(SKIP DICKSTEIN ~ Times Union)
Panda, named for her black-and-white coat, is a miniature guide horse that has helped 58-year-old Ann Edie navigate the world of city streets and country lanes since 2003.
"Panda loves her work," said Edie, a special education teacher. "She knows what she's supposed to do. When I pick up the harness, I get the feeling from her of, 'I'm ready for anything. Let's go have fun."'
When Edie's chocolate Labrador helper Bailey died after 10 years on the job, she tried out two other dogs before learning about guide horses in 2000.
Although she appreciates the attributes that dogs bring to guide work, Edie said she is sold on the mini-horses.
"I've found that horse intelligence lends itself well to guide work," she said.
Edie visited the Guide Horse Foundation in Kitrell, N.C., where the animals are trained, and began a search that led her to Panda, who was only 6 months old.
Edie, who owns other horses, commissioned her riding coach, Alexandra Kurland of Delmar, N.Y., to train Panda using a method of positive reinforcement.
"It creates a very enthusiastic, eager-to-work-for-you animal," Kurland said. "You are giving them things they actively want to work for and you aren't poisoning the experience with corrections."
Kurland taught Panda regular obedience and then guide training, showing the horse what would happen if she led her blind companion astray. For instance, if there was a trash can lying on a sidewalk, Kurland would show Panda how much room she would need.
Because they are herd animals, they can predict where a moving object is heading and help adjust, said Edie.
At home, where she's not needed to work, Panda snuggles, naps on a carpet or plays with toys. If she needs to go out, she rings a small bell that hangs from a doorknob.
The partnership with Panda is an experiment, Edie said, but it's going well and, with an expected life span of 30 to 40 years, Panda should be around for quite awhile.