Introducing Digby, the UK's first guide horse!
Mohammed Salim Patel works for the BBC and is a blogger at The Blind Journalist. He has a degenerative eye condition, and today he talks to us about preparing to become the first person in the UK with a guide horse.
I suffer from a degenerative eye condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa. It is a condition that means you lose your night vision first, followed by your peripheral vision and finally you lose your central vision; becoming totally blind. I lost most of my sight from the age of 16 and I’m now left with a very small amount of central vision in my right eye only, which could go at any time.
In terms of my situation when it comes to using a guide dog, I have a very big phobia of dogs, which has completely ruled out the option of a guide dog for me. I didn’t grow up around dogs and the odd few occasions that I did have interactions with them weren’t positive. There was an incident as a child, where I was walking on the pavement and a big dog started running towards me. To avoid it, I ran into the road. I wasn’t hit by any cars but this trauma stuck with me. As I got older, I did try to overcome the phobia as I saw the benefits a guide dog brought to my friends, but sadly I couldn’t.
I heard about miniature guide horses through a documentary in 2014. The documentary was looking at different roles that miniature horses were fulfilling in America. One of the contributors was Dan Shaw, who was using the world’s first guide horse called Cuddles. Cuddles was trained by the Burleson family and was paired with Dan in 1991.
After watching this documentary, I looked into seeing if there was any possibility of guide horses being trained in the UK, but all the organisations I approached said no. Some organisations even laughed at me for suggesting such a concept.
This added to my acknowledgment and acceptance that I would have to come to terms with a life that is going to be reliant on others. I could only go out and about if someone was free to take me, I couldn’t really have a social life because I’d always need someone to accompany me etc.
However, last year I read an article, on the BBC News website, about Katy Smith and how she uses miniature horses as therapy animals and how she takes them into carehomes and schools etc. In this article, Katy mentioned that she was looking to train Digby as a guide horse, as he was showing the signs only a couple of weeks after being born that he likes learning and had an “ora” about him that made Katy feel he would be suitable for the role.
With having given up on the idea of a service animal, but then learning that there was someone here in the UK that was looking to train a horse, I instantly contacted Katy and expressed my interest.
We’ve been working together ever since. As I’m a journalist with the BBC, I’m helping Katy with media coverage, articles, letters, emails and any other tasks, so she can focus solely on Digby’s training.
I used to go horse riding as a child and I’ve always been comfortable around horses. Whilst I’ve not grown up around them or learnt how to care for horses, I plan to undertake a horse husband course.
I live a couple of miles away from a riding school, so Digby would be taken there regularly to play and interact with other horses. He has two lawns to graise in my garden but I also live next door to a school which has vast playing fields. I’ll build Digby a stable in the garden also.