By using selective breeding programs over many generations, horse breeds have been produced which are little more than a couple dozen inches tall. These horses are called miniature horses, and they range anywhere from nineteen to thirty-eight inches in height. They are not a new invention; as early as the seventeenth century, miniature horses were bred as pets for the European nobility. And in the last few centuries, they were also used as pit ponies in English mines to carry loads of coal. But in recent history they have been put to use in another pursuit altogether: as guide animals for blind individuals.
Dogs have been used for this purpose for several generations. The first training schools for guide dogs were established in Germany during the First World War, to enhance the mobility of veterans who were blinded in combat. And the United States’ Seeing Eye began training guide dogs seventy-six years ago, in 1929. It wasn’t until six years ago that somebody got the idea to train miniature horses for the same purpose, but it turns out there are a few surprising advantages to using a minihorse as an alternative to a dog.
Perhaps the most compelling advantage is the animals’ lifespans. Most of the dogs which are trained as guide dogs are large breeds—usually German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, or Labradors—which have typical lifespans of 8-12 years. Considering that a dog is in its second year by the time it is ready to be used as a guide, a seeing-eye dog can only offer about 6-8 years of service. Not only is it emotionally difficult for one’s constant companion to die of old age, but if a blind person gets a new guide dog, he or she must repeat the training process each time. While a miniature guide horse requires roughly the same amount of time to train, it has a typical life expectancy of 30-40 years.
Guide horses also offer a viable alternative when a blind individual has an allergy to dogs, or a dog-related phobia. And unlike domestic dogs, minihorses are not addicted to human attention, so they are content with little affection from their owners. They are also able to live outdoors comfortably in almost any weather conditions.
Miniature horses, like their full-sized relatives, have a few advantages in vision as well. They have a field of vision which is 350 degrees wide, and eyes which are highly sensitive to motion. They also have excellent night vision, which allows them to see in almost total darkness. Because of these advantages, often a miniature horse in training will detect a potential hazard before their sighted trainers do.
A guide horse uses a harness similar to that of a guide dog, and is outfitted with special horse sneakers to help them keep traction on a variety of surfaces. They typically weight 55-100 pounds, and they are trained to be fully housebroken. Just like guide dogs, they are allowed in buildings, cabs, buses, airplanes, and pretty much anywhere that a blind person is able to go. This right is protected in the U.S. by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
These miniature guide horses probably won’t be the best solution for most blind individuals, but it never hurts to have some alternatives.