Trend Alert

By Julie Rawe
January 21, 2001

    Guide dogs are great, but why should one animal have a monopoly on helping the blind? Given the existence of hearing-ear cats, seizure-assist pigs and monkey helpers for quadriplegics, it should come as no surprise that miniature horses are being trained to guide the blind. Lilliputian creatures, roughly 2 ft. tall at the shoulder, they come equipped with a good memory, excellent night vision and absurdly cute sneakers to provide traction indoors. But perhaps the greatest advantage is the ponies' 25- to 35-year life span. Says Dan Shaw, 44, of Ellsworth, Maine, who will receive the world's first guide horse, Cuddles, in May: "Instead of going through three or four guide dogs in my lifetime, I'll get to stick with one animal."

Retired horse trainer Janet Burleson created the nonprofit Guide Horse Foundation after a visit to New York City in 1999, when she and her husband saddled up on rented horses a few blocks from Central Park. Impressed by the animals' calm in heavy traffic and their mastery of right turns on red, the couple went back to Kittrell, N.C., and taught their 24-in.-high mare Twinkie to lead a blind woman through a mall. Burleson plans to donate 10 other pygmy horses--now in training--to the visually impaired.

Backyards are a must for these "wonderful little lawn mowers," Burleson says, which live inside and paw at the door when nature calls. No word yet on how they react to mailmen.

PRODUCT Miniature horses, as small and disciplined as guide dogs, trained to assist the visually impaired

HOW IT STARTED Regular horses have been known to guide blind riders on the trail, and their pint-size brethren have become popular pets