a couple dozen horses nationally each year, has allowed Levi to see for the first time.
"Following the surgery, he actually looked my way when I started talking," Miller said. "His ears were perked, and he was watching me. Mustangs have the most personality of all horses. They want to know everything.
"He keeps asking the same question: 'Who dat? Who dat?' "
With Levi now able to see, Miller believes the duo are closer to the goal he had at the start of their relationship.
"The reason I got into the (Extreme Mustang Makeover) competition was not to prove what a good trainer I was," Miller said. "It was to save a horse, make a horse adoptable and a nice companion for somebody."
Levi already has mastered several skills at Miller's urging, including trotting and cantering.
"It's easier to train a blind horse," Miller said. "They can't see what they are scared of. He trusted me before the surgery, and now that he can see me and hear my voice, the trust is still going to be there. If I'm half the leader I think I am, he'll turn to me versus trying to run away."
Beginning in January, the team will begin training for the Extreme Cowboy Competition. The competition is one in which horse and rider maneuver through a series of obstacles demonstrating horsemanship and speed. How they fare remains to be seen, but one of Levi's doctors has a hunch they will do well.
"He's very trusting," Allbaugh said of her patient. "He has a special bond with his owner."