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Mini-Horse, Maxi-Guide

By Ellen Lambeth

Editor's note: Alexandra Kurland, the trainer profiled below, is a ClickerExpo faculty member and the pioneering author of the bible on clicker training horses, Clicker Training Your Horse. Panda, the miniature guide horse, is completely clicker trained. To read more about the Panda Project, click here.

Reprinted from the January 2005 issue of Ranger Rick magazine, with the permission of the publisher, the National Wildlife Federation. Copyright 2005 by the National Wildlife Federation. Photos by Neil Soderstrom, reprinted with permission from the children's book Panda: A Guide Horse for Ann by Rosanna Hansen (Boyds Mills Press, Fall 2005).


Watch your step
Panda began learning about stairs by
working on a step-up box. Now she
guides Ann on city steps like an expert.
She pauses first to let Ann know
when to step up or down.

Ann Edie is blind. And, like many blind people, she used a guide dog to help her get around. When her dog suddenly died, it was a very sad thing for Ann. Not only did she miss her special friend, but she also missed his help. What would she do?

She could use her white cane, of course. And she could get another guide dog. But dogs can work for only a few years. So she came up with a different idea: "What about a guide HORSE?"

Ann had heard about a miniature horse that was trained as a guide for blind people. "Why not give it a try?" thought Ann. She knew that horses live a lot longer than dogs. And a mini would be just the right size.

Ann already loved horses. She even had regular-sized ones of her own near her home in New York. Plus, she had a great friend named Alexandra Kurland, who was a horse trainer. It all sounded too good to be true!

On a mission

After searching around the country, Ann and Alex found a mini horse in Florida that seemed perfect. She was a young little pinto, named Panda for her black and white markings. Panda was calm and sweet, not wild and silly like many young horses. So she went home to New York with Ann and Alex.

At first, Panda stayed with Alex for training. Alex had done her homework. She knew what a guide dog needs to know to do its job. And she knew how to train horses. She just wasn't exactly sure what she was getting into, training a horse how to guide. But she was excited to find out.

Click it!

Alex used the "clicker method" to train Panda. She never punished Panda for making a mistake. Instead, she rewarded good work with a clicking sound and then a treat, such as a few bits of grain. For something very well done, Panda earned a peppermint!

It didn't take long before Panda understood that "Click!" meant "Yes! Good girl!"

Success

It turns out that Panda made the training seem easy. She was an excellent student—and now she is Ann's special partner.

Ann and Panda get plenty of second looks whenever they go out. People want to pet Panda and ask questions. But Panda pays no attention to them. It's almost as if she's thinking: Sorry, no time for small talk. I'm busy working now.

As a guide, Panda accompanies Ann wherever she goes. That includes trips to the grocery store and to restaurants. An important part of her training was learning to wait quietly while Ann is engaged in other activities.

More than a guide

Panda's job is mostly to help Ann get from place to place. But she can help in other ways too. Here, she retrieves a set of keys that Ann dropped. To Panda, it's more like a game of fetch than work! And, just like a dog, she's housebroken. If she needs to go out, she rings the bell on the doorknob.

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