Most people have heard of guide dogs and are well aware of the crucial role man’s best friend can play for people with sight problems, but have you ever heard of a guide horse? Not only have miniature horses been used as guide animals for years, but they have their own charitable organization, aptly named the Guide Horse Foundation.
The Foundation is dedicated to providing specially-trained miniature horses for blind people who cannot use, or do not wish to use, a guide dog. If you’ve ever met a miniature horse, you’ll know that they’re generally friendly, hardy animals that interact well with humans, making them a good fit for this important role.
But, why would someone opt for a guide horse over the canine equivalent? The most commonly-cited reasons include:
- Lifespan: with an average lifespan of 25-35 years, miniature horses have a much longer life expectancy than dogs. There’s even a case where a miniature horse is said to have lived to be over 50!
- Allergies: people who are allergic to traditional service animals, may not be allergic to horses.
- Phobias: “cynophobia”, or fear of dogs, is regularly included in lists of the top 10 most common phobias. People who are frightened of dogs may not be fearful of miniature horses.
- Memory: horses have fantastic memories and will instinctively remember a hazardous situation years after it occurred.
- Stamina: miniature horses are hardy animals with high levels of stamina.
- Familiarity/Preference: if the individual has previous experience with horses and understands their behaviour and care, they may simply prefer to stick with what they know.
However, the use of horses as guide animals has not been without controversy, and some people have questioned whether a horse’s natural fight-or-flight instinct makes them too unpredictable for the role. Horses also have specific care requirements, need plenty of space, and are not always as adapted to public spaces (and public transport) as their canine equivalents.
A Brief History of Guide Horses
So, how did the idea of horses as guide animals come about? Janet and Don Burleson founded the Guide Horse Foundation in 1999, after witnessing a blind rider competing in a horse show, and noticing that their own horses seemed to sense when it was safe to cross roads. They also found that one of their pet miniature horses, Twinkie, was following them around like a dog. Twinkie became their first trainee and following a successful feasibility study, they began working with Dan Shaw on preparing the first miniature horse (“Cuddles”) as his guide animal.
Today, the Guide Horse Foundation continues to provide guide horses at no cost to the blind.