COLONIE — As Mona Ramouni travels with her guide animal, heads turn.
People expect a Seeing Eye dog. But a horse?
Twenty-nine inches tall, Cali is a chestnut-brown miniature horse trained as a guide animal. When she and Ramouni arrived on a flight from Detroit to Albany International Airport on Tuesday, people whipped out their cellphone and moved quickly to get a snapshot of the 7-year-old horse.
Ramouni, 32, lives in Williamston, Mich., but flew in for a reunion with Dolores Arste of Galway, who trained Cali.
"People love Cali. It's like traveling with a rock star," Ramouni said. "She is a people magnet."
Cali remained calm as news crews, including one filming for an Australian television show, followed the animal through the airport.
"She did very well on the plane. She is very adaptable," Ramouni said. "She will do anything I ask."
Arste had never trained a guide animal before Cali, but she owns a farm with six regular-size horses and was used to training them. Three years ago, a friend, Alexandra Kurland of Delmar, who had trained a miniature horse for another blind person, recommended Arste when Ramouni asked Kurland to train one for her. Kurland advised Arste on what she needed to do.
"I've trained a lot of big horses, but I'd never trained miniature horses," Arste said. She got Cali from Becky Montano, who owns the Broadalbin farm where the horse was born, and said it took about nine months to train her to be a service animal.
Miniature horses make good guide animals because they are well aware of their surroundings, and they live much longer than dogs, Arste said.
"Miniature horses are herd animals like regular horses, so they have a tremendous ability to be aware of space," she said.
They can remain in service for 40 years or more, while guide dogs last about eight years before they need to be replaced.
Cali also has keener eyesight than a guide dog, is less easily distracted and doesn't pull like a dog might, Ramouni said. The horse also can wait as long as six hours before needing to relieve itself. When she is ready to go, Ramouni said, Cali will get restless and a little bratty until she's let out.
Ramouni is Muslim, and many in her faith do not consider dogs clean animals, Arste explained.
"She was concerned her friends would be uncomfortable" if she got a guide dog, Arste said. "She thought (a horse) would be more welcome."
Having the guide animal has made a huge difference in Ramouni's life.
"She's changed my whole world," she said. "She has made it possible for me to do anything I want to do."
Ramouni said she used to live at home with her parents working a dead-end job. Now she lives on a farm and is studying rehabilitation psychology at the University of Michigan. She wants to start a foundation to help connect people with guide horses. She has trained one miniature herself and is working with two others. Unlike a dog, the horse cannot sit on a plane, so Ramouni sits in the bulkhead seat and Cali stands in front of her. The animal just views it like a bumpy road.
Arste said she trained Cali using humane methods, with a series of clicks and food rewards. While she was training Cali, she made three trips to Michigan.
"I shadowed Mona throughout her day so I got a sense of what she needed," Arste said. She brought the horse back home to prepare her for Ramouni's specific needs.
Ramouni also spent time at Arste's farm before the final transfer. While the two are in regular contact, Tuesday was the first time they reunited since Cali became Ramouni's guide in 2009.
As with other guide animals, people often are drawn to the horse, but they should only touch her if given permission.
"So far, everybody has been really positive," Arste said. "They always want to pet her and say hello."
Ramouni, who is staying in town through Saturday, said she is thankful to Arste for training Cali.
"I try to tell her how grateful I am," she said. "I am so lucky to have Cali."