Last year, miniature horses were formally recognised as service animals in the US, alongside guide dogs. Andi Mills is an accomplished Long Rider who is now blind. She has a guide dog named Mr Tibbs. Mills provides a perspective on the relative merits of dogs and miniature horses as service animals. She fears the public may be less accepting of minis.
In 2007, I completed an equine journey of 1528 miles across the American Southwest. The ride qualified me and my riding companion as Long Riders and full members of The Long Riders Guild. The Long Riders Guild is the premiere authority on Equestrian Explorations which meet certain criteria, one of which is 1000 or more miles on a single equestrian journey.
They recognize qualifying Long Riders worldwide, both historically and current, who have done their Long Rides on almost every continent. To date, Antarctica is the only continent which has not yet had a qualifying ride.
I am also blind. Being both blind and an avid equestrian gave me an acute interest and insight into the concept of miniature horses as guide animals. As an equine trainer, I understand the tremendous potential of the small horses as service animals.
Having ridden nearly all of my life, horses have been a defining part of my identity. Six months after returning from my most recent horseback journey, I lost my vision and learned that it was a permanent condition. I was more devastated by the fact that I would no longer be able to have the horses in my life at the level I was accustomed, than I was by the fact that I had lost my vision.
CuChullaine O’Reilly, one of the founders of the Long Riders Guild, suggested that I check into an experimental program using miniature horses as guide animals for the blind. He thought it would be a perfect situation for me as I was grieving more about losing my connection to horses than I was over the loss of my vision. I thought it was a fabulous idea and set about checking into the matter.
I discovered some very interesting facts during my research. One thing that the Guide Horse Foundation points out is: “Guide horses are not for everyone, but there is a strong demand for guide horses among blind horse lovers, those who are allergic to dogs, and those who want a guide animal with a longer lifespan.”
A guide dog has an average working life of about eight years. At that point, the blind handler must retire his partner, usually due to aging factors, and retrain with another dog. The bonding process has to be forged with the new partner and the new team must learn to read each other and effectively communicate with one another.
With a guide horse, with a lifespan of thirty plus years, a blind handler would be able to avoid the changes and adjustment to a new partner every seven or eight years. In most cases, one guide horse would last one handler most of his lifetime.
Horses that are well trained tend to be extremely calm in tumultuous situations. Throughout history, horses have been used successfully on the frenzied front lines of the battlefield. Police horses are trained to deal with riot control and crowd control. They can be conditioned to traffic sounds, loud noises, explosive sounds such as firecrackers, gunshots, and vehicle backfires and they remain calm.
Guide horses, or equine service animals, are trained and desensitized in the same manner that police and military horses are trained.
Although horses are flight animals by nature, specific individual horses can be trained to override the flight instincts when trained properly, exposed and desensitized by someone who understands natural equine responses.
Horse’s eyes are located on the sides of their heads which gives them an excellent range of vision. They can see almost 350 degrees, and because of independent eye movement they can detect danger with either eye. Horses have excellent night vision and can see well in darkness.
Horses have extreme memory capability. They can remember a dangerous ordeal and the outcome of it for many years, and often for their lifetime. Being prey animals, their lives in the wild depend on that ability.
Horses become very focused on their job and, when properly trained, are not easily distracted while working.
Horses are also known to be cautious and naturally safety conscious. They do very well identifying and negotiating obstacles and show remarkable ability to reason out the safest way to get beyond a challenging situation. They have a strong sense of direction.
Unlike dogs, who have pads on their feet and must wear shoes in order to protect their feet from hot asphalt, sharp objects, concrete or the brine and salt used on icy roads in winter, horses have hooves that are more able to withstand these hazards.
They can, however, wear rubber shoes or boots on slick indoor surfaces to protect the floors and to give them better footing on slippery surfaces.
The mini-horses have an abundance of stamina and endurance. They can be trained to eliminate at specific times and at specific locations, just as a dog can be. They are, in so many ways, perfectly suited to the job of guide or service animals.
Those opposed to the concept of mini-horses as guide animals have valid points as well. Horses are not suited physically to climbing many steps on a regular basis. A spiral staircase would be out of the question, and going up or down twenty flights of stairs when an elevator in a business office is not functioning would definitely have its drawbacks.
Miniature horses need to live outdoors even when trained to work for periods of time inside buildings. Therefore, they would not be a good choice for someone who lives in a high rise apartment building in the middle of a metropolitan city. They are herd animals and would fare better with a companion animal. A goat or another miniature horse would work well.
They can fit into an automobile, although not as easily as a dog, but finding a person who is not hesitant to transport a small horse in their vehicle might be a challenge. Public transportation could also be an issue.
At the time I was checking into the possibility of applying for a guide horse, I realized that the program was on hold due to some pending legislation that would, if passed, limit the definition of “service animal” to canines only, by the American Disabilities Act (ADA).
On July 10, 2010, it was approved, and, for a time, the wonderful idea of a guide horse was no longer a possibility.
I went to Guide Dogs of America, in California, and trained with my canine partner, Mr Tibbs.
He is a wonderful guide and I love the freedom, companionship and independence that he affords me. Although I am a guide dog user, I am still tremendously impressed with, and in favor of guide horses as service animals where they are appropriate.
In 2011, the law in the United States was changed again.
This time it revised the recent 2010 amendment to the ADA to, once again, include miniature guide horses. I was glad to hear that the mini-horses had been allowed back under the description of service animals.
During the time I have used a guide dog, I have come up against several issues that make me wonder about the practicality of using guide horses.
Even with a dog that is commonly known as a service animal, I have come across many accessibility issues.
I am concerned that, with a guide horse, it might even be more of an issue.
I would hate to see the wonderful option of an equine guide be undermined by ignorance and prejudice. Anytime a disabled person finds a way to overcome their disability and get on with their lives in a productive and independent manner, I am thrilled. Although I was precluded from applying for a guide horse due to the timing of the pending legislation, I would certainly still consider it, should something prevent Mr Tibbs from guiding me.
To satisfy my own curiosity, I picked some random people to poll in order to get a feel for the climate of acceptance concerning guide horses. Some people were quite rude.
When I asked one man how he would feel about dining in a restaurant with a guide horse quietly standing underneath a neighboring table, his response was, “If I wanted to eat with livestock, I’d go to a barn!” Another said, “What will that lead to, guide hogs?”
One restaurant owner said that he would oppose admitting guide horses under any circumstances. “It’s bad enough that I am forced to tolerate dogs in my establishment, but horses would absolutely detract from the atmosphere and overall dining experience of my restaurant,” he said.
America is no longer primarily an agrarian society. The days of dependence on horses for cultivation, pulling conveyances, or for transportation, are gone. In the US, the only exception to that will be found in some isolated areas where fundamental religious orders still rely on horses to farm and continue to use them in their daily lives.
People in urban areas can live their entire lives without ever touching a horse.
In Europe, there would be issues of accessibility into certain areas as well. I think in both the US and in Europe, the concept might be more easily accepted in rural areas. I don’t see this as a practical option for someone who must spend large amounts of time in metropolitan areas or traveling to major cities on a regular basis.
Overall, I am all for miniature horses being used for guide animals for the blind. It is my opinion that they would work very well in certain circumstances but would be terribly impractical in others.
On a case to case basis, I would love to see this option available to the blind and visually impaired. To limit possibilities, is to limit our lives.
Andi Mills – [email protected]