Horses are used to running with handicaps. The horses that roam the fields of Rolling Dog Ranch, however, have a different kind of handicap -- they are blind.
The ranch, built from scratch and opened in late 2000, is the work of married couple Steve Smith and Alayne Marker.
"Disabled animals are the most vulnerable creatures, as nobody seems to want them," 48-year-old Smith told ABC News. "They just end up getting euthanized. That's where our sanctuary comes in."
Located deep in the Montana wilderness, around 60 miles from Missoula, the ranch is now home to 80 animals. Marker and Smith, who worked together at Boeing and moved from Seattle, always planned on caring for disabled dogs and cats. Horses were not part of the original plan.
"A girl was delivering panels to the ranch when we first moved, and when we told her what we were doing, she told us she had just rescued a blind mare but didn't know what to do with her," said Smith. "She asked if we could take her, and I told her yes."
That horse was named Lena, and she was the very first animal at the ranch, arriving in October 2000. Lena was blind, having lost her sight through severe mistreatment during training, and she bore cuts and scars from other horses who had bullied her. Her story is miraculous.
"Lena is the calmest, sweetest and most easygoing horse you can imagine," said Smith. "Whenever new blind horses arrived, we would pair them up with Lena, who would help them figure out their surroundings. In recent years, she has been teaching the blind foals social skills and manners."
One of those foals is Nikki. When she turned 2 years old, Smith and Marker began training her for riding to show that blind horses are capable of a lot, if only they are given the opportunity.
"We had a saddle on her in six sessions and were riding her by the seventh, said Smith. "That would be fast progress for even a sighted colt."
Smith added that it was Lena who taught them all they know about blind horses. They now look after 25 horses who have "learned to live in a world that's dark." There is no other sanctuary like Rolling Dog Ranch in the United States.
The fact that these horses will never see the expansive pastures of the ranch doesn't stop them from knowing every blade of grass. When a new equine arrives, Smith and Marker, who have only one employee, lead the horse around one of the paddocks on the 160-acre ranch, and bang a hammer on the fence line and water tank to teach the horse the boundaries. They only have to do this once.
"All the blind animals here make a detailed mental map," Smith said. "If they get thirsty, you watch them head straight for the water tank, which can be around 300 yards away. It's phenomenal to watch."
Some of the stories from the ranch highlight the kindness at work that is all too often lacking from everyday human interactions. Blind horses Madison -- who was neglected and had to be rescued from a corral so deep in manure she had had to be dug out -- and Bridger arrived within a month of each other.
"It was love at first sight," explained Smith. "They went nose to nose straightaway and have been inseparable ever since. "If ever we take one out without the other, they go crazy."
The ranch is nonprofit and funded solely through private donations. With total expenses from 2005 tallying to more than $274,000 and the ranch full to the rafters, Smith and Marker are firmly committed to helping these wonderful creatures.
Smith, who entertains visitors by playing fetch with the blind dogs or going for a ride on Nikki, said that blindness has nothing to do with an animal's affection or ability to enjoy life. He compares Lena to a "sweet and wonderful maternal aunt." With the holiday season upon us, Americans get the chance to see how their families compare.
If you would like to make a donation, please log on to Rollingdogranch.org.