Tonto’s task is
one for a horse who is keen or savvy
GRAEME SMITH March 18 2004
The Herald UK
TONTO is not your average horse. He wears trainers in the house, loves
to go shopping, and even enjoys the occasional film.
Like the Lone Ranger's loyal Indian companion of the same name, Tonto is
a trusted friend who devotes his life to helping his partner.
Tonto's partner is Shari Bernstiel, a American mother of five who is
virtually blind because of a degenerative condition, and Tonto has
become her eyes. The two-ft-tall gelding is a guide horse, a new breed
of human helper.
They are ideal for blind horse-lovers, those allergic to dogs, and those
who prefer an animal with a long lifespan.
Five years ago, Janet Burleson, a retired professional horse trainer in
North Carolina, carried out a feasibility study with pygmy horses as
Its success resulted in an overwhelming number of requests from blind
horse- lovers. Since then, many horses have been trained.
They are calm in chaotic conditions, have exceptional memories and,
because their eyes are in the side of their head, they have near 360-
degree vision – and they cut the grass.
They can use stairs and escalators, go on buses, taxis, and subways, and
one has even travelled in the passenger cabin of an aircraft.
The horses are all less than 26 inches to the withers (shoulders) and
undergo rigorous training to ensure they do not react to environmental
distractions, guide their handler past obstacles, and recognise all
The horses are trained to respond to 23 voice commands but also to
ignore any command which would be unsafe.
Guide horses have now been introduced to England and will inevitably be
in Scotland soon.
For potential handlers, there is the question of sourcing the trainers
which may seem odd but are vital to prevent the horse slipping on vinyl
or wooden floors.
They can be sent by mail order from several manufacturers in the US.
For those who fear the odour of horse will keep their friends away, the
Guide Horse Foundation says they can be kept virtually odour free with
frequent grooming and periodic bathing.
However, it warns: "Due to the danger from falling, it is not
recommended the horse use a shower or bath unless it is wearing rubber
shoes or the surface has a non-slip coating."