Shari Bernstiel always wanted a horse. Even when she began losing her sight in elementary school, she begged her mother for a pony every year for her birthday.

"She'd say, 'Where would we keep it?' " said Bernstiel - a good question, considering that the family lived in a townhouse in North Wales. "I'd say, 'I'll keep it in my bedroom.' "

In December, Bernstiel, who is legally blind, got her wish, though it's not exactly the horse of her dreams. Tonto is a 27-inch miniature horse Bernstiel uses as a guide animal, one of the first of its kind in the nation.

And while Tonto doesn't live in her bedroom, he does spend a good deal of time in the house. "Do you see hoofprints on the carpet?" Bernstiel asked, as the 115-pound potbellied pony wandered around the basement of her family's busy house in Lansdale.

The mini-horse, bred from a Shetland pony and slightly taller than a German shepherd, is part of an experimental program of the Guide Horse Foundation in Kittrell, N.C.

"It's one of the coolest new uses for animals for helping people," said Sue McDonnell, an equine behavior specialist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. McDonnell, who also has a miniature horse - there are 150,000 registered in the United States - said the animals are easy to train and enjoy living with people.

A few years ago Bernstiel's mother told her to watch a segment on the TV show 20/20 about the first guide horse, Cuddles.

"I was shocked, but if you think about it, look at Roy Rogers and Trigger, look at what he trained that horse to do," said Bernstiel, whose house has so many horse knickknacks and stuffed animals it's easy to trip over them if you're not careful.

A love of horses and ever-dwindling sight have defined Bernstiel's life since childhood, when she was diagnosed with Stargardt's disease, a degenerative condition. With her sight getting worse in recent years, "I figured with the passion I had for horses this seemed like a thing to try."

Why not a dog? Blame it on Rio, her neurotic German shepherd. "I thought he'd get jealous," she said.

The big advantage of horses is their 35-to-40-year life expectancy, three times that of dogs. The downside is the upkeep: They require a (miniature) barn, hay and grain, regular hoof clippings, and a companion horse. And forget about the lawn - Bernstiel's has been nibbled to mud.

Janet Burleson, who started the Guide Horse Foundation, is a longtime horse trainer who got the idea from watching her own miniature, Twinkie, navigate her way through a flea market, carefully avoiding electrical cords and picking the smoothest paths

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