Guide Horses: An idea that's a hit with neigh-sayers
Do you need a service animal but are scared of or allergic to dogs? Why not consider a miniature horse? The Guide Horse Foundation in Kittrell, NC can provide you with one of these dependable service animals. At this point, you're probably thinking "A horse! Why use a horse?" On their website, the GHF offers these answers to that question:
"Why use a horse?
There are many compelling reasons to use horses as guide animals.
- Horses are natural guide animals and have been guiding humans for centuries.
- 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.
- 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 out history, Cavalry horses have been known to guide their injured rider to safety."
Those certainly are convincing arguments! It makes one wonder why no one thought of it sooner. History shows us that horses make excellent guides; what is it about horses that makes this possible? The GHF says horses have several characteristics that make them suitable to guide the blind:
- "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. They also have outstanding night vision and can see clearly in almost total darkness.
- Focus - 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 - 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.
- Stamina - Hearty and robust, a properly conditioned Guide Horse can easily travel many miles in a single outing.
- 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."
The Guide Horse Foundation was formed by Janet and Don Burelson after they successfully trained "Twinkie," their pet miniature horse, to guide a blind person in a wide variety of situations, including busy urban settings and shopping malls. Founded in 2000, they already have nine horses in the training program and about 40 people on their waiting list. They placed the first horse, "Cuddles," into service in May 2001 with Dan Shaw, a blind man who lives in Maine. You can learn more about Dan and Cuddles at their website: http://www.danandcuddles.com.
On their website, www.guidehorse.org, the GHF suggests that the ideal guide horse owners are the following types of people:
- Horse lovers- Blind people who have grown up with horses and already understand equine behavior and care.
- Allergenic People- Many people who are severely allergic to traditional guide animals find horses to be a non-allergenic alternative for mobility.
- Mature Individuals- Many people have trouble dealing with the grief of losing their animals. Horses live far longer than traditional guides.
- Physically Disabled Individuals- Because of their docile nature, Guide Horses are easier to handle for individuals with physical disabilities. They are also strong enough to provide support, helping the handler to rise from their chair.
- Dog Phobia- Individuals who fear dogs are often comfortable working with a tiny horse.
- Outdoor Animal- Many individuals prefer a guide animal that does not have to be in the house when off duty.
While horses can adapt to living in any situation, GHF recommends that owners live in suburban or rural areas. A horse can be trained to live in an apartment, but they prefer to be outdoors when off duty, so a fenced yard with a lawn for grazing is ideal.
To be selected for training, a horse must be 26" or less at the withers-the highest part of the horse's back, between the shoulder blades-and must be certified sound and healthy by a Veterinarian. The prospective guide horse must also exhibit the intelligence needed to be able to complete the training program before the horse is accepted. A horse can start training right after it is weaned (about six months old) and the training itself takes anywhere between six months and a year.
Because the horse is instinctively prey, not predator, the training of a guide horse is carried out in a much different fashion than the training of a guide dog, but the objectives and the end results are pretty much the same. A guide animal must be able to safely guide its handler in all common situations. To achieve this, the guide horse is taught:
- to respond to 23 voice commands
- to avoid stationary and moving obstacles
- to negotiate stairs, elevators, and even escalators
- intelligent disobedience- the ability to ignore commands from the handler that would put the handler or the horse into danger (such as refusing to cross a street when there is approaching traffic).
The Guide Horse Foundation also makes sure that the handler of the horse is trained. The handler must attend certified orientation and mobility courses, learn the 23 voice commands, and the proper use of the harness and reins before the handler is allowed to train with a horse. The prospective owner is also taught to provide the proper care, feeding, grooming, and housing of the Guide Horse. After this elementary training, the handler works with several horses to find the one whose speed and attitude match best the handler's needs. At this point the horse and the handler are trained together to learn how to function as a team. Once the team has proven its ability to successfully deal with the potentially dangerous situations of ordinary life (such as street crossings) the team will move to the new owner's home and train in negotiating the specific places, events, and regular travels of the handler's life. The Foundation will conduct periodic follow-ups to make sure the team remains safe and effective.
Guide Horse Foundation
2729 Rocky Ford Road
Kittrell, NC 27544