DELMAR, N.Y. -- As a blind woman, Ann Edie has relied on her hip-high miniature horse for 14 years to guide her through life's obstacles. The fuzzy black-and-white service pony, named Panda, has led Edie across busy streets and up and down stairways, fetched her house keys and even stood quietly in restaurants while she ate her meals.
So when Panda was the one needing help, Edie was glad to return the favour.
The little horse was stricken with a life-threatening intestinal blockage about a year ago, and Edie and her husband have drained more than $30,000 from their retirement nest egg to pay for surgery and advanced veterinary care. They've spent many months nursing her through a series of complications and back onto the streets of their suburban Albany neighbourhood.
"Of course I wanted to do everything I could to save her, because she's very special," says Edie, a 69-year-old retired teacher who has been blind since birth.
A network of horse enthusiasts who follow a blog about Panda's training has also kicked in more than $11,000 through a crowdfunding campaign to help defray the veterinary bills that have continued to come in as she trots down the long road to recovery.
"As a person with a disability, I always wanted to be responsible for my service animal and not ask for help," Edie says. "But people wanted to do something for her. They've been incredibly generous."
Edie, who previously taught visually impaired children, has had guide dogs. Her chocolate Labrador retriever, Bailey, died after nine years of service, but two German shepherds turned out to be prone to chasing kids or animals.
Emotionally drained by Bailey's death and frustrated by failures with subsequent dogs, Edie decided to try a miniature horse because they live so much longer -- up to 40 years -- and have traits that make them well-suited to guide work.
"As herd animals, horses very much live in a social environment and are attuned to their people," says Edie, who has other riding horses. "The communication between Panda and myself is even more acute than it was with Bailey."
Edie and her friend Alexandra Kurland, a prominent horse trainer, got Panda from a Florida breeder in 2001. Over the next two years, Kurland used clicker training to teach Panda such tasks as riding in a car, ringing a bell to go outside, relieving herself on command and walking safely along busy streets with Edie holding her leather harness. The training technique employs a hand-held clicker and treats to reinforce correct behaviour.
"For many in the equine community, Panda was the one that inspired them to try clicker training with their horses," says Kurland, who started the crowdfunding campaign last year at the urging of people who had followed her blog chronicling Panda's training.
While there are an estimated 10,000 dogs guiding blind partners in the United States, there are only about a half-dozen miniature horses in that role, says Dolores Arste, a clicker horse trainer in Galway, New York.
"Other people have contacted me to ask about a guide horse, but they lose interest when they hear how much more work a horse is," Arste says. While a dog eats twice a day, horses eat almost constantly, relieve themselves frequently and need a stall and room to run outdoors.
Panda normally spends much of her days lying around the house, playing with toys, nibbling veggie treats and snuggling while Edie plays Scrabble. But her illness has caused chronic diarrhea, forcing Panda to stay out in her stable.
"I hope this all clears up soon. I miss having her indoors," Edie said.
For Edie, there's no question that Panda is her ideal partner.
"The freedom of being able to relax and work with her, walk with her, is wonderful," Edie said, patting Panda's flowing black mane. "It comes down to the relationship and the fact that she's so good at what she does."