Guide dogs help thousands of visually impaired or blind people to get around safely and independently. Now a horse is being trained to do the same. Laura Drysdale reports.
post a letter in Northallerton and you may find a horse stood patiently behind you as he waits to do the same.
Digby, an 18-month-old American Miniature breed, lives in the North Yorkshire town with his owner Katy Smith - and is ‘the UK’s first guide horse in training’.
“The training process with Digby is in the phase of getting him used to every single thing he will come across and even more in his working life,” explains Katy.
“He is also learning basic commands like forward, wait and stop, waiting for traffic, crossing the road, going in a straight line, finding a post box and now he is taller, he can find the opening to post the letter. He can go up to a crossing and push the button and wait for a green man to cross the road.”
Going to the bank and boarding a train are among other skills he is learning in the market town and “he just takes it all in his stride,” Katy says. “He doesn’t bat an eyelid.”
Digby will later need to put his skills into practice on the busy streets of London, where he will live once fully trained. Next year, he will be introduced to the hustle and bustle of the capital as he is coached specifically to become a guide for Helena Hird, a visually impaired civil servant at the Office for National Statistics.
It is hoped Digby, who is about 33 inches tall, will be able to get to grips with the likes of tube travel and attending restaurants and pubs so that he can help Helena run errands, commute to work, go shopping and socialise, giving her more confidence and independence to get out and about.
“I have used a cane but I personally found it quite isolating,” the 51-year-old says. “And because I don’t look visually impaired, I have quite often struggled to get people to help.They are always lovely when they find out I am, but having a horse cuts through that. [People] realise there’s a challenge.”
Helena, who has Stargardt disease, began losing her vision around a decade ago. A horse rider, who says she has spent much of her life around the animals, she had hoped for an equine guide for several years, after seeing horses offering assistance in America.
Across the Atlantic, The Guide Horse Foundation has been established for nearly two decades. Founded in 1999, its mission is to provide a “safe, cost-effective and reliable mobility alternative for visually impaired people” through the use of miniature horses as assistance animals.
But, Helena says, whenever she mentioned the idea in the UK, “people just looked at me as if I was mad, and that’s never going to happen here. I kept holding out, thinking one day it will.”
Helena made contact with Katy after seeing articles about Digby in the news earlier this year. At the time, he was being trained for journalist Mohammed Salim Patel who is scared of dogs, and Helena approached Katy to enquire about getting a guide horse of her own. But after Digby grew too big for Mr Patel, since November Helena has instead been paired with him - and the duo have started to bond and build a relationship.
Helena, who has previously taken Digby to an awards ceremony, is optimistic he will be a working companion for the rest of her life. While a guide dog’s working life is rarely longer than eight years, American Miniature Horses can live to be more than 50-years-old, according to The Guide Horse Foundation. “I would find that really hard, the idea of losing such a huge part of life every few years,” says Helena. “With Digby, hopefully that won’t be necessary.”
Katy bred Digby with the view to him becoming a guide horse. After breaking her back in a riding accident seven years ago, she was unable to continue her work as an activities coordinator in the care sector - and instead the 58-year-old, who has kept horses for several decades, changed tack, focusing her life since on using horses to help people.
The idea stemmed from “the amazing reaction” she received when she took a pony in to see residents at a care home where her father Maurice had spent time, as a memorable thank you. KL Pony Therapy was born and Katy now has a team of miniature horses who carry out therapy work all over the country. After discovering American Miniatures were used as guides in the USA, she was keen to train one over here, extending her business to help people in a different way.
“The reason I didn’t use any of my miniatures was because I didn’t know what they had gone through before I got them,” she explains. “I didn’t think it was fair to train them if I didn’t know their backgrounds from day one.”
She wanted to breed a foal, knowing where the mare and stallion had come from - so she knew the horse’s history and could be there from the very beginning.
It is, of course, a huge responsibility. As The Guide Horse Foundation explains, “blind people entrust their lives to the horses”. A large proportion of Katy’s work with Digby focuses on desensitisation, getting him used to people and noises, training him to be calm in situations that could cause alarm. “He has got to be 110 per cent okay with every day things,” she says. “At the moment, he is proving that he is fine with everything.
“Obviously there is always that chance [of being startled] and you have just got to think what it might be. It could be a cat running across the road, it could be a bird coming our of a hedge. It is just thinking about everything and getting that situation in place so that they have gone through it and when it next happens, they are fine with it.”
Digby “just seemed to want to learn” and is picking things up quickly, says Katy, who uses voice command, clicker training and lots of praise and rewards to train him. “Digby has got something that I can’t put my finger on... I think he knows that he has got a job to do and he has thrown himself into it.”
If at any point Digby showed signs he didn’t want to do something, she wouldn’t force it, she stresses. “As he’s wanting to do it and that’s what he likes to do, then I’m up for it.”
Once with Helena, Digby will have roam her house and garden, where there will be a stable. He will also be taken into the office with her whilst she works - though “I’m not expecting him to curl up under the desk”, Helena jokes. He will likely spend most of his time standing.
“Obviously he will need comfort breaks and feeding breaks,” says Katy. “But like any firm now, more often they are willing to accommodate people’s needs...I’m sure everybody will want to take him out for a nibble on some grass.”
Digby’s characteristics also make him suitable, says Katy, who has already begun training a second guide horse to help another person lead a more independent life. “He is very loving. He is like a dog, very friendly. He wants to be with you.” “[Digby] is a total sweetheart,” Helena adds. “He is so patient, so gentle. I have got high hopes for him and me and a good partnership.”