Dogs are the traditional choice of animal to guide people with vision loss. But some people are allergic to canines while others have a phobia of dog attacks. For them the next best option is a horse. This might seem like a poor choice at first, but it makes sense when people realise it's not Clydesdales or retired racehorses that guide people with vision impairment. Rather specially trained miniature horses are used instead.
Why use horses?
Horses will never replace dogs as service animals. A dog performs the role of a guide superbly for many people with vision loss. However, there is a chronic shortage of guide dogs. Using horses as service animals would give people other options and increase accessibility to guide animals.
A dog's intelligence and versatility make them suitable guide animals for a variety of tasks. Horses can't match a dog's skill as a guide in many settings, but they do have some important advantages.
Most dogs live between 8 to 12 years, giving them a
working life of between 8 and 10 years. Miniature horses can live for up to 30 to 40 years, so they can work as a guide for over thirty of those years. It can be heartbreaking for owners to continually lose their faithful companions. so some prefer the longevity of a horse.
Dogs are natural predators they have a strong urge to chase prey. Despite their intensive training, they have been known to drag their owners along the street in pursuit of cats or possums. By contrast, horses have a placid nature. They don't crave attention from people the way dogs are, so they're not easily distracted from their job as a guide.
Horses and people are natural allies
Horses and people have formed close alliances for centuries. During war, horses have been known to lead their wounded riders back to safety. A horse and rider can develop a special understanding that will compensate for a riders lack of vision. This close co-operation has allowed people with vision impairment to compete in equestrian events such as show jumping.
Horses are not suitable guides for everyone who needs assistance. At present they are only used by people with partial vision loss. Horses are herd animals that face predators in their natural environment. They spook easily and have a tendency to bolt. But experts who train guide horses believe they can be taught to stand still if startled by loud noise, or sudden movement.
Guide Horse Foundation
The guide horse foundation was established by Don and Janet Burleson in the U.S in 1999. Their first objective was to assess the worth of miniature horses as guides. After inital trials proved successful, the foundation partnered Dan Shaw with a guide horse named Cuddles. Shaw, who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, was immediately impressed by the calmness of his guide as she led him through crowded public spaces.
Cuddles can understand 25 verbal commands and has excellent night time vision. Shaw preferred a horse as a guide rather than a dog because the longer life span would spare him the grief of losing his devoted companions as they aged. The small mare has returned Shaw to a life of independence and given him back the confidence he had as a younger man.
Opposition to horses as guides
Some people in organisations that train and supply guide dogs have an unfavourable opinion of horses as guide animals. They feel it's dangerous for people with vision impairment to use horses as guides with some describing the practice as
ridiculous. They should remember, though, that guide dogs faced the same scepticism when they first began to assist people with vision impairment.
The use of horses as Seeing Eye animals is still in an experimental phase. Expert trainers of guide horses are still unsure as to the level of service guide horses can provide. They will never replace dogs as the preferred service animal for most people with vision impairment, but for some they are the ideal companion to help them live with more independence and freedom.