Little Horse, Big Job: Minis as Guide Animals
Miniature horses have been recently touted as great therapy animals — but they’re also increasingly in use as guides for the blind.
Top photo courtesy of the Guide Horse Foundation.
It’s hard not to double-take when you see a miniature horse in a service harness walking quietly down the sidewalk — especially if the horse happens to be wearing two pairs of baby sneakers. But the sight may become more common than you’d expect as the Guide Horse Foundation continues its work, training miniature horses and their blind handlers how to work together.
Why miniature horses? Why not the more common guide dog?
Longevity, for one — one of the first blind handlers of a guide horse, Dan Shaw, believed that he could not go through the heartbreak of losing a dog every 10 years after dealing with the grief of losing a family pet. Miniature horses have been known to live 30 to 40 years, meaning that a handler may only need one individual companion for most of his or her life instead of a new dog every decade. Vision-impaired or blind equestrians can’t deny that having a miniature horse as a companion brings joy to their lives as well. Horses have a great range of vision, including excellent vision in the dark, and can be trained to just as high of a standard as dogs.
The Guide Horse Foundation is spearheaded by Janet Burleson, a lifelong professional trainer, who was inspired by her observation of a blind horse show competitor who relied heavily on her horse to maneuver her through the class. Wondering if a miniature horse could be trained to safely guide the blind much in the manner of a guide dog, Burleson began working with her pet miniature horse “Twinkie.” Twinkie became the prototype horse upon which the guide horse training foundation was built, able to safely guide a blind handler through a variety of situations and environments.
The horses go through a vigorous pre-screening process, including an intelligence test as well as certain size restrictions. The Guide Horse Foundation seeks small horses (but not dwarves) that pass a stringent veterinary examination for soundness as well as stamina. Selected horses then go through basic lead training (including acclimation to the harness and learning to negotiate everyday obstacles) and voice commands. Advanced training includes obstacle avoidance (both moving and stationary,) recognition of surface changes, housebreaking and the ever-important intelligent disobedience, or the learned disregard of commands that would be unsafe for either the horse, the handler or both.
Selected handlers — the waiting list has grown immensely in recent years — go through an equally-selective screening process as well as their own introductory training, including familiarity with equine care. Handlers then go on to partnering with a miniature horse, and both horse and handler are trained together as a team. The final stages of training include at-home sessions with the handler, horse and a member of the Guide Horse Foundation, as well as further follow-up sessions.
While guide horses are legally allowed to go anywhere a service dog would also go, they are not recommended as guides for urban dwellers who might rely on tight-quartered public transit. However, guide horses are comfortable in airplanes, buses, escalators, elevators and stairs, among other obstacles. When off-duty, guide horses live outside, and the Foundation sends a companion horse along for every working partnership to accommodate the horse as a herd animal. And, of course, the guide horses can wear baby sneakers to give them traction on slippery floors.
Want to learn more or make a donation to help support the training of guide horses? Check out the Guide Horse Foundation website at www.guidehorse.com.
Go guide horses!
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