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Patricia Cornwell with Trip, one of the horses she donated to the guide Horse Foundation

Patricia Cornwell with Trip

Don and Janet Burleson - Copyright 2000 by Lisa Carpenter

Copyright © 2000 by Lisa Carpenter

Dan with Cuddles - Copyright (c) 2001 by Cathleen MacDonald
Copyright © 2001 by Cathleen MacDonald

Cuddles in Harness - Copyright (c) 2001 by Cathleen MacDonald

Copyright © 2001 by Cathleen MacDonald

Don and Janet with Trip and Ras

Copyright © 2000 by Lisa Carpenter

Cuddles on the first flight of a horse on a commercial flight

Copyright © 2001 by Erik Lesser
The worlds first horse to fly in the passenger cabin

Cuddles guiding Dan Shaw

Copyright © 2001 by Erik Lesser

Cuddles at Lunch

Copyright © 2001 by Erik Lesser


Copyright © 2001 by Wiley Miller

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A little horse shall lead them

By KELLY STARLING-LYONS
News And Observer


KITTRELL-

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"Horses have been guiding people for centuries," Don Burleson said. People just have to trust them, he said.

 

 

 

The couple are choosy about whom they trust with their horses. Just four years ago, the Burlesons had an incredible idea -- to successfully train a miniature horse to lead the sight-impaired . People scoffed at the notion. But the Burlesons proved their hunch right with an experimental project in 1999 and started a series of firsts. Janet became the first person in the world to train a guide horse and then trained the first guide horse to enter full-time service with a blind person. Following their example, a handful of people are now training guide horses in other parts of the world.

Not everyone can manage a guide horse, Don said. The person must have a sense of navigation. It's a misconception, Don said, that a guide animal will, without direction, take a person where he wants to go. The new owner also must have enough yard for the horse and its companion mini to graze and a caring heart.

 

 

 

 

An idea from Twinkie

The Burlesons didn't set out to make history. Don, who already had a couple of minis as pets, spotted a 2-foot dwarf miniature horse at an auction in Mount Airy. Don entered the bidding, set on taking that mini home. "When it got to $900, Janet started nudging me," Don said. "She said, 'What will you do with it?' She thought I was nuts."

Don paid $950. He started treating his pet, Twinkie, like a dog, loading him up in his minivan and taking him places like the flea market. Don knew he was special right away. Twinkie loved people. He was intelligent and was a natural guide. By instinct, horses are cautious of danger. At the flea market, Don noticed how Twinkie led him around obstacles.

One day, Don and Janet batted ideas around. The pair thought about Twinkie and about the horses they rented in Manhattan, who maneuvered around traffic, undaunted by blaring horns and city noise, from the livery stable to Central Park and back to the stable. Then Janet, a champion rider and trainer since her youth, thought back to her early days. As a teen, she had watched a blind woman showing a horse once. The trust and bond between them amazed her. Could they train miniature horses to lead the blind?

"We were laughed at and got everything from skepticism to amazement when we first started," Don said. "Some people said, 'You'll never be able to housebreak a horse.' A lot of people didn't understand horses. They had already been guiding people at the turn of the century. People back then understood."

They set to work on Twinkie. Don, who has a degree in experimental psychology, had the know-how in memory theory and conditioning. Janet, whom Don calls a horse whisperer, had the experience in training around behavior challenges and getting the response she wanted.

Janet, with Don helping out, devoted hundreds of hours, housebreaking Twinkie, teaching him to ride an elevator, navigate in traffic, spook in place (remain calm in noise and chaos), practice intelligent disobedience. If the blind person commands the horse to go and there's danger, the horse has to have the smarts to stop anyway and protect his charge. They were training with him in Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh one day when someone at a local television station spotted them.

That set off the national sensation. The couple have been featured on everything from "Ripley's Believe It Or Not!" and "20/20" to the children's magazine Highlights and the "Today" show. They never planned to put the guide horses into practice. But in 2000, Dan Shaw of Maine heard a woman on TV talk about the guide horse she had trained. Shaw, who had considered guide dogs, made up his mind that he needed one. He found the Burlesons' number and called.

"He pestered us incessantly," Don said. "We had never planned to place horses. We just wanted to see if it could be done."

As word spread, donations poured in to buy the minis from breeders. Children mailed their allowances. Celebrities sent anonymous monetary gifts. Stores donated products. When they don't get donations, Don, who has written more than 30 technical computer database books, and Janet, a Web design consultant, pay for everything themselves.

Novelist Patricia Cornwell, who asked to be blindfolded and guided around with a Burleson mini, donated several miniatures, including Cuddles, the one they trained for Shaw. Twinkie, who had the necessary intelligence and excellent health, did not have the agility to be an official guide horse. Just one or two in 100 miniatures have what it takes.

"Cuddles has changed every aspect of Dan's life," Don said. "He went from being introverted to bold and outgoing. It's gratifying to see how animals can change owner s' lives. After Dan, the phone was ringing off the hook with blind people from all over the country. We had blind people crying on the phone, trying to bribe us, cajole us. There's lots of need out there."

After Shaw, training guide horses became a mission for the Burlesons. They give their time for free. Their foundation pays for the guide horse training, follow-up visits, trips for the sight-impaired person to practice with the horse. The recipient of their gift pays nothing. For the Burlesons, the reward is watching the guide horse and blind person grow together. They're in no rush to place more. Building trust with the horses and with the blind handlers takes time. The Burlesons are training horses who will be entrusted with someone's life.

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"A guide horse and a blind person develop a symbiotic relationship," Don said. "They become one."

 

 


Staff writer Kelly Starling-Lyons can be reached at 829-4636 or kstarlin@newsobserver.com.


 


 





 

 





 

 




 

 





 

 

 

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