Wednesday, March 21, 2001
Sometimes It Takes a
Miniature Horse to Do the Work of a Seeing Eye Dog
RALEIGH, N.C.--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.
an 18-month-old miniature pony, trained to be a guide for
the visually impaired.
Photos by ERIK
S. LESSER / for The Times
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
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 Carroll School 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
"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
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."
Dan Shaw, left, with his new
guide horse, Cuddles, and her trainers, Janet and Donald
"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
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
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
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,
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."