Q: What are the basic things a guide horse needs to learn to do?
A: It needs to let the blind person know of danger ahead, such as a change in elevation (a step, for instance) or an intersection. Guide dogs are usually trained just to stop, but we train the horses to actually step in front of their handlers if there's a potential danger. Or, if the change in elevation is very slight-something like s small curb-the guide horse slows down and the person can feel the change through the handle on the harness and respond to it.
The guide horse also learns to obey a number of commands-for instance, if a blind person enters a restaurant, the horse can be commanded to follow other members in the party, or the maitre d', to the table. Then the horse steps in front of the handler to signal that the table is ahead.
Q: Can any miniature horse be a guide horse?
A: No. First, there are physical requirements: The horse must be the correct size, 26 inches or less at the withers. Larger horses are less adaptable to indoor environments such as restaurants and stores-and could also be big and strong enough to unbalance the handler. Of course we need horses that are sound enough to do the work. Finally, we evaluate their personality. A guide horse needs to be calm but alert, responsive to its surroundings but not skittish. The wonderful thing about minis is that most of them are generally more docile and accepting of training, and seem to have less flight instinct, than their full-sized counterparts.
Q: Is there a certain type of human personality that you've found is more suited to working with a guide horse?
A: As a general rule, we've found that the visually impaired people who benefit most from a guide horse are those who already have some background with horses. That's because having a guide horse is quite similar to having a riding horse: You're not just the horse's handler, you're always to some extent its trainer. Horses never stop learning and the blind handler is responsible for maintaining the horse's training. A large part of our program for guide horse recipients is teaching them how to keep up the horse's training and teach it new things-and how to correct inappropriate behavior.
It's possible that the program could expand to the point where we would be working with blind people with no previous horse knowledge, but for now our focus is on those who have some previous horse experience.
Q: Most horse people will be amazed to hear that Cuddles in housebroken. How did you do that?
A: At first we had no idea that it would be possible to housebreak the horses. We even designed a diaper for the horses to wear while working! But we discovered that horses' instinctive tendency to relieve themselves in the same place-which would often be a spot at home-translated into "I don't relieve myself while I'm working." One of the hardest things to get across to Cuddles, for instance, was that it was okay for her to relieve herself on the streets of New York City during her publicity tour this spring with her handler Dan Shaw. It also helps to remember that we're talking about a relatively tiny amount of waste-about the same as you'd expect from a dog of a similar size.
Q: What's the future plan for the Guide Horse Foundation in the wake of all the publicity about Cuddles and Dan Shaw?
A: We have a larger number of applicants now than we can possibly provide with trained horses. What we're really waiting for is more funding; our goal is for the Foundation to be free-standing and have its own staff of trainers. We'll always work as volunteers but we don't want to be the only people doing it-we'll never be able to fill the need with just me as a trainer.
Find out more about the Guide Horse Foundation at www.guidehorse.org or call (252) 433-4755.