Jorge Garcia-Bengochea holds a therapy horse
While they are new to the UK, miniature horses have been a popular alternative in the US for those who are unable to use guide dogs Mike Segar/Reuters

Mohammed Salim Patel, a visually impaired journalist, will become the first person in the UK to use a guide horse.

As a teenager, Patel had been diagnosed with a condition known as retinitis pigmentosa, which causes loss of vision. Due to his fear of dogs, he had decided not to explore the popular option of using a guide dog.

But now, the 23-year-old is set to receive help from Digby — an American miniature horse who is being trained under Katy Smith.

As reported by The Guardian, Smith, who runs KL Pony Therapy in North Yorkshire, described the therapeutic value of the animals who "are almost like dogs".

"It's the way they watch you and want to be with you. They want to please you," she said.

When speaking to The Times last year, Smith explained how horses "can empty a bag of bread to get a slice out and push it towards the toaster" or "stick their heads in the washing machine and pull clothes out."

The Guide Horse Foundation website goes further by listing potential advantages miniature horses possess as assistant animals, including their excellent vision, strong memory and cost effectiveness. Living to the age of 45 or even 50, horses also have a considerably long lifespan.

On the other hand, using assistant horses also poses certain challenges. Unlike dogs who can live inside the homes of owners, horses require their own stable. Miniature horses are also not suited for assisting the hearing impaired.

In the US, guide horses have risen as an alternative option for those who are unable to use guide dogs. This may be due to medical reasons such as an allergy, or simply fear.

Digby now becomes the first step towards extending this popularity of guide horses in the UK. Standing two feet tall, he will need to be registered with the Guide Dogs association before he can formally begin work as an assistant animal.

Appearing on the BBC, Patel explained how he has always loved horses and was excited to discover that they could be trained in a manner similar to dogs. The proud owner-to-be described feeling a strong connection with the chestnut-coloured horse after just two meetings.

"At this moment in time I'm reliant on a lot of people to do a lot of things – friends, family, asking them if they're free, if we can go somewhere if they want to do something," he said. "If Digby's successful then it's a case of, if he's happy, I just put his harness on and off I go and do what I want to do."

To help Digby familiarise himself with Blackburn, Patel has taken him on walks through his hometown, often attracting compliments from people on the streets. He explains that he will take an extra hour out of his routine as people "will all want to come and see it and touch (the horse)".

Despite their rapidly growing friendship, Digby will still need to undergo more than a year of training before he can permanently move in with Patel.