The American miniature pony Digby is set to become the UK's first legal seeing-eye horse. If they haven't already seen him trotting around, North and South Yorkshire residents will soon become well acquainted with this helpful pony.
Digby was assigned to help a BBC journalist named Mohammed Salim Patel a few months ago. Patel, 23, inherited the blinding disease retinitis pigmentosa at birth. He is now legally blind and lives in Blackburn.
In addition to being blind, Patel is a certified cynophobic. In case you're rusty on your phobias, that just means he's afraid of dogs.
Katy Smith, who owns KL Pony Therapy in Northallerton, is Digby's main trainer. Including Digby, Smith trains eight miniature horses in her North Yorkshire stables.
Over the past few weeks, Smith has been taking Digby all around South Yorkshire to get her familiar with city surroundings. A few things Smith has had to teach Digby include how to navigate zebra crossings, obey commands, and safely climb up and down curbs.
The South Yorkshire Police have been more than happy to work with Smith as she tries to get Digby used to his new surroundings. Smith has also worked with the staff at the Darlington Railway to help Digby get used to walking around a train station.
Although many people haven't heard of them, seeing-eye horses have been around for a while in the USA. In fact, Smith's husband was responsible for training the very first seeing-eye horse in his native North Carolina. There are now a few training schools specifically for American miniature ponies in America and Israel.
Ever since Digby's story broke into the British mainstream media, Smith has been inundated with inquires. Smith says she has received letters from as far away as France asking questions about Digby and whether they are eligible for seeing-eye dogs.
There are many reasons why seeing-eye horses are growing in popularity. Visually impaired people who have dog allergies will benefit from using guide horses for obvious reasons. Also, patients who were traumatized by a dog in their past or have an irrational fear of dogs will have a far easier time working with a horse.
Many of the people interested in guide ponies have some kind of relationship to horses in the past. This previous experience with horses helps patients bond with their new seeing-eye pony.
Many vets consider guide horses to be superior to guide dogs because horses have a longer lifespan and wider peripheral vision. Most seeing-eye dogs have to retire at the age of ten, but horses can help patients for at least 40 years.
Smith now has a GoFundMe page to help increase awareness of seeing-eye horses in the UK. She hopes to use any funds she receives to learn more advanced training techniques at ranches in the USA and Israel. Smith believes seeing-eye horses meet an important demand in the community.
People can watch an interview with Mohammed Salim Patel on the BBC online. This video, entitled "Digby's First Visit To Blackburn - BBC North West Tonight - #UKsFirstGuideHorse," was posted on Patel's YouTube page "TheBlindJournalist Mohammed Salim Patel" early in February.