Romeo:
a miniature horse training to be a guide for the blind

romeo in the van Romeo finding door handle Romeo by computer Romeo walking in harness

In April 2007, Renata di Pietro contacted me looking for help in training her newly acquired miniature horse, a two-year-old stallion named Romeo, to be a guide for the blind. Renata is legally blind and is an experienced guide dog handler. She heard about miniature horses used as guides and was determined to give it a try. She had contacted Donald and Janet Burleson of The Guide Horse Foundation, who had trained the first miniature horse, Cuddles, as a guide for the blind, Cheryl Spencer, who trained her own guide, a miniature named Confetti, and Alexandra Kurland, who clicker trained a miniature filly named Panda for her blind owner Ann Edie. Renata received advice and encouragement, but she needed an actual trainer who would work with Romeo. Alexandra gave Renata my contact information.

At the time, I was not ready to plunge into this formidable project. I knew nothing about guide work, and the responsibility seemed overwhelming. I was not qualified.

I corresponded with Renata on and off, and the idea of me working with Romeo kept surfacing. After much consideration, I drove to Renata's home in Cleveland, Georgia, to meet with her and Romeo. I had decided that I could at least evaluate Romeo and help Renata start him on some clicker basics.

Our meeting changed the course of events. I did not need much knowledge about guide animals to see that Romeo was a likely candidate. His calm and deliberate demeanor was unparalleled. He caught on to targeting in two presentations and started tracking the target after the first mini-session. He thought nothing of being in the house, interacting with Renata's cats and the guide dog, Bella. Nothing ruffled his feathers.

Meeting Renata was not an ordinary event either. A former opera singer with a beautiful voice, she was now struggling financially and emotionally, cut off from the cultural milieu by illness and disability. She shared with me her dream of singing and playing Irish harp in costume in hospitals, hospices, and retirement homes, with Romeo at her side as her guide. She felt that her mission was to reach out to people and share her gift, like the legendary blind Irish bard, Carolan. With her current guide dog, Bella, aging and failing in health, she had high hopes for Romeo as her guide and companion.

Renata in costume Renata with Romeo Renata playing harp

Left and right: Renata performing; center: Renata with Romeo on the day of his arrival

I left Renata with the homework of practicing targeting with Romeo and scheduled the next visit in a month. I was deeply touched by both the person and the horse. In thinking how I could help her, I shared my thoughts about her and Romeo with Alexandra. It turned out that Alexandra had been thinking about them as well. She had been wondering if it would be a good idea to invite Renata as a guest to the clicker training clinic she was giving in Georgia that my friend Kathleen Rosskopf and I were organizing. Kathleen and I supported this idea wholeheartedly.

My next visit to Renata was mostly dedicated to teaching Romeo to load in the van. It did not take him long to learn how to jump in and out. Then we taught him to walk into the large dog crate that we positioned in the van, turn around and face the front. Renata's husband, Carl, gave us all a ride around the block. Romeo did well. Of course, a ride around the block is not the same as an hour-and-a-half drive to the clinic, but Renata still had time to practice, and we had reasonable hopes that that the idea of bringing Romeo to the clinic was feasible.

Renata and Carl did a great job practicing with Romeo, and he made the long trip to the clinic safely and in good spirits. Needless to say, he was everyone's darling. He took all the attention and unfamiliar surroundings with his usual composure. He also delivered one of the most impressive lessons of the clinic: the power of freeshaping. As we all sat in our chairs outside the barn, Alexandra held Romeo's lead rope and shaped him to stand by her chair by reinforcing the slightest shifts of his hindquarters to the right. In less than ten minutes, Romeo parked himself in a heel position by Alexandra's chair. This became his strongest behavior. We transferred Romeo to Renata, and she started working on the duration of standing in the heel position. Later, she worked on shaping Romeo to have his ears forward as she observed the clinic.

Renata training Romeo Romeo at the clinic: ears forward Renata reinforcing Romeo for ears froward

Renata reinforcing Romeo for ears forward during Georgia clicker clinic in October 2008

During the clinic, Alexandra coached me on some of the basics that Romeo needed to learn. We discussed the possibility of me taking him in for a couple of months of training, but it seemed rather unlikely, given the expense of boarding and my work schedule.

Unbeknownst to anyone and to herself, Renata suffered a heart attack during the clinic and had to go for a triple bypass heart surgery in November. Romeo was left without training and with only a limited attention that Carl could give him while Renata was in the hospital. I discussed the option of boarding Romeo with Jim and Cator Hartley, the owners of Serenity Creek Farm, and they agreed to board him at a discount. On November 19, I brought Romeo to Serenity Creek Farm.

This is an ongoing project. I have been taking notes on Romeo's training from day one. Rather than just training notes, they are more like a diary. Training happens in the context of external circumstances and the internal state of the teacher and the student. I could have artificially separated "training" from "everything else", but then my record would not have been complete. My interactions with Romeo are part of a bigger picture.

Training notes, November - December 2007
Training notes, January 2008

Here is a summary of what Romeo learned during five months of training. One of the first skills he acquired was to navigate the "shoreline", following the edge of the road, curb, fence, or wall. He always assumes a default "heel" position by the handler's left leg. He warns the handler of ground obstacles. We have worked on some overhead obstacles, but not enough to be certain he fully understands them. He finds the stairs, the door, the door handle, the car, and the mailbox. He can go up and down the stairs, but still needs a lot of work in this area to safely guide the blind handler. He goes in the house and is house trained. He eliminates on cue when outside. He is learning to pick up objects and give them to the handler. The main training problem I encountered was that he refused to load into the van, after initially having done it several times without any difficulty. I ended up using a dog ramp to get him in and out of the van, but even with that, his loading was inconsistent. This limited our possibilities for travel and exposure to different places and situations. We went to Athens and to the local feed store a few times. Recently, he started loading from the ground, which is a huge achievement, considering how long we have worked on it! In addition to the skills specific to his future job, Romeo learned basic ground manners: backing up and waiting when I bring his food, putting his nose into the halter, picking up his feet to be cleaned and trimmed when I point at them, and standing tied patiently for grooming or when he has to wait for me at the barn.

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March 28, 2008
Romeo participated in the advanced clicker clinic with Alexandra Kurland. It was sort of a graduation from kindergarten. Alexandra took him on his first blindfold walk, and he did very well. She also addressed the issue of him being a demanding "toddler" whenever he is in the house, and showed me how to extend the periods when he is just to "hang out" with us, without demanding attention.

in the house

Renata had a chance to work with him during the clinic, which gave me a better idea of guide work and what to focus on in his training now. Renata is planning to start coming for regular working sessions with Romeo.

March clinic1 March clinic2

 

Romeo's training slowed down after the March clinic: he had a mild colic on one of the colder nights, and was feeling out-of-sorts afterwards. I had noticed that he seemed to have difficulty chewing his treats. An equine dentist who checked his teeth told us that he had two molars erupting, which could have been accountable for him not feeling well. He had almost three weeks off, with lots of grazing in the yard, which made him feel better.

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Romeo and Renata in Athens, May 1, 2008.

Romeo in Athens1 Romeo in Athens2

Romeo at Jittery Joe's at Five Points in Athens. He patiently stood by Renata's chair while Carl, Renata, and I enjoyed our coffee. Photos by Carl Hummer.

 

Romeo in Athens3 Romeo in Athens4

Romeo was not disturbed by the traffic and did a fine job following the curb. Photos by Carl Hummer.

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