In the UK only, there are almost 2 million people who have handicapping visual impairment. While only 360,000 individuals are registered as fully blind or partially sighted, it is fair to say that visual impairment doesn’t have to be synonymous with blindness to affect your day-to-day life. Experts expect the number of people to struggle with sight loss to double by 2050. For them, sight loss can feel at first like a death sentence. That’s where assistance animals can play a significant role in helping blind and partially sighted individuals carry on with their lives despite sight loss. There are only around 5,000 guide dogs owners in the UK. For a population of over 2 million people with visual impairment, that’s less than 1% guide dogs.

If you know someone with an assistance dog, you are probably familiar with the psychological and emotional difference the reassuring presence of an animal makes in their life. A guide dog is not only their eyes, but it is also their closest friend. Unlike a pet who can stay at home, a guide dog is a constant presence throughout the day and night. Unfortunately, the UK doesn’t have enough guide dogs to supply the population. But guide horses present an exciting alternative.

Is a miniature horse suitable for your needs?

The life stages of a guide dog

It is important to note that a guide dog costs around £55,000 during its lifetime. Indeed, guide animals are a not-negligible investment for many families – many guide dog centres across the world rely on donations to finance training and maintenance for their animals. Unfortunately, the actual assistance a guide dog can provide in terms of years is limited, despite their costs. Indeed, guide dogs undergo a puppy profiling assessment when they are 6 to 8-week-old to ensure they have the right temperament and concentration for the tasks ahead. They are then trained for a year with a puppy walker before they can start their training as guide dogs. They will then be matched with their owner only around their 2nd birthday. After 6 to 7 years supporting their owners, the guide dogs typically retire. Those living sigh sight loss can usually need up to 8 guide dogs in their lifetime. Unfortunately, not many can find a new guide dog once theirs has retired.

Meet Digby, the new assistance animal hero

The guide dogs shortage is not a new phenomenon. A dedicated US trainer has started a revolution in the world of assistance animals by launching the first school of guide horses in 1999. Skip to April 2019, and guide horses have finally reached the UK, with Digby, the first ever guide horse making the front page of the news. Digby is an American miniature guide horse who is going to help a visually impaired lady in London. Digby is a little taller than the typical guide labrador with 32.5 inches high, but his small size lets him navigate everyday obstacles smoothly and efficiently for the benefit of his owner. For an owner who is struggling to replace their guide dog or who suffers from allergies, Digby offers an elegant and allergy-free alternative.

A guide horse is still a horse

If you are interested in receiving a guide horse, you need to understand your responsibilities as an owner. Ultimately, a miniature horse is still a horse, and therefore requires the same level of maintenance than you would have to give if you were to adopt any other equine friend. Indeed, a horse’s digestive system is delicate; therefore, your guide horse will need to be able to nibble throughout the day. As an owner, you need to plan for a constant supply of food and water – for an assistance horse, you might want to invest in a small carrier bag with all the essentials. Additionally, horses require frequent hoof trimming and shoeing – which is something you can get familiar with as you are trained to look after your animal. It is also helpful to ensure that you can get access to the necessary vet supplies for horses. Indeed, unlike guide dogs, you’re unlikely to find the food and maintenance products you need in your local shop.

Why are dwarf horses popular?

Miniature horses such as Digby have been famous in the US since 1999. Indeed, miniature horses offer a critical advantage. They can live up to 40 years, which means they are going to outlive several guide dogs. The UK has only just embraced the potential of miniature horses, as Digby’s trainer explains. Their small size and their long lifespan make them the perfect guide animal.

With less than 1% of the visually impaired population begin able to own a guide dog, it’s time to consider alternatives. If you’ve chosen a guide horse, you need dedicated training to look after your animal. But, you can rely on your friend to be your eyes for a long time.