|The Guide Horse
Training Miniature Horses as Guide Animals
In 1999, Janet and Don Burleson completed a successful feasibility study with miniature horses as assistance animals for the visually disabled. Janet is a retired professional horse trainer with over 30 years of full-time horse training experience and an extensive record of success in training performance horses.
While Don and Janet Burleson only intended to develop a training program, they were overwhelmed with requests from blind horse lovers asking for a trained Guide Horse. Although she was confident in her skills as a retired professional horse trainer, Janet Burleson needed to learn what a guide animal must know in order to keep their handler safe.
The initial training has shown great promise, and two tiny Guide Horses have already been trained to guide blind people in public. The prototype, a 14 year-old dwarf mare horse named Twinkie, has successfully guided blind people in a host of environments, including shopping malls and congested urban areas with heavy traffic. Nine other horses are currently undergoing training, and the Guide Horse Foundation also has a substantial waiting list of blind people who have applied for a Guide Horse.
Once the Guide Horse Foundation announced the result of their feasibility study, the ability of horses to guide the blind was confirmed from a number of independent sources. We received numerous responses from blind people who ride horses, both in competitions and on trails, and they confirmed our findings that the horse is a capable guide. One blind woman stated that she sometimes uses her full-sized horse as her Guide Horse. She says that her horse makes allowances for her needs and walks beside her for miles in the woods, gently nudging her whenever she strays from the trail.
Horse Intelligence Testing
All candidate horses for the Guide Horse program are given a field intelligence test prior to acceptance into the Guide Horse program. Guide Horse training is mentally demanding on the horse, and the Guide Horse Foundation only accepts horses that demonstrate the cognitive ability to successfully complete the training program.
Horse Training Theory
While horses do not possess complex reasoning skills, miniature horses are quite intelligent and excel at tasks that require long-term memory skills. There is been a great deal of research into the cognitive psychology of horses, most notably by the Equine Research Foundation of Horse Learning and Behavior. They have done extensive clinical research on horse intelligence and are most noted for proving the theorem that a horses ability to learn is directly proportional to their prior learning. In other words, the more a horse learns, the greater their capacity for future learning. Noted animal learning expert, Professor Emeritus Frank A. Logan also provides comments regarding horse learning.
The Guide Horse training approach
Training any assistance animal requires an in-depth understanding of animal behavior. Because equine behavior is generic to all horse breeds, any professional horse trainer can start the initial training of the assistance horse, teaching it to accept the harness, and start/stop on command. Advanced training involves training the horse not to react to environmental distractions, to avoid obstacles and to recognize all potential dangers. The idea is to create a team, person and horse, working together and understanding one another.
While no formal documentation exists for training guide horses, our trainers use the horse training methods and techniques developed from a variety of sources. Don and Janet employ some techniques developed by John Lyons, a world-renowned horse trainer. Don and Janet also rely on the basic principles of operant conditioning, and apply the animal training concepts originally described by B. F. Skinner, the famous behavioral psychologist.
Even though horse training is vastly different from dog training, the Guide Horse Foundation worked closely with guide dog trainers, orientation and mobility specialists and experienced guide dog users to understand what a guide animal needs to know to keep their handler safe at all times. The Guide Horse Foundation also performed exhaustive research, studying all available training methods and techniques from the major guide dog training schools throughout the world.
Guide Horse Training involves the following areas of training:
- Basic Lead Training - This involves training the Guide Horse to move forward at an appropriate speed and respond to verbal commands. The Guide Horse is also trained to negotiate everyday obstacles, and they learn to enter escalators, elevators, climb stairs, and lie down on command.
- Voice Command Recognition - The guide horse is trained to respond to 23 voice commands, enabling the handler to direct the guide in any circumstance.
- Stationary Obstacle Avoidance - A guide horse must be able to alert the handler to obstacles in their path. Miniature horses avoid obstacles quite naturally, and only need to be taught that the handler is an appendage of themselves. In this way, the horse is taught to avoid low overheads and other stationary obstacles. The horse must be able to navigate sidewalks and streets, avoiding all obstacles, including any protrusions that may injure its handler. The Guide Horses must also be able to ignore all distractions while guiding, and all Guide Horses are thoroughly trained and tested to ensure that they will not "spook and run" while guiding.
- Moving Obstacle Avoidance - This phase of training requires the Guide Horse to avoid any moving obstacles that threaten to impede their path. These obstacles include pedestrians, cyclists, motor vehicles, and any moving object that may impede the progress of the handler. This is one of the most important areas of guide training and this training requires the Guide Horses to demonstrate absolute proficiency before graduation.
