Trail guides -
If her owner doesn't respond, she taps her hoof and whinnies.
If he still doesn't answer, Cuddles taps, whinnies and crosses her back legs.
Or at least that's what his wife tells him, says Cuddles' owner, Dan Shaw, with a laugh.
Shaw, being blind, can't actually see Cuddles crossing her legs. But he can see that having a guide horse has made him happier and more independent.
A miniature horse's ability to be housebroken is only one of many reasons Don and Janet Burleson of Kittrell, N.C., train guide horses, a new alternative to Seeing Eye dogs.
Burleson, 46, has trained horses for 30 years. She remembers, in her youth, having seen a blind woman show a horse and being impressed at the relationship between the two.
Burleson's husband, Don, also 46, took a horse management course in college and was interested in equine intelligence and ability to perform tasks.
The couple, who run an information technology consulting business, had noticed how well horses in New York's Central Park maneuvered despite the city noise and traffic.
In the beginning, says Janet Burleson, they were just curious. They experimented with Twinkie, their pet miniature horse, and were impressed with how she acted - like a dog.
Once people heard what the couple had in mind, requests started rolling in. Three years later, the nonprofit Guide Horse Foundation, based at the Burlesons' farm, is well under way.
Dan Shaw and Cuddles are the first team to come out of the program. To the Burlesons' knowledge, Cuddles is the first trained guide horse ever.
Now the Burlesons keep about 35 horses, including 11 Arabians, nine guide horses-in-training, a couple of rescued horses and a little of everything in between.
Add three dogs, two cats, a flock of guinea hens - all of whom get along with the little horses - and you have what could be a full-time job.
But Don Burleson, an Oracle database administrator who's written 12 computer books, also travels the world teaching and consulting. Janet Burleson works with the business, as well, and trains the guide horses in her "spare" time, donating those hours to the foundation.
Her brother, John Lavender of Apex, helps out when he's not working as an Oracle database consultant, and her parents come from Raleigh when everyone else is away.
The Guide Horse Foundation is clearly a labor of love.
About 80 vision-impaired people are on the guide-horse waiting list. While the Burlesons have high hopes for the future - they envision a free-standing facility, full-time trainers and an apprentice program - they're taking it one day at a time.
By the beginning of the year, three more horses should be ready to follow in Cuddles' footsteps. Purchasing and training each horse runs into the thousands of dollars. Those expenses, plus travel to and from the recipient's training in Kittrell, are paid by the foundation, which depends on individual and corporate donations.
One such donor is Richmond author Patricia Cornwell, who was so interested in the program that she not only visited Kittrell, but was blindfolded and tried out Twinkie at a nearby mall.
As a result of her $30,000 gift, the Burlesons were able to buy six miniature horses, including Shaw's Cuddles.
"I can't wait to meet her," Shaw says by phone from his home in Maine. "I have my book ready for her to autograph."
He's referring to Cornwell's most recent release, "Isle of Dogs," which includes a guide horse and a blind state governor.
Driving up to the Burlesons' farm, the first thing a visitor notices is an unusually small horse trailer. And then the incredibly adorable pint-size horses grazing beside and in front of the house.
Don't judge these little books by their covers, though. Their beauty is far more than skin deep.
Miniature horses are smart. To be part of the program, they must pass field intelligence tests and be able to stay focused.
They have excellent hearing and sense of smell. Their eye positioning affords about a 350-degree range, and they have superior night vision. Blessed with good memory, they are natural-born guides.
"They're really good at finding cars," says Burleson, laughing. "We drive a Dodge Caravan. That's real common, but they find it where we left it in the parking lot. We just say, 'Find the van.'"
They require little sleep. Burleson says the horses sleep a total of about four hours a day, maybe 30 minutes of which is deep sleep - and that, only when they feel totally comfortable and secure.
They require little in the way of upkeep, medical care and grooming. Feed, immunize and brush them, cut their manes into a "bridle path" and keep their tails short enough that they don't get tangled in escalators.
They bond well with humans, animals and especially fellow grazers. They love to be petted.
They don't object to a harness and, though routine-oriented, adapt well to unusual circumstances. Because of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which allows service animals to enter public places, they can go pretty much anywhere.
Is there anything these miniature marvels can't do?
Well, they can't stand more than 26 inches tall at the withers so they can fit under tables.
And they can't wear horseshoes, says Burleson, because their hoofs don't have a thick enough wall to take the nails. Her husband figured out a way to modify baby shoes so that when the horses walk on too slippery or too rough a surface, their feet are protected.
And they don't need diapers, which the Burlesons tried before they discovered horses could be housebroken.
"They are house-trained for working purposes, but they live outdoors," says Burleson. "They need fresh air.
"Ideally, we see them going to horse people in the country."
One big happy family
Twinkie, the pet, hangs out beside the Burlesons' house along with a couple of horses-in-training, Silhouette and Sweetie.
Across one fence is Cottontail, who needs to drop a few pounds. Across another are four not-yet-gelded males, "the front-yard crew": Trigger, Buckshot, Muncher and Laddie. Trigger's a camera hog, Buckshot's slightly flighty (which may keep him out of the program) and Laddie looks like a beach boy with his bleached-blond mane and tail.
All come running when Burleson brings out a feed pail. Crowding around her like puppies, they want in on the action, but they're not impolite.
Although the Burlesons have plenty to keep them busy, do they miss Cuddles?
"We knew from the beginning that was Cuddles' purpose," Burleson says. "Besides, we still see her." The couple were in Maine recently to follow up on her progress.
As Burleson and her brother lead another horse-in-training, Trip, to demonstrate the orange-cone obstacle course, a pair of impossibly long-legged Arabian colts move in for a look.
The bigger horses are generally kept separate, Burleson says, because they tend to interact more roughly.
As Trip nuzzles Burleson and heads for the course, she gazes at him fondly.
Teamwork and trust are all-important.
"Someone said you can't teach them to ride an escalator," Burleson says. "So you know the next day we were out there training.
"With horses, as long as you don't hurt them, they'll accept almost anything. They just need to feel safe."
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