Blind and disabled people often need the assistance of a guide animal, and that animal has traditionally been a dog. But the use of miniature horses too for this purpose is growing rapidly, for many reasons.
By Linda Orlando
Specially trained guide dogs have been used for decades to assist blind people in living self-sufficient lives. Because they have limited mobility options, they have traditionally relied on canes, human guides, and in more recent times, guide dogs. Due to a growing critical shortage of guide animals, The Guide Horse Foundation (GHF) was founded in 1999 as an experimental program to assess the possibility of using miniature horses as assistance animals. The animals proved to be excellent alternatives to guide dogs, and now, the GHF regularly places miniature horses that are exceptionally small, to serve as guides.
What type of person would use a guide horse?
These friendly horses provide an alternative mobility option for blind people. People who have tried them report that the horses demonstrate excellent judgment, and are not easily distracted by crowds and people. A guide horse is a personal preference, and although they are not for everyone, they provide an ideal alternative to a guide dog for various types of people:
- Horse Lovers: Blind people who have grown up with horses and understand equine behavior and care are ideal candidates.
- People with Allergies: Many people who are severely allergic to dogs and other traditional guide animals find horses a non-allergenic alternative for mobility.
- Mature Adults: Blind people develop a strong bond with their guide animals, and they often experience tremendous grief at losing their animals. Horses tend to live far longer than traditional guides. Miniature Horse can live to be more than 50 years old, with the average lifespan being 30 – 40 years. According to guide dog trainers, guide dogs have a useful life between 8-12 years.
- Physically Disabled People: Because of their docile nature, guide horses are easier for disabled people to handle, and they are strong enough to provide physical support in helping their handler stand or sit.
- Fear of Dogs: Individuals who fear dogs are often more at ease working with a tiny horse.
- Outdoor Animal: Some people prefer a guide animal that does not have to live in the house when off duty.
Why use a mini horse?
There are many compelling reasons to use miniature horses as guide animals. In nature, horses have been shown to possess a natural guide instinct. When another horse goes blind in a herd, a sighted horse accepts responsibility for the welfare of the blind horse, and guides it with the herd. Some blind people ride alone on trails for many miles, completely relying on the horse to guide them safely to their destination. Cavalry horses have been known to guide injured or unconscious riders to safety.
The GHF finds several characteristics of horses that make them suitable to guide the blind:
- Cost-effective: Training a guide dog can cost up to $60,000. There are currently more than 1.3 million legally blind people in the USA, yet only 7,000 guide animal users. Because horses are easy to train and live longer lives, they could be more cost-effective and ensure that more blind people receive a guide animal.
- Often Better Accepted: Many guide dog users report problems getting access to public places because their dog is perceived as a pet. Most people do not associate a miniature horse on a harness as a pet, and therefore users are immediately recognized as a working service animal.
- Calm, Focused Demeanor: Trained horses are extremely calm in chaotic situations, as proven by cavalry horses that remain calm even in the extreme heat of battle, and police horses that calmly handle stressful situations. Trained horses are very focused on their work and are not easily distracted.
- Phenomenal Memories: A horse will naturally remember a dangerous situation decades after the occurrence and help their handler avoid the same situation in the future.
- Excellent Vision: Horses can see clearly in almost total darkness. Because they have eyes on the sides of their heads, they have a very wide range of vision, with a range of nearly 350 degrees. Horses are the only guide animals capable of independent eye movement and they can track potential danger with each eye.
- Sturdy and Clean: Hearty and robust, a properly conditioned Guide Horse can easily travel many miles in a single outing. Guide Horses are very clean and can be housebroken. Horses do not get fleas and only shed twice a year.
- Naturally Safety-conscious: Horses are constantly on the lookout for danger. All horses have a natural propensity to guide their master along the safest most efficient route, and demonstrate excellent judgment in obstacle avoidance training.
Although guide horses can be housebroken and are trained to work indoors while assisting their owners, all handlers are required to have a fenced outdoor area and barn where the horse will stay while off duty. Horses require fresh air and open space, so guide horses live outdoors when they are not guiding their handlers. Just as dogs are pack animals, horses are happier when they have a friend to come home to after work. Therefore, a companion horse is often placed along with a guide horse, so that the horse will have a companion to share the outdoor area where they live.
For more information about guide horses for the blind, contact the Guide Horse Foundation, or visit their website at http://www.guidehorse.org. The Guide Horse Foundation is a non-profit organization committed to delivering Guide Horses at no cost to the blind, relying on unpaid volunteers and charitable donations to pay all travel and housing expenses for the blind handler’s on-site training. They also have the goal of helping the tiny horses by providing them with a higher-purpose in life.