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Last Updated: Sunday, 1 June 2003, 14:28 GMT 15:28 UK
Ponies to guide the blind
Stuart May with a guide dog and horse
Guide horses can live three times longer than dogs
Shetland ponies are being trained to help people who are blind or partially sighted.

The ponies, which are only slightly bigger than dogs, could have a longer working life than labradors and may also have a better memory.

And a centre in Nottinghamshire is already half way through a training schedule for a 27in (0.68m) pony named Rosie.

Guide Horses UK's Janine Martin of Fiskerton, near Southwell, Nottinghamshire, says Rosie is completely house trained and may make a better guide for a blind person than the traditional dog.

Ms Martin said: "Horses have a fantastic long term memory and will remember commands for decades afterwards."

Cheaper to train

The guide pony concept was pioneered in America in 1999 where ponies have been trained to climb escalators and accompany owners on airplanes.

HELPING HOOVES
Janine Martin with guide horse Rosie
"It does take longer to train a horse, but the guide horse can live between 20 and 30 years."
Janine Martin
Guide Horses UK

Dan Vale, of the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB), said: "If it was proven that this was a good way of helping blind or partially sighted people get around, we would welcome it.

"But we would want a lot of investment and research first."

RNIB says it costs 35,000 to breed, train and support a guide dog, while it only costs 10,000 to train a pony.

Ms Martin said: "It does take longer to train a horse, but the guide horse can live between 20 and 30 years."

She said the first person to benefit will be 12-year-old Josh Brown, who is helping to train Rosie.

Cuddles, the first guide pony in America, has negotiated the New York subway and appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Guide Horses UK wants to introduce more guide ponies and is raising money by sponsorship or donations.



VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
The BBC's Peter Lane
"Guide horses are already available online in America"



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