In A Nutshell
Beginning in 1999, blind people living in rural areas have had the option of foregoing a seeing-eye dog and utilizing a seeing-eye horse. Miniature horses have a number of advantages over dogs, most notably their lifespan: They can live to be over 50 years old.
The Whole Bushel
It is a relatively common sight to witness blind people being led by guide dogs, but you’d probably do a double take if you saw a miniature horse leading someone through your local mall. Using tiny horses as service animals, however, has become an increasingly popular option. The Guide Horse Foundation began in 1999 to provide an alternative to using dogs in rural areas.
In the past, some blind people used full-sized horses to ride on as a means of public mobility, as horses have a great sense of direction. However, their size made them dangerous and impractical to use in places like grocery stores. Miniature horses are the best of both worlds: Just slightly larger than a German Shepherd (around 100 lbs when grown), they have the docile temperament of their full-sized cousins. While horses are known to “spook” when confronted with a frightening or unfamiliar situation, guide animals undergo the same rigorous training as police and cavalry horse to keep them from losing their cool under pressure.
Horses have several advantages over canines. Horses have far superior vision; with eyes placed on the sides of their head, they can see approximately 350 degrees and navigate in almost complete darkness. They are also sturdier than dogs. Someone who has fallen or is disabled could lean on a horse to rise. Those allergic or fearful of dogs are often more comfortable around a horse. Some religions, such as Islam, consider dogs unclean and refuse to keep them in their homes, but horses are allowed.
Most importantly, a miniature horse can live 30 years or more, enjoying a career more than double the length of a Labrador retriever. This is an especially important factor when one considers the time and expense of training a guide animal: It can take over a year and cost more than $60,000.
Miniature horses do have their drawbacks over dogs as well. They require a fenced outdoor area and a barn, and are much more difficult to housebreak, needing more trips outside to keep from having accidents.