They whinny, they eat hay, they each have four legs and a mane and a long face every day. Lovey and Shiloh, for those are their names, are horses, of course, and live, for the time being, with others of their kind at the Woodside home of equestrian Rebekah Witter, a noted trainer of horses.
But Lovey and Shiloh, both 16 months old, will go on to lives that are markedly different from those of their pals in Ms. Witter's barn. They're miniature horses and they're learning from Ms. Witter how to adapt to life indoors, not all the time and not exclusively in barns, but when visiting schools, hospitals, retirement communities and other places where people benefit from the presence in the room of benevolent animals of manageable size.
Attitude is very important for would-be "therapy animals," Ms. Witter says. These two horses have had no bad experiences with humans and present themselves with the desirable qualities of confidence, obedience and quiet temperaments, she says. "Very, very little seems to bother them," she says.
One thing does bother Shiloh. During a visit to Ms. Witter's home by this reporter, Shiloh walked up a set of four or five steps to a large patio, but he really, really, really did not want to walk back down the steps.
After five minutes of gentle but unsuccessful persuasion, and in the interest of not introducing him to the idea of being defensive, Ms. Witter left him to his own devices, whereupon he located another set of steps, walked up them and found himself further marooned and on a smaller and higher patio. He'll come down eventually, she said at the time.
It's easier to train horses to go up stairs, she says. "He slipped once," she says of Shiloh. "Footing is everything to horses. It's their lifeline."
Ms. Witter trains horses using body language, something that horses understand since they use it among themselves, she says. The practice is known by two names: natural horsemanship and, less commonly, horse whispering.
It's easier to train miniature horses than their larger counterparts, she says. "They're so much less work, so much less intimidating," she says. It's important to have more than one mini horse, as they are social animals, she says.
Mini horses have held many positions over time. Their earliest mention is as inmates of Louis XIV's zoo, according to a history at the The Guide Horse Foundation website. They've been used in racing and to pull milk carts, Ms. Witter says.
Their use as service (guide) animals is "very, very new," she says.
It's not hard to find photos of mini horses flying commercially as passengers, possibly as emotional support animals a category different from a guide animal.