You’ve heard of seeing-eye dogs for the blind, right? How about a seeing-eye horse? Yep. It’s true! Miniature horses are being used as guides for the blind, help animals for the mobility impaired, and therapy animals in nursing homes, hospitals, and children’s centers.
If you haven’t heard about all this, it’s not surprising. The concept is fairly new. The first person to enlist the aid of a seeing-eye pony was Dan Shaw. Due to a rare disease, Dan became totally blind several years ago. He was determined to continue living an active life, so he enrolled at a school for the blind. He understood that a seeing-eye dog was an option, but he didn’t want to get attached to a dog only to lose it in a few years.
Dan heard about a new program that a North Carolina couple, Don and Janet Burleson, were experimenting with – miniature horses for the blind. When he learned that these equine typically live for more than 30 years, he was intrigued. He made the trip to the Burlesons’ to meet and work with Cuddles, a miniature mare.
Dan and Cuddles hit it off, and now the man and his young horse are exploring the world on their terms. Cuddles has helped Dan navigate the streets of New York City, and she’s even accompanied him on a commercial flight. In fact, she was the first horse ever to fly in the cabin of a plane.
Dan also enjoys long walks in the woods with his little equine, and he states that she’s very calm and well behaved. She knows more than 25 voice commands, and when she needs to go outside for a bathroom break, she taps the door with a hoof.
There’s a lot of controversy regarding miniature horses as assistant animals. Those who support the practice cite that horses are her animals, so the miniatures naturally stay in step with its master. Tiny horses are also less aggressive and less threatening than large dogs. Also, they’re a good option for people who are allergic to canines. The horses are also strong enough to pull a wheelchair and to help a mobility-limited person rise from a sitting position. And as already stated, the miniature horses live much longer than dogs.
Miniature horses also have their disadvantages. For one thing, they eat, urinate, and defecate more often than dogs do. They also take up more room than a dog on public conveyances like taxis, subways, and planes, which can sometimes present a problem. Another issue surrounding the service minis is the legality. Laws can’t decide whether to categorize the small equines as companion animals, exotic animals, or in their traditional role – livestock.
Some urban and suburban areas are reluctant to identify the horses as assistance animals, although they are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some owners have filed lawsuits to protect their rights, and with more and more seeing-eye horses being put into service, many people are realizing their unique value. One thing seems sure: The blind who use and depend on these horses for their day-to-day activities are not about to give them up.