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