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The Guide Horse Foundation
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A non-profit charity dedicated to providing free guides for visually impaired individuals.


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Training Guide Horses for the Blind

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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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June 2, 2001

Blind man, pygmy pony harness up
News Staff Writer
Bangor Daily News

BAR HARBOR, ME -- Everyone wants to cuddle Cuddles.

When the two-foot high pygmy
horse trotted down Cottage Street in shiny white sneakers Friday afternoon, tourists stopped in their tracks to get a glimpse.

''She’s adorable,'' one woman said, snapping a photograph.

Cuddles’ owner, Dan Shaw of Ellsworth, smiled like a proud papa. ''Thank you.''

A car stopped in the middle of the road and teenage boys leaning out the windows stared in disbelief.

The cook at a local pizza place did a double take when he spotted Cuddles standing patiently while Shaw ate lunch. ''I thought it was a dog,'' he said, laughing.

In the month since Shaw became the first
blind person to use a trained pygmy horse as his guide
animal, he’s gotten used to the attention.

''The first word is usually, ‘Awww’. The second is, ‘She’s got shoes on!’'' Shaw said.

he trip to Bar Harbor was Cuddles’ first expedition since Shaw and his wife, Ann, brought the
horse home Thursday.

The family spent most of May on the North Carolina ranch where Don and Janet Burleson of the
Guide Horse Foundation have been training Cuddles for the past three years.

Horses of any size are natural
guide animals because of their longevity, tremendous peripheral vision, good memory and instinctive caution. Cuddles is as intelligent as any guide dog and took quickly to her training, Don Burleson said.

''Cuddles was fully trained, but Dan wasn’t,'' he said.

So Shaw spent a full month studying
horse psychology, grooming and health.

''I can honestly say, now I’m a real horseman—I’m a little
man,'' he said.

Shaw also learned the countless voice commands he uses to direct Cuddles, and the body language she uses to communicate with him.

''During that month, Dan worked at least eight hours a day, every day,'' Janet Burleson said.

hen, last Sunday, the Shaws and the Burlesons loaded Cuddles into a 10-passenger van and began the long drive north to her new home. The journey became an East Coast publicity tour as thousands of reporters and photographers tailed Shaw while he and Cuddles toured Washington, D.C., rode in subways and old-fashioned carriages in Manhattan, and held a celebration in Boston.

''She’s pretty well-known around the world. She’s a little famous one,'' Shaw said. ''I’ve had the media in my life for about a year now. It’s overwhelming sometimes. It’s been way more than we anticipated.''

Shaw has been anxiously awaiting Cuddles’ homecoming since the Burlesons decided last year he would receive their first trainee. With help from a friend, Shaw built a six-foot-square barn and a miniature corral behind his home. He got a new tattoo of the pygmy
horse on his left hand. He looked at enlarged photographs of Cuddles, and he waited months to meet her.

But in some ways, Shaw has been waiting for Cuddles for most of his life, he said.

He began losing his sight to a degenerative eye disease as a teenager living in the Boston area, but Shaw hid his blindness for years. Now, 20 years later, with only a tiny percentage of a typical person’s capacity for vision, he’s finally talking freely about his disability because of Cuddles.

''I know if there’s another
blind person out there who feels like me inside, they’re just waiting for a guide horse,'' Shaw said in an interview earlier this spring.

During the past month, Shaw and Cuddles have forged a unique relationship. She views him as a member of her herd, and when she’s wearing the special guiding harness, protects him as an extension of her own body.

''They don’t just connect to a person real easy. We didn’t bond until a few weeks ago,'' Shaw said. ''Now, she’ll nuzzle up, put her head up under my chin—when you get affection from a
horse that’s used to being a work animal, it means a lot more.''

Shaw earned Cuddles’ affection, but giving her his full trust and turning control over to the little
were the toughest parts of the training, he said. Yet she proved her worth on countless occasions, once using her body to shove Shaw out of the path of a bicyclist.

''She’s always been there for me,'' he said.

''That’s the goal: to get him to completely trust the
horse,'' Burleson said.

Cuddles avoids puddles and low overhangs, she chooses ramps and elevators over stairs, and she only needs to walk a route once or twice before committing it to memory, he said.

Cuddles leads Shaw across busy streets, instinctively quickening her pace, stopping to show him the location of a curb and placing her furry little body between her owner and the vehicles.

Cuddles has been trained to pace herself at slow walk, walk, and trot on command. ''She’s a three-speed,'' Shaw said.

Cuddles has also been taught to overrule Shaw’s commands when obeying him would place them in danger.

She rides comfortably in the back of Shaw’s sport utility vehicle with a bale of hay to munch. She is house broken, neighing and crossing her legs when she needs to go outside. She silently catnaps while Shaw is busy, conserving the energy that allows her to walk dozens of miles without tiring.

''She has exceeded all expectations,'' Burleson said. ''We were crossing some of the most chaotic streets in America [in New York].''

In fact, when Shaw was walking through a mall in Washington, several bystanders thought he was a sighted
horse trainer.

''He’s been accused of not really being
blind,'' Burleson said.

Cuddles wears sneakers to protect her hooves because the rubber soles give her traction. She wears a blanket warning people that on-duty guard animals should not be petted to deter a natural urge to reach out and rub her tiny brown muzzle.

''Kamikaze children are the only problem,'' Burleson said with a laugh.

When Cuddles isn’t working, she romps with the Shaw’s dog, gallops around her corral and sleeps in her barn.

''This time of year, I want to let her be a
when she’s off duty,'' Shaw said.

Through the weekend, Shaw will continue taking Cuddles on expeditions to learn the routes he follows in day-to-day life—a stroll down his road, window-shopping at the Bangor Mall, a trip to Wal-Mart.

Then the Shaw family will settle in to enjoy some much-deserved peace and quiet.

''I need it. Cuddles, my baby, needs it,'' Shaw said.

2001 Bangor Daily News.

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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.