Newcastle commuters were treated to an adorable sight when a highly trained pony stepped on to the metro. Digby, a two-year-old pony, rode the metro for the first time as part of his plan to become the UK's first official guide horse. He's been training with Katy Smith, owner of KL Pony Therapy in North Yorkshire, almost all his life. He's not quite finished with his extensive training program, but his calm demeanor on the metro is a sure sign he's on the right track toward success.
Originally, Digby was training to be a guide horse for a BBC journalist in Manchester, but at 32.5 inches tall, he was slightly too big to fit under the journalist's desk. He kept bumping into things in the small space, and it was decided Digby would be better suited for someone else. That someone is going to be 51-year-old Helena Hird. Helena is partially sighted and lives in London. While she loves dogs, she thinks a guide horse will be better suited for her situation. She told Metro,
"I love dogs but with guide dogs you only have one for five to eight years, and I think I would find that quite emotionally difficult. But Digby should hopefully last the rest of my life. He is very loving. He is like a dog, very friendly."
Ponies Digby's size have an average lifespan of 35-40 years, and they can be trained to do the same tasks as dogs. As with dogs, a big part of the training is introducing the animal to every possible sight, sound, and smell to ensure they stay calm and confident in every situation. That's why Digby ended up riding 10 stops on the city's metro.
Living in London, Helena uses public transportation on a regular basis. She frequently uses the Underground, and she needs Digby to easily get on and off the trains and wait patiently during the ride. She's even planning on teaching Digby to memorize her regular routes so the pony can safely lead the way even in crowded areas. He also knows how to push buttons at crosswalks, wait for the green light before crossing the street, and he's a pro at pushing buttons to open handicap accessible doors.
Hird spends time with her future guide horse during his training to help cement the bond the two will someday share. When the pony finally moves in with Hird permanently, there will be a stable set up for him in Hird's yard, but he will also have access to her house. He'll be able to curl up with her in front of the fire and enjoy the luxury of living indoors if that's what he wants.
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Smith says guide horses are a great option for people who would benefit from a service animal but are either allergic to dogs, afraid of them, or want an animal with a longer lifespan. A guide horse could serve their handler for decades, whereas guide dogs typically spend 5-8 years working in an official capacity. At only two years old, Digby has many years of helping people ahead of him.