Back when I first learned that my son may lose his eyesight entirely, I searched the Internet for hope that he would still be able to live a normal life. During that search, I chanced upon the Guide Horse Foundation, and found my first potential plus side to being blind that I could cling to: maybe, if he ever needed one, my son could have a guide horse.
The Guide Horse Foundation runs an experimental program to train miniature horses as guide animals for the blind. That’s right–they essentially train seeing-eye ponies. In the midst of despair, I found something to make me squee with joy: maybe, if Peanut were to go blind, he could have a seeing-eye pony, and I could finally have a pony of ‘my’ own around our house! (Some of us outgrow our girlhood fantasies later than others, what can I say?)
As the Foundation explains,
Why use a mini horse as a blind guide?
There are many compelling reasons to use miniature horses as guide animals. Horses are natural guide animals and have been guiding humans for centuries. 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. With humans, many blind people ride horses in equestrian competitions. Some blind people ride alone on trails for many miles, completely relying on the horse to guide them safely to their destination. Through history, Cavalry horses have been known to guide their injured rider to safety. The Guide Horse Foundation finds several characteristics of horses that make them suitable to guide the blind:
- Long Lifespan – 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.
- Cost Effective – Training a guide dog can cost up to $60,000, according to the Guide Dog Users national advocacy group. According to Lighthouse International, there are more than 1.3 million legally blind people in the USA, yet only 7,000 guide animal users. Hence, a Guide Horse could be more cost-effective and ensure that more blind people receive a guide animal.
- Better acceptance – 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 horse as a pet, and Guide Horse users report that they are immediately recognized as a working service animal.
- Calm Nature – Trained horses are extremely calm in chaotic situations. Cavalry horses have proven that horses can remain calm even in the extreme heat of battle. Police horses are an excellent example of well trained horses that deal with stressful situations. Guide Horses undergo the same systematic desensitization training that is given to riot-control horses.
- Great Memory – Horses possess phenomenal memories. A horse will naturally remember a dangerous situation decades after the occurrence.
- Excellent Vision – Because horses 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. Horses can see clearly in almost total darkness.
- Focused Demeanor – Trained horses are very focused on their work and are not easily distracted. Horses are not addicted to human attention and normally do not get excited when petted or groomed.
- Safety Conscious – Naturally safety oriented, 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.
- High Stamina – Hearty and robust, a properly conditioned Guide Horse can easily travel many miles in a single outing.
- Good Manners – Guide Horses are very clean and can be housebroken. Horses do not get fleas and only shed twice per year. Horses are not addicted to human affection and will stand quietly when on duty.
Their points make sense to me: this is an animal that naturally appoints sighted guides to blind members of its herd. It lives longer than a dog, which means each individual would have to train with fewer guide animals throughout his or her lifetime. And, come on–it’s a miniature horse!!! How cool is that?
The Guide Horse Foundation is still seeking legally blind volunteers to participate in their experiment (i.e. miniature horses as guide animals). If you’re interested, or if you just want more information, check out their Web site at http://guidehorse.org/.