Hero Pets: A Horse Guides Its Owner

Help came from an unlikely place for one talented singer with failing eyesight.

Hero Pets: A Horse Guides Its OwnerMali Azima/Getty Images
Renata Di Pietro was studying to be an opera singer. But at 23, while on a music scholarship at the University of Iowa in 1976, her vision began to fail. Soon, it became increasingly difficult to read scores and pick up hand signals from conductors, and the gifted soprano was forced to drop out.

After moving to Cleveland, Georgia in 2005, Di Pietro relied on guide dogs to get around. Over the years, she became morose when she’d lose one of the dogs, who had become her best friend, to old age or death. “It’s very painful, because you love each one,” she says.

In 2009, Di Pietro was intrigued by information from a friend that miniature horses typically live for at least 30 years and make calm and strong guides. She started with a stallion, but he was too hard to control. Angel came next, a mini white filly Di Pietro has mostly trained herself. “Horses instinctively avoid obstacles,” she says. “If I am about to bump into something, she slides her body in front of me.”

Di Pietro, now 59, has taught her guide horse to stomp her hoof when she comes to stairs and curbs and to respond to directional commands. “Angel can find a chair and locate the nearest door for me,” Di Pietro says. Currently, she’s training Angel to pull her wheelchair and to fetch.

Despite her disability, Di Pietro still sings, performing duets with her husband, musician Carl Hummer, at special events. Angel is always by her side. “I fight a battle every day to muster the will to engage the world,” Di Pietro says. “Angel is my warhorse. We fight that battle together.”

More: Seven amazing hero pets »

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