Sometimes It Takes a Miniature Horse
to Do the Work of a Seeing Eye Dog
As Delta Flight 192 lifts off for Atlanta, a small chestnut horse lies stretched across the floor in a bulkhead row. Her name is Cuddles, and she carries a heavy responsibility on her 2-foot-high shoulders.
Cuddles is a 55-pound miniature, one of more than 120,000 registered in the United States. But the words printed on a burgundy blanket fastened across her back reveal what makes her unique: “Service Animal In Training. Do Not Touch.”
Janet Burleson, who has trained 18-month-old Cuddles for the past seven months, says that she is the first horse to go into full-time service as a guide animal–and the first allowed to fly in the passenger cabin on Delta, perhaps on any airline.
Seated toe to horse in Row 20 are Burleson, her husband, Don, and Cuddles’ new owner, Dan Shaw. The 44-year-old Shaw, who owns a bait shop in Eastern Maine, has suffered from retinitis pigmentosa since he was 17. It has left him with pinhole vision.
Shaw, Cuddles and the Burlesons, who own a ranch 30 miles north of Raleigh, face a busy day in Atlanta. They chose Atlanta because it is the closest city to Raleigh with a rapid rail system.
Shaw, a graduate of the CarrollSchool for the blind in Boston, often returns there to visit friends and family. He uses the subway and wants Cuddles to experience a similar environment. Besides riding on the subway, Cuddles will guide Shaw through the vast airport terminals and lead him onto elevators, escalators and people movers.
As Shaw moves along a concourse of Hartsfield International Airport,his left hand grasps the little horse’s reins and metal harness. People turn to stare. Cuddles looks straight ahead, sure-footed in the white leather baby shoes she wears for traction on the slippery floor.
“Is that really a seeing-eye horse?” asks Sandy Feenstra from Cleveland.
“I haven’t seen any of those in Ohio. But hey, if it works, it works.”
The Burlesons are so convinced that horses can be a reliable alternative to dogs for the visually impaired that they have established the nonprofit Guide Horse Foundation www.guidehorse.org).
Its mission is to deliver trained guide horses at no cost.They have more than 40 applicants on the waiting list who have given various reasons for preferring a horse to a guide dog: allergy to canines, fear of dogs, needing an animal with more stamina. One woman says she walks four miles to work each day, and the trek makes her dog’s paws bleed.
Shaw’s desire for a horse is purely emotional.
“Horses live 35 to 40 years,” he says. “I’m an animal lover. To lose a dog after eight to 10 years, and then have another to train, and have to do that three or four times in my lifetime . . . that’s painful.”
Last March, as Shaw’s wife, Ann, was filling out an application for his first guide dog, the television was tuned to “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” The show featured a segment on the Burlesons and a miniature horse named Twinkie, who was being trained to lead a blind woman. To Shaw, the timing was “divine providence.”
“I want one of them instead of a guide dog,” he remembers telling Ann. “I don’t know what it will take, or what it’s going to cost, but that’s the way I want to go.”
When Shaw located the Burlesons, however, he was disappointed to learn they had no horse to offer. They were still trying to raise money to buy some more miniatures, and then they would have to spend eight to 10 months to train them.
To the Burlesons’ delight, Patricia Cornwell, the crime novelist, donated $30,000 to their effort. In an upcoming book, “Isle of Dogs,” Cornwell, who has visited the Burlesons’ ranch, includes a blind character led by a guide horse.
The couple used the money to purchase six miniature horses from a breeder in South Carolina. One of them, Cuddles, soon was in training for Shaw. A second, Cricket, is destined for a blind woman in Gig Harbor, Wash.
Earlier this month, horse and master finally met in Raleigh, the closest city to the Burlesons’ ranch with an airport. “They seemed to have made an instant connection,” Janet Burleson says. “There was such joy in his face. He’s crying. Both of us are crying. Sometimes when I was doing the [training], I’d get frustrated. But when I saw the end result. . . .”
The Burlesons are proud of Cuddles. She knows basic leading and responds to 23 voice commands, including “wait” (not whoa) and “forward” (not giddyap). Just as important, she is housebroken. “She will absolutely let you know when she needs to go,” Janet Burleson says. “She’ll stand and stomp her foot and whinny. If she has to go really bad, she will stomp her foot and cross her back legs. I’m not kidding.”
Michele Pouliot, director of research and development for the San Rafael, Calif.-based Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc., has trained dogs for 26 years and owns two miniature horses. Although she’s never considered training the horses to guide, she is keeping an open mind: “Our take is, we don’t know what they are doing, so why criticize it? Maybe it’s great.”
The Burlesons, who have been invited this summer by two groups of guide dog users to demonstrate what their horses can do, say they aren’t out to replace guide dogs. “We love dogs,” Don Burleson explains. “We love dogs as guides. Our main thrust is . . . to give blind people more options.”
Evelyn B. Hanggi, president of the Equine Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, questions the suitability of horses as guides because of their natural instinct to spook or bolt. “Cuddles may turn out to be a great horse and never spook,” she says, “but sooner or later it will happen . . . Imagine a guide horse spooking in a busy intersection and either running off or barging into its owner.”
But Janet Burleson, a show horse trainer for 30 years, has no fear. “I teach them to more or less spook in place. They learn to accept the normal things of human life–loud noises, vehicles, balloons popping, fireworks, dogs barking.”
The idea of Cuddles bolting makes Shaw smile. The calm little horse that licked his nose when they met suddenly going mad and dragging him off? Not a chance, he says. In May, Shaw will return to the Burleson ranch for four more weeks of training with Cuddles. Then he and the Burlesons will load the little horse into a rented Winnebago for the long drive to her new home in Maine.
“I’ve always loved horses,” Shaw says, tearing up. “I never expected to own one. I never expected it to be my eyes, either.”
Los Angeles Times, Edith Stanley,