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Britain’s First Guide Horse

February 8, 2018

Whatever next?

Mohammed Salim Patel knew he was causing a stir in Blackburn market on Monday because he could hear it. “There were people around us saying, ‘Oh, look at that’, and I could hear the shutter sounds going on all their phones,” the 23-year-old says. The cause of the disturbance: Digby, Britain’s first guide horse for blind people.

Patel, who lives in the Lancashire town, was enjoying his second meeting with the American miniature horse and the animal’s trainer, Katy Smith. Once Digby, who is eight months old, is fully trained (in about two years), he will move into a miniature stable in Patel’s garden.

“At the minute, I’m heavily reliant on people,” says Patel, who has a dog phobia. He works as a journalist at BBC North West Tonight in Salford. “I have a support worker who picks me up and takes me home and supports me full time in the office. Digby would relieve a lot of that.”

Smith has eight small horses at her stables in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, where she runs KL Pony Therapy. She takes the animals into care and nursing homes, but heard about their use as service animals in America for people with dog phobias or allergies.

“They’re almost like dogs,” she says. “It’s the way they watch you and want to be with you. They want to please you.” They live up to the age of 45, Smith says, adding: “Get some panniers and they can also carry your shopping.”

The animals need suitable outdoor accommodation, and ideally a nearby stables for the odd gallop. Smith, who works with police horse trainers and Guide Dogs for the Blind, also fits her horses with nappies known as “thunder pants”. She has had an enquiry from one other blind person, and plans to train a second foal.

Patel, who has an inherited retinal condition, first met Digby last year. “Obviously, I’ve not stopped thinking about him since then but he also remembered,” he says. “He rubbed his neck against my leg and stood next to me, which apparently is a sign. I’m amazed at how good his temperament is, despite the fact he’s only eight months old.”

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