DIGBY, Britain’s first guide horse, hoofs it to a railway station for a lesson in how to board a train.
The American Miniature breed, who is 18 months old, got taken on a tour in Darlington, Co Durham, by trainer Katy Smith and is also learning how to cross a road, find a post box and post a letter.
Digby will later put his skills into practice on the busy streets of London, where he will live once fully trained.
Next year he will be introduced to the hustle and bustle of the capital as he is coached specifically for Helena Hird, who is visually impaired. The civil servant at the Office for National Statistics, who has Stargardt disease — a genetic condition affecting the eyes, began losing her vision around a decade ago.
It’s hoped Digby will get to grips with Tube travel and going to restaurants and pubs so he can help Helena run errands, commute to work, go shopping and socialise.
Digby became Britain’s first guide horse when he began training with BBC journalist Mohammed Salim Patel, who is scared of dogs, earlier this year. But due to an unexpected growth spurt, which took Digby to 33 inches high, Mr Patel decided he was too large.
He said the animal was no longer practical because he would knock items off supermarket shelves and couldn’t guide him around his office in Salford, Greater Manchester.
However, Helena, 51, has decided he’s not too big for her — and the duo have started to bond. She said: ‘I have used a cane but I personally found it quite isolating.
‘And because I don’t look visually impaired, I have quite often struggled to get people to help. They are always lovely when they find out I am, but having a horse cuts through that. People realise there’s a challenge.’
Digby will also go to the office with her while she works — though ‘I’m not expecting him to curl up under the desk,’ Helena added.
‘He is very loving. He is like a dog, very friendly. He wants to be with you. Digby is a total sweetheart. He is so patient, so gentle. I have high hopes for him and me and a good partnership.’
American Miniature Horses can live to be more than 50, according to the Guide Horse Foundation, and Helena is optimistic Digby will be a working companion for the rest of her life.
Helena made contact with trainer Katy Smith to enquire about getting a guide horse of her own and was paired with Digby. A large part of Katy’s work with Digby focuses on getting him used to people and noises and training him to be calm in situations that could cause alarm.
She said: ‘He just takes it all in his stride. He doesn’t bat an eyelid. The training process with Digby is in the phase of getting him used to every single thing he will come across and even more in his working life.
‘He is also learning basic commands like forward, wait and stop, waiting for traffic, crossing the road, going in a straight line, finding a post box and now he is taller, he can find the opening to post the letter.
‘He can go up to a crossing and push the button and wait for a green man to cross the road. He has got to be 110 per cent OK with everyday things. At the moment, he is proving that he is fine with everything.
‘Obviously there is always that chance of being startled and you have just got to think what it might be. It could be a cat running across the road, it could be a bird coming out of a hedge.’
Katy uses voice command, clicker training, lots of praise and rewards to train him.
Once with Helena, Digby can be in her house and roam the garden where there will be a stable.
Katy has already begun training a second guide horse to help another person lead a more independent life.