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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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Tonto leads the way
By BRIAN CALLAWAY
The Intelligencer
 


LANSDALE - She has a knee-high stuffed toy horse by the back door, a black and white one stabled in the living room and a small herd of equine-figurines scattered through her house.

So it's no surprise that Shari Bernstiel, a self-described "lifelong horse lover," finally decided to get a real, live one of her own.

What is surprising is ... well, this is how she puts it:

"Look at Tonto," she said of the 3-year-old gelding. "We're not going riding."

Tonto, a calm fellow with caramel and off-white fur and a buttery mane, is only about 2 feet tall - larger than the stuffed animals, but smaller than Bernstiel's German shepherd.

And while the miniature horse is meant to take her places, she doesn't ride him.

Bernstiel is legally blind and Tonto acts like her Seeing Eye dog - only with hooves and an occasional whinny.

Leading her with his reins through their Lansdale neighborhood last week, he stopped before crossing intersections and briefly guided her into a lawn to avoid a sidewalk puddle, then back on the sidewalk, his hooves click-click-clicking their way alongside her.

He also does stairs, elevators and car rides, has gone shopping at places like the Montgomery Mall, and even once stayed politely by Bernstiel's side at a movie theater.

As expected, the tiny horse's public appearances - often with two pairs of customized baby sneakers on his hooves to give him traction on things like linoleum floors - draw stares and more than a few questions.

"A lot of people ask if he's stuffed," Bernstiel said. "Well, he's walking and there's no place for batteries."

And despite the shawl he wears attached to his harness identifying him as a guide horse that shouldn't be petted, Bernstiel still fields requests to touch Tonto.

"With kids, I try to let them," she said. "But I can't get from point A to point B if I stop every five steps for someone to pet him."

Clay Lewis, who owns the North Wales News Agency, remembers Bernstiel bringing Tonto into his store one morning.

"He was very well-behaved," Lewis said. "She'd told me she was trying to get one, so I knew, but my customers were very much surprised. The main topic of conversation was how do you clean up his poop."

(For the record, Bernstiel said Tonto is "not as trained as a dog" in that respect, but she gives him plenty of time outside before they go somewhere.)

And while Bernstiel's never had anyone try to deny Tonto entry - the Americans with Disabilities Act requires access for any specially trained guide animal, not specifically dogs - she's also heard a snide remark or two.

"Some guy commented like, 'Yeah right,' " she said. "But (Tonto) is legitimate. He is performing a service."

Bernstiel actually has some vision. She was diagnosed as a girl with a degenerative eye disease called Stargards, or Stargardt, that's characterized by a reduction of central sight, though peripheral vision generally remains.

"It's hard to describe it, because I don't know how you see," she said. "I think what I'm seeing is what you're seeing, only at a farther distance."

She can't drive and doesn't really read, but can get around her own home unassisted - though she admits she's prone to tripping over things her sons leave lying around.

It wasn't until a couple of years ago, when she noticed her sight getting worse, that she began to consider training with a cane or a guide dog.

Then she heard of the Guide Horse Foundation, a North Carolina-based group that trains horses instead of dogs to assist visually impaired people.

According to Seeing Eye Inc., a New Jersey-based dog training organization, about 10,000 of the nation's estimated 1 million legally blind people use Seeing Eye dogs. In comparison, guide horses - Seeing Eye is actually a trademark of the dog group - are only known to be used by a handful of people nationwide as efforts to train horses for the job are only a few years old.

"I decided to apply, never thinking I would be accepted," Bernstiel said.

Eventually she was. After several interviews and a trip to North Carolina to interact with Tonto - the horse himself had about a year of training - Bernstiel brought him home late last year.

Since horses are herd animals, she also brought home Kayla, another miniature horse - though an untrained one - to keep Tonto company in his downtime.

The horses live in a small makeshift barn with a separate fenced-in pasture in Bernstiel's back yard. The barn required a permit, and the horses drew an inspection from the borough, but haven't required any other special exceptions.

"They were fine," said Lansdale's health officer, Rosella Burcin, who made the inspection. She added that she'd received no complaints about Tonto and Kayla.

Like most guide dogs, the horses didn't cost anything, and the upkeep isn't that expensive, with a $4 bail of hay lasting them more than a week and a $10 bag of oats taking them through a month.

But caring for the two horses is more difficult than for two dogs, she said, requiring daily cleaning of their stall to keep smells and flies away.

"It is a lot of work," said Bernstiel's 17-year-old son Andy, who often helps with the horses. "But I don't care."

Still, why not get a guide dog?

Bernstiel said there are a couple of reasons.

In addition to her interest in horses, Bernstiel said she liked that Tonto wouldn't be as attention-hungry as many dogs.

"I've raised five kids, a dog and three cats," the housewife said. "I didn't want him to be emotionally needy ... and he's happy outside."

And with Tonto's life expectancy of about 40 years, he'll last more than twice as long as the average guide dog.

So while Bernstiel said she still might want a horse she can actually ride someday, she likes that she can count on Tonto to be there too.

"My vision is going to get worse, so I wanted him here now so we could get used to each other," she said. "He's going to be the one guide in my lifetime - that's a big plus."

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Training Miniature Horses as Guide Animals for the Blind

Janet Burleson

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Copyright © 1998 - 2005 by the Guide Horse Foundation Inc. 

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The Guide Horse Foundation has the utmost respect for The Seeing Eye® and their seventy-two years of outstanding work with assistance animals for the blind. Even though the press often calls our horses "seeing eye horses", please note that The Guide Horse Foundation is not affiliated with or sanctioned by the Seeing-Eye® or any of the Guide Dog training organizations. Seeing-Eye® is a registered trademark of the Seeing-Eye, Inc.

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