A Miniature Guide Horse in Lansing

Mona Ramouni moved to the Capital region from Dearborn when she decided to go to Michigan State University's highly rated rehabilitation counseling program. There is a lot of support at MSU - perhaps more than other local universities for students with disabilities. Also, Ramouni already knew Claudia Combs-Wise, a private practice psychotherapist who also does pro bono work for the Women's Center of Greater Lansing. “I knew that Claudia was the person to bother because she knows everything about Lansing and the community,” says Ramouni. Combs-Wise has a guide dog, but Ramouni decided that she would try a different route.

A Horse is A Horse ...

She chose to purchase a guide horse instead of a guide dog for several reasons. Most importantly, says Ramouni, miniature horses live an average of 35-45 years. “I don't want have to go through animal after animal,” says Ramouni. “You have a different bond with a service animal. Imagine if your pet had to do something for you that you couldn't do yourself. It would mean so much more to you. Sometimes sitting in public with Cali I will just hug her and kiss her, I just can't even explain to you how much I love her. She's so loyal. I can't imagine going and getting another horse.”

But in addition to Cali's potential for a long life, Ramouni is Muslim. And, she says, her religion says dog saliva is unclean. If you need a service animal, it is certainly acceptable to use a dog, says Ramouni. But if you can find a workaround, then you're supposed to do that. In addition, Ramouni says she is a horse person. She didn't grow up around horses, but read books like Black Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague, and others. Ramouni says she has always been in love with horses. “There's something majestic about them. A dog will always be your friend. A horse—you have to win its love.” And it didn't take Ramouni more than a few minutes to make that first bond with Cali.

“The first time I met Cali, the [horse] trainer opened the trailer (she had only been training for about a month). Cali walked out of the trailer with no leash and walked over to my left side and just stood there.” She had never done that to anyone else, and, says Ramouni, “I fell in love with her just then.”

With any kind of guide animal, says Ramouni, “It takes about a year to adjust to the animal itself, and the animal has to adjust to you. Everyone has to learn.” Her roommate, who has had several guide dogs, explains that after her first service dog, it became harder to love new animals whole-heartedly because she knew that they would be gone in a few short years. “Cali will live for a long time, God willing, if she stays healthy,” says Ramouni.

Mona and Cali in Lansing

As you can imagine, people do double and triple takes when Cali and Ramouni show up almost anywhere. But the people in Lansing have been pretty accepting of Cali. “I've only had trouble at one business, a Meijer employee gave me a hard time about Cali. They wanted certification. The rule is they can ask if the animal mitigates a disability, but they cannot ask you for certification. If I tell them it is mitigating a disability and it is a mini horse or a dog they are not allowed to ask for certification.” In Dearborn, Ramouni says, she used to have a lot of trouble with transportation employees and business owners who were not keen on a horse entering their business.

“People would say things like, ‘Why don’t you spray her down with Lysol’ so I would say ‘Why don't you try spraying yourself down with Lysol and see how that goes?’” Ramouni says this laughing, but it was a common occurrence for her. People ask her a lot of questions. In response, Ramouni says that she is happy to explain Cali’s job, but she does insist that Cali is a guide/assistance animal.

Assitstance from CATA

On the other hand, says Ramouni, “I have had the most wonderful experiences with CATA.” She rides the Spec-Tran regularly. Drivers often are surprised with Cali, and sometimes ask questions, but Ramouni says they have never been unpleasant.

One of the surprising problems that Ramouni runs into with Cali is that the horse is just too smart. For example, about a year and a half ago Mona had Cali show her a chair. Now, says Ramouni, every chair is pointed out to her, everywhere—even if the pair are leaving or have no need to sit and rest. On the other hand, Cali's intelligence is just what makes her a great guide animal.

Training Cali

After acquiring Cali from a trainer who largely trained in Arkansas, Ramouni suddenly wondered what to do about Michigan’s winter weather. Her trainer replied that Ramouni would get to do the winter training for Cali. So, early one winter, Cali took Ramouni to a snow bank that was in the pair's walking path and showed her that it was a terrain change (a common task for a guide animal). Cali showed the bank to her, paused so Ramouni would notice it, then jumped on top of the snow bank, where she waited for Ramouni to assess the height. Then Cali showed her the decline, waited, jumped down, and paused for Ramouni to catch up. Ramouni's reaction? “You are the most awesome horse that God ever created!”

In winter, Cali shows Ramouni where there are ice patches. If she can't find a good path she'll stop and turn around. She won't pull Ramouni through dangerous walking paths. She will decide, “this is not safe.” Ramouni says she's learned to listen to her. The first time Mona wouldn't listen to Cali, she ran into something. “Since then, I've come to trust her judgment,” says Ramouni. At times like these, when Cali does her job better than anyone could have trained her to, Ramouni is likely to lean over and hug the horse’s neck. “People tell me that when I do that, her face turns happy and her ears go forward. One of the things I wish for most in the world is that I could see her face,” says Ramouni.

Ultimately, Ramouni would like to start a foundation for people with disabilities who would like to have an assistance horse. People who want guide horses have to pay for the horses and the training themselves. Ramouni says she was lucky in that she was living at home with her parents and was able to purchase Cali. But not everyone has been able to experience the life-changing partnership that Ramouni and Cali have, and Ramouni is anxious to share this wonderful bond with others in a similar position.

Leslie Wolcott is a freelance writer and writing teacher here in Lansing. Visit her website and follow her on twitter @LeslieSue.

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Mona Ramouni and her guide horse Cali

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

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