Animals, particularly dogs, have long been trained to provide assistance to the visually impaired, deaf and disabled community. In fact, there is now such a demand for service animals that alternatives are being explored and the Guide Horse Foundation is currently carrying out research into the suitability of miniature horses as service animals.
The Foundation's mission is to; "provide a safe, cost-effective and reliable alternative for visually impaired people". Horses would be provided at no cost to the blind and unpaid volunteers and charitable donations would fund the blind handler's training expenses. If you're legally blind, and would like participate in the experiment, details are available through the Foundation's website.
The US government has recently changed the law dictating which animals are permitted for use as guide animals to include horses following lobbying by Guide Horse owners.
Guide Horse Programme
The Guide Horse Foundation was founded in 1999 as an experiment to assess the abilities of miniature horses as service animals. Early experiments went well and the horses have shown real promise as a mobility option. Those who have taken part in the trial so far have found that the horses perform well, demonstrating good judgement whilst remaining undistracted by their surroundings.
The Ideal Guide Horse Owner
Whilst guide horses are certainly not for everyone, they do have advantages over there canine counterparts. Horses are ideal for those who are allergic to dogs and they also have a longer lifespan. A poll conducted by the Discovery Channel showed that 27% of those polled would prefer a Guide Horse if they had the choice.
Particular interest has been shown by; blind people who are horse lovers who understand equine behaviour and have been around horses from a young age, those with severe allergies to traditional guide animals, older people who struggle with the grief of losing their shorter-lived animals. These docile miniature horses are easier to handle for those with physical disabilities and are also strong enough to provide support and assistance in tasks such as helping their handler rise from a chair. Many people are fearful of dogs and feel more relaxed and comfortable working with a tiny horse. Although they can be fully house-trained, Guide Horses can happily live outside when they are off-duty. This means no animal odours in the house or overnight 'accidents' to be dealt with.
Some cultures are unhappy with using dogs as service animals as they are seen as 'unclean'. Horses therefore make the ideal substitute.
Advantages to using Guide Horses
Miniature horses stand around 24 inches tall at the wither (shoulder) or slightly larger. Their average lifespan is 30 to 40 years – guide dogs have a working life of between 8 to 12 years. Guide dog users have experienced access problems as their dogs have been perceived as pets rather than working animals. Guide Horse users have found that their animals are immediately recognised as service animals. Fully trained horses remain calm in chaotic, busy environments and receive the same training as police horses. The horse's range of vision is excellent because of the positioning of their eyes on the sides of their head and the way in which the equine optical system works.
With the demand for guide and service animals ever increasing, it could just be that these tiny horses could fulfil an important and useful role.