Could ‘guide ponies’ help blind people?
COULD horses be a future alternative to assistance dogs for the partially sighted?
Katy Smith, who runs KL
Pony Therapy, believes so, and is training the UK’s first guide horse.
American miniature horse Digby will assist Blackburn-based Mohammed Salim Patel once the colt has completed his training in roughly two years time.
Mr Patel, who has a degenerative visual impairment, has a phobia of dogs and had resigned himself to not having an assistance animal until he was introduced to Ms Smith.
“Katy approached me before Digby was born, saying she planned to train a guide horse and I snapped up the offer,” he told H&H. “I’ve always liked horses.”
It is hoped Digby will be able
to help Mr Patel in exactly the same way a guide dog would, such as assisting Mohammed to cross roads, get to work and visit the shops, as well as providing companionship.
Mr Patel is planning to stable Digby in his garden and has a nearby equestrian centre where he can receive a larger turnout area if needed.
Ms Smith shadowed a Guide Dogs for the Blind Association trainer to familiarise herself with what is required of an assistance animal and Digby is currently at the “puppy walking” stage, being familiarised with busy situations.
Ms Smith and Digby have also been to visit South Yorkshire Police’s mounted branch and learned about how the unit’s horses are desensitised and trained to deal with potentially stressful situations.
Digby’s laid-back and friendly nature have helped the eightmonth-old progress quickly in his training, according to Ms Smith.
A NUMBER of people have contacted Ms Smith interested in taking on guide horses, and she plans to train further miniature horses in the same way as Digby in the future.
Tim Stafford, director of the guide dog service at the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, told H&H the charity understands canine companions are not suited to all people.
“We are experts in training dogs to help people with a vision impairment,” he said. “While we don’t have the expertise to endorse the training of other animals such as horses, we recognise that a dog isn’t for everyone and appreciate that there are other options that enable people with sight loss to live with freedom and confidence.”
One hurdle for Ms Smith and Mr Patel is adjusting legislation so that Digby can be allowed into public buildings in the same way a guide dog would.
The Equality Act 2010 states that it is illegal for assistance dogs to be refused access into a taxi or mini cab. Equally, “service providers” must make “reasonable adjustments” for the disabled person in question.
A spokesman for the Home Office told H&H that allowance of an assistance horse could, in theory, be covered under the “reasonable adjustments” clause.
Ms Smith and Mr Patel are working to broaden such wording so that guide horses are more explicitly recognised.
Mohammed Salim Patel
meets his future ‘guide pony’, Digby