Lansing, Michigan — Mona Ramouni was taking notes with a Braille device when her guide pony Cali joined the class discussion with a sudden snort. "What do you think Cali?" professor Shelley Smithson said with a laugh, and then steered the conversation back to theories of counseling and psychotherapy.
Cali is just one of a handful of miniature horses in the United States known to be used as guide animals for the blind and is likely the first pony to attend college.
The click of her hooves in the halls of Michigan State University is still turning heads three months after Ramouni and Cali moved to Lansing for graduate school. Shocked students stare, shake their heads, pull out their cell phone cameras and some can't help asking "is that a horse?" Usually I'm good about it because you have to educate people," Ramouni said. "Sometimes I'll say, no, it's a really cool toy."
The university has an internationally recognized center which assists disabled students and employees integrate into the community and achieve their full potential.
While there was some initial concern about whether Cali would make a mess or be a distraction, the tiny brown horse with a shiny black mane is surprisingly tidy and even gets along with the guide dog of one of Ramouni's classmates.
"The thing that I love about having Cali and the dog Harper in the class is that it's such a vivid example to people about how adaptive students can be in going about their lives and achieving what they want to achieve," Smithson said.
Weighing in at under 100 pounds (45 kilograms), miniature horses are about the same size as a large dog but are much stockier and can help support people with mobility issues. They also have significantly longer life spans -- they can live and work for more than 30 years while guide dogs are usually retired after about six to eight years -- but require much more care and bear a far heftier price tag.
Without Cali, Ramouni probably would never have pursued her dream of getting a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling so she can one day work with disabled children. And she certainly would never have moved away from home.
"It's such a different life," Ramouni, 30, said in a recent interview. "At home no matter how old you are, your parents will treat you like a kid."
Cali is the first guide animal for Ramouni, a devout Muslim whose parents -- Jordanian immigrants -- would not accept a dog into their tidy brick house. Ramouni was taught as a child how to guide herself with a cane, but never really took to it. With six siblings, there was always someone around to take her by the arm. But a few years ago she started to get frustrated by her lack of independence.
She was sick of being afraid to go to new places, of having to ask someone to walk her to the store if she ran out of Pepsi, of being teased by her sisters because she spent so much time alone in her room. Ramouni began looking into guide horses on a whim and soon became determined to make it happen.
She bought Cali in October 2008 and sent the retired show pony to a professional trainer to be taught to tap her hoof to point out obstacles, get in and out of cars and buses, and even pick up misplaced objects with her teeth. Seven months later, trainer Dolores Artse brought Cali to Dearborn, Michigan where Ramouni had set up a small shed and pen in her parent's yard.
"My whole world and my whole outlook on stuff has changed, because I feel that there are a lot more possibilities," Ramouni told AFP in July 2009, six weeks after Cali arrived. "Before Cali, I didn't feel like I could go places on my own, although theoretically I probably could have."
It generally takes six months to a year for the relationship with a service animal to solidify and the diminutive Ramouni had a lot to learn about Cali.
There were heavy bags of feed to lug around, piles of manure to clean up, hooves to clean. Most importantly, she had to learn to read Cali's signals and trust that the little horse would not steer her wrong.
The biggest challenge was making the move to Lansing a few months ago. Even though it was only a two-hour drive away, her parents were afraid to let her go. "They want to take care of me," Ramouni said over a cup of tea at the house of her friend Claudia Combs-Wise, where she and Cali spend most of their days. "My dad says you can become independent when we die -- we'll be your guide dogs."
Combs-Wise, who met Ramouni while looking into getting a guide pony of her own, said her parents said the same things when she went away to college nearly 40 years ago. "But they get old," Combs-Wise said, stressing that at some point people have to make their own way in the world.
Ramouni is revelling in her newfound freedom and the deep bond she's developed with Cali. After 16 months together, they're both still learning new ways to work together -- like when Ramouni forgot Cali's bowl at home and got the pony to drink from the tap in a bathroom sink during a break from class. "We've had some adventures," Ramouni said with a laugh.
Cali is a smart and serious horse who is eager to learn new ways to guide Ramouni, but is not afraid to assert her will. "If she thinks she can do it, she will. If she thinks she can't or doesn't want to I swear she's half mule because she'll just stand there."
Photos: Graduate student Mona Ramouni and her guide horse Cali attend class at Michigan State University; Guide horses have significantly longer life spans -- they can live and work for more than 30 years; It generally takes six months to a year for the relationship with a service animal to solidify; Graduate student Mona Ramouni gets her guide horse Cali a drink of water