Instead of choosing a guide dog, a blind woman puts her trust in a surprising choice - and it has transformed her life.
When Renata di Pietro walks into a store near her home in Cleveland, GA, jaws drop, cameras click and strangers want to talk. "It's like the paparazzi are after me," she says, laughing.
The classically trained singer, who is legally blind, is used to an audience, but these days the main attraction is her miniature guide horse, Angel. Just 28 inches tall - not much bigger than a Great Dane - Angel has been trained, like a Seeing Eye dog, to help Renata navigate her way around town.
For years, Renata relied on guide dogs, but ultimately, she found it heartbreaking: A dog's working life is short - just six to 10 years before it either ages out of service or dies. "It's very painful, because you love each one with all your heart," says Renata. The time it took to adjust to a new dog took a toll, too.
In 2007, on the hunt for another dog, Renata thought about a friend who had a mini horse as her guide. They're rare: Experts estimate that there are just a dozen or so of them at work in the United States. Renata knew from her friend that mini horses are calm, strong and typically live for 30 years or more. The first horse she tried proved difficult to work with. Then Renata paid a breeder $3,000 for Angel (many mini horses are available for $1,000 or less), and hired trainers she found through word of mouth to help ready the horse for service. She also paid $350 for a special harness, but the rest of Angel's upkeep is pretty manageable: $20 a month for hay and feed, $20 every six to eight weeks for hoof trimming, and vet bills comparable to those for dogs.
That's not to say there aren't challenges to working with a guide horse. "With a dog you give a leash correction and say, 'No.' But that type of correction makes a horse fearful and unwilling to work," says Renata, who had to learn new techniques from the pros. And while she and her husband, Carl, already had 1 3/4 acres of fenced property, complete with an unused stable where Angel lives, they quickly learned that constantly mucking it out is hard work. Then there was the poop problem when Angel was indoors. "For months before Angel was housebroken, my nickname was Scooper Man," says Carl.
The one challenge Renata anticipated - her guide horse being denied access - has not come up. (Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, guide horses are generally legally allowed to go anywhere guide dogs can.) "The first day I took my horse to a store, a police officer ran up to me. I thought, Prepare yourself, Renata. But he just said, 'Can I take a picture?'"
In the three years together, Renata has come to rely on Angel for much more than sight. "She's my own personal war horse. We're fighting a battle for my independence."
This article was featured in May's issue of Woman's Day and was written by Melody Warnick
Here is a short video featuring Renata di Pietro and Angel.
The video source can be found HERE.