Hooves that Help: Guide Horses Aid the Blind

Guide dogs have helped the blind lead independent lives for decades, but the individual dog can provide freedom for only so long. Sadly, the life span of most dogs falls between 10 and 15 years, and they are usually retired before then.

That means a blind person may outlive two, three, even four dogs in his or her lifetime.

These animals are more than just guide tools – they become members of the person's family. When one dies, the heart breaks. For these and other reasons, people are becoming excited with the prospect of a new guide animal on the scene: miniature horses.

A miniature horse is a smaller type of equine, usually no taller than 34 inches at the withers, though standards vary with different miniature horse registries. In the past year or so, guide horses have gained attention through the media, but the program is still very new and somewhat experimental. However, because miniature horses can live between 25 and 35 years, their use as guide animals shows tremendous promise.

The Guide Horse Foundation, located in Kittrell, N.C., raises and trains the horses for the blind. Currently, Don and Janet Burleson, who started the foundation, has placed two horses. More are on the way.

The couple got the idea when they visited New York City in 1999. They rode two horses in the busy city streets and were impressed with the animals' calm in traffic and ability to follow commands with the city's bedlam going on around them.

They taught their own 24-inch miniature horse, Twinkie, to lead a blind person in a shopping area. The experiment worked, and training on more miniature horses began. In all, 10 horses are being trained to be donated to blind people.

Miniature horses are just that – smaller versions of horses. They are not considered ponies because they have the proportions and character of a horse. They are generally under 34 inches at the withers.

They have been bred for several hundred years for size and for calm dispositions. Like their larger cousins, miniature horses possess life spans that range between 25 and 35 years. (The oldest recorded is actually 50 years.)

There are about 150,000 miniature horses registered by various organizations in the United States. In the past, their purpose has been primarily for enjoyment.

The nonprofit foundation does not intend to compete with guide dogs; instead it offers an alternative to certain people:

According to the Guide Horse Foundation Web site, trained horses are very calm in noisy, stressful situations, one of major reasons why police use horses to help control large, unruly crowds. Horses also have very good memories and can focus well on their work. They do not crave attention as a dog does, and they remain calm when petted or groomed.

These horses can live in a barn or even in the home because they are easy to housetrain. Horses that are accepted into the program must be no heavier than 55 pounds, the weight of a medium-sized dog, and no higher than 26 inches high at the withers.

As with guide dogs, only miniature horses that possess the right temperament and intelligence are accepted into the program. Horses that spook easily are not accepted. Training usually takes 6 months to a year, and can begin as early as when they are 6 months old.

The horses can ride in vehicles, elevators or any conveyance that a dog can. The American Disabilities Act ensures that people with guide horses have the same access as those with guide dogs. They are also compatible with well-socialized pets.

For more information on guide horses, or to learn how you can make a donation, you can visit the foundation at www.guidehorse.org.