Pygmy horses used as guides for the blind

Pygmy horses are trained and used as guides by blind and visually impaired people. To get a pygmy horse, trainees must successfully complete an in-depth training from a certified guide horse training program.

The Guide Horse Foundation (GHF) fills that need, relying on the skills of people who demonstrated a long history of knowledge and experience in horse training. To develop a knowledge base about how to train service assistance horses, the GHF turned to dog guide training programs.

The GHF worked closely with handlers and experienced dog guide users as well as orientation and mobility specialists.

Janet and Don Burleson conducted a nationwide feasibility study and were overwhelmed with requests by blind people to start a guide horse training program. In 1999 marked the beginning of the GHF program.

According to the foundation, there are many compelling reasons to use horses as guide animal. “In nature, 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.”

According to the GHF, “The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees the right of any service animal to use public transportation. With proper training, a guide horse can be trained to enter taxis, busses and subways.” Horses can climb stairs and use escalators.

Most horses have excellent vision, making them good guides. Because their eyes are on the sides of their heads, horses have a range of nearly 350 degrees. Horses also have excellent night vision. The range in weight of a pygmy horse is from 50 to 100 pounds and smaller than 26 inches tall, not significantly different in size of the average dog guide.

Guide horses are provided to handlers free of charge. The foundation relies on volunteers to train and deliver trained guide horses.

Horses initially get used to the harness and learn start and stop commands, then learn to avoid obstacles, to recognize potential dangers and not react to distractions. The objective is to create an effective working team.

Only certified handlers are allowed to use a guide horse. At home area training, the horse-handler team is evaluated in that environment. The trainer determines if the team can successfully negotiate regular travel and the trainer conducts follow-up visits as needed.  Guide horses are incorrectly referred to as miniature horses. Miniature horses are a particular breed of horse.

Use of horses has risks, guide horses may be injured by aggressive unleashed large dogs so, like dog guides, off-duty horses are best kept in a fenced enclosure

My wife and I came across a guide horse in 2001 as we passed through the airport in Charleston, S.C. My dog guide Frisco noticed the guide horse, but he kept his focus – just like the horse did.

Another type of helper horse is the emotional support horse, Handlers must show proof from a recognized mental health professional to use such a horse. The request for proof by an airline of this type of horse helper is much more rigorous then what is required of people with other disabilities who use a guide horse.

You can find more info about the Guide Horse Foundation at their website  or by calling them at (252) 431-0050.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on pygmy horses and guide horses. Feel free to share your comments and questions here.   

Clarence can be reached at clarence.schadegg@comcast.net

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One Response to Pygmy horses used as guides for the blind

  1. Alan Peters says:

    Guide horses have limited access under the newest ADA rulings on assistance animals, so potential users should investigate these changes carefully before choosing a horse over a dog. Most animals, other than dogs, no longer have access under the ADA. Horses seem to be a partial exception.

    I am not familiar with the training of emotional support horses but readers should be aware that the animal must be trained to perform specific tasks to mitigate symptoms of the person’s in order for the animal to be permitted in public under ADA regulations. Being a good friend and emotional support is not enough under the American’s with Disabilities Act.

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