For Mona Ramouni, who's blind, using a guide dog was just not possible. From an observant Muslim family, Ramouni’s parents objected to having a dog in the house.
For most of her life the 28-year-old got around with the help of her family and friends. But those days are over, and Ramouni has a new companion to help navigate her way: Cali the guide horse.
The graduate student bought Cali two years ago, and sent her for training to learn to become a guide horse. She paid for the horse, its care and training from her savings work as an editor of Braille books.
"My whole world and my whole outlook on stuff has changed, because I feel that there are a lot more possibilities," Ramouni told the news service AFP in July 2009, six weeks after Cali arrived. "Before Cali, I didn't feel like I could go places on my own, although theoretically I probably could have."
Guide dogs are believed to have been leading the way for blind people for centuries, while guide horses are a more recent phenomenon. The Guide Horse Foundation has been training miniature horses as companions for the blind for nearly 11 years. There has been such demand for guide horses that the organization, which is run solely by volunteers, has had to suspend the application process.
It takes about a year to train a guide horse, and the animals have a longer lifespan than guide dogs. Miniature horses can live to be more than 50 years old and weigh around 100 pounds.
"Taking on a horse as a guide is a huge commitment, same as a dog but with more physical needs," said Dolores Arste, Cali’s trainer, to the Associated Press last year. "It is not a novelty. It is a real working animal."
Taking care of Cali is definitely different than caring for a guide dog. The diet of a guide horse consists mostly of grass or hay and oats, according to the Guide Horse Foundation, and the animals can graze on the lawn of someone's house.
Since Ramouni and Cali have joined forces, she has been able to move from her native Dearborn, Mich. to Lansing, where she is working toward a master’s degree at Michigan State University.
Cali and Ramouni attend classes together, where they are sometimes joined by the guide dog of another student.
"We've had some adventures," Ramouni told the AFP. "If she thinks she can do it, she will. If she thinks she can't or doesn't want to, I swear she's half mule because she'll just stand there."