- Surface Elevation Change Recognition - This phase of training requires the Guide Horse to recognize and signal the handler upon approaching any change in surface elevation, including ramps, steps, stairs and curbs. This involves training the Guide Horse to signal the handler and pause upon reaching any steps or curbs, thus signaling the handler that a step-up of step-down will be required. Because the Guide Horse walks two paces ahead of the handler, the handler learns to accurately time the point at which the step begins.
- Housebreaking - Despite common belief, horses do possess bladder control, and many horses develop the habit of "going" only in a specific area. For excursions under 6 hours, the guide horse can be relied upon to maintain bladder control. Just as dog owners are required to utilize pooper-scoopers, Guide Horses on long excursions can be fitted with a plastic lined poo-bag that catches droppings and allows for easy disposal.
- Intelligent Disobedience - The Guide Horse is trained to disregard any commands from their handler that would be unsafe for either the Guide Horse or the Handler. This is the phase of training where the horse is taught to rely on their judgment to keep their owner safe at all times.
The Handler training approach
When candidates are evaluated for acceptance into the Guide Horse program they must demonstrate proficiency with basic orientation and mobility skills. While the vast majority of the candidates are experienced guide dog or cane users, we require all candidates to undergo basic training to ensure their ability to use their Guide Horse.
Only certified handlers are allowed to use a Guide Horse, even in training situations. The handler training phase includes the following phases and activities:
Phase I: Candidate Evaluation
Prior to acceptance into the Guide Horse program, all candidates are evaluated for their orientation and mobility skills.
- The Juno Walk - All candidates are evaluated for their ability to use a guide animal by walking with an artificial Guide Horse named Juno. The candidates are evaluated to ensure that they will be able to communicate with a guide animal before being allowed to begin training with a live Guide Horse.
- Orientation and Mobility Skills - The Guide Horse Foundation requires all candidates to attend certified orientation and mobility courses to ensure that each candidate possesses basic orientation skills.
Phase II: Introductory Training
During this phase the candidate attends classroom training and basic lead training.
- Animal Care Training - All candidates will attended lectures by a licensed equine Veterinarian, a horse care specialist and a farrier to completely understand the proper care, feeding grooming and housing for their Guide Horse.
- Orientation and Mobility Refresher Training - The Guide Horse Foundation hires certified orientation and mobility trainers to ensure that each candidate can demonstrate basic orientation skills.
- Basic Lead Training - All candidates are evaluated for their ability to effectively communicate with a guide animal. The candidates learn the 23 voice commands and are tested to ensure that they understand how signals are communicated through the harness and reins before being allowed to begin training with a live Guide Horse.
Upon passing the testing for this phase, the candidate becomes certified as an apprentice handler, and they are allowed to use a live Guide Horse in a training setting.
Phase III: Advanced Training
This phase involves team selection and advanced training of the new Guide team.
- Team Selection - Following basic training, the apprentice handlers are given the opportunity to work as a team with several Guide Horses. While each Guide horse is multi-gated, there are still variations in "feel", speed, pressure and personality between Guide Horses. The team selection process relies on the evaluation of the apprentice handler and the trainer, and both the apprentice handler and trainer work toward selecting the best-fit team in terms of disposition, personality and performance. At the end of this phase the apprentice handler will have chosen a suitable Guide Horse.
- Team Training - This is the final phase of training and focuses on the training of the candidate and horse as a team. During this phase the team demonstrates proficiency with the 23 voice commands and learns to read signals from the Guide Horse via changes to rein and handle pressure. Once bonded, the team undergoes extensive training, especially in the areas of street crossing and intelligent disobedience. The team must demonstrate absolute proficiency at potentially dangerous situations such as street crossings before graduating from this phase of training. The apprentice handler is also taught to maintain the proficiency of the Guide to ensure that training does not degrade after delivery.
Phase IV: Delivery and certification of the team
Only after the successful completion of all areas of training is the apprentice handler graduated to "handler" status, and the handler and the Guide Horse are then certified as a team by the Guide Horse Foundation.
- Home Area Training - The final stage of training involves traveling with the handler to their home. The team is then evaluated on their home turf and the trainer ensures that the new tram is able to negotiate all of the regular travels for the team.
- Follow-up visits - Following delivery of the team, the trainer conducts periodic follow-ups to make sure that the team continues to be safe and effective. If the handler experiences any problem, the handler may visit the team for additional on-site training.
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