For centuries, humans have entrusted themselves to horses. Weve relied on their strength and fleetness of foot to carry us from one end of the country to the other. We still count on their steadiness and sensibility as a companion in work, sport, and recreation.
Who better, thought horse trainer Janet Burleson, to trust as the eyes for the blind than a horse?
Not a full-size horse, of coursecouldnt very well get one of those on an elevator with you, now could you? The guides Ms. Burleson had in mind are miniature horses, which stand about two feet tall at the shoulder, just about the size of a large dog.
Outfitted in babies sneakers (to prevent her hard hooves from slipping on slick floors), Twinkie learned to navigate a local mall and restaurants, calmly lying down under a table when "off duty."
The main inspiration was a pet mini named Twinkie, owned by Ms. Burleson and her husband, Don. The tiny chestnut mare was housebroken, and even enjoyed going for rides in the family van. "She behaved the same as a dog would. That got us to thinking [that] maybe there was a way to use tiny horses as service animals," Ms. Burleson said.
She had also noticed how well some horses adapted to completely foreign settingslike the livery horses in Manhattan, which are ridden several blocks down busy city streets to Central Park.
"We noticed how good the horses are at adapting to traffic flow," Ms. Burleson said, explaining that the horses even learn to react to traffic signals.
As an experiment, she began training Twinkie as a guide, with input and help from Karen Clark, who has been blind since childhood and has 30 years of experience working with guide animals.
Although Ms. Burleson had no previous experience training guide animals, Twinkie proved to be an eager pupil, learning how to navigate elevators and escalators, cross streets, deal with traffic, and understand various voice commands.
The Americans with Disabilities Act ensures equal treatment to any service animal, and Twinkie was no exception. Outfitted in babies sneakers (to prevent her hard hooves from slipping on slick floors), Twinkie learned to navigate a local mall and restaurants, calmly lying down under a table when "off duty."
Twinkie proved that miniature horses could fill the role, and fill it well. "It started as an experiment. When we saw that it was working out very well, we decided to pursue it," Ms. Burleson said.
The Burlesons started the Guide Horse Foundation, with the intention of training and providing miniature horses to blind people. A non-profit group, the Guide Horse Foundation will provide horses and training for free, relying upon donations to fund the enterprise.
The Burlesons currently have 10 horses in training, six of them donated by crime novel author Patricia Cornwell, who spent time with Ms. Burleson while doing research for a book.
The training takes about eight months, Ms. Burleson said, and uses the same principles that are employed when teaching horses other common tasks. Although its a lot more natural for a horse to jump a fence than ride an escalator, proper training is important to both.
"Basically, we get them used to everything new through simple repetition. Thats the way horses work. Anything theyre exposed to repeatedly becomes an acceptable part of their environment," she said.
Twinkie proved that miniature horses could fill the role, and fill it well.
And yes, it is possible to housebreak a miniature horse, in much the same way that one would litter-train a cat, Ms. Burleson said. Horses arent able to wait as long as other animals between "bathroom breaks," though, she saidtheyll need to go outside every couple of hours.
Word has gotten out about the tiny equine guides, thanks to numerous newspaper articles and television appearances, and the demand for tiny equine guides is hightheres already a waiting list. "Theres been a tremendous reaction. It will be many years before the program is revved up to the point where it can fill a large need," Ms. Burleson said.
She stresses that guide horses are not intended to replace other service animals, like guide dogs. "Theyre just a choicean alternative or complement," she said.
Dan Shaw of Ellsworth, Maine, will be the first blind person to receive one of Ms. Burlesons guide horses. He had lived in denial of his blindness for years, eschewing the idea of a guide dog or even his cane. When he saw a story on Ripleys Believe It Or Not about the guide horses, "I looked at my wife and said, Thats me! "
Mr. Shaws guide-horse-to-be, Cuddles, is currently in training and will be ready in May. Mr. Shaw will spend a month at the Burlesons farm in Kittrell, N.C., learning how to work with Cuddles, and then Ms. Burleson will spend two weeks in Maine to ensure the pair are ready to strike off on their own.
"This has helped me get over the hurdle [of accepting blindness]. Im looking forward to getting the word out about them. Its good to know youve got an option," Mr. Shaw said.
The aspect of guide horses that most appealed to him was their longer life span, Mr. Shaw said. While a large dog will usually only live to be around 10 years old, guide horses can remain in service through their 20s, even into their 30s. The little horses also have excellent vision, with a circle of vision about 350 degrees. Mr. Shaw also admires their work ethic and memory.
Ms. Burleson added that horses are hardier than dogs, and able to travel longer distances over rougher terrain. Dogs, on the other hand, are much more suitable for those who live in the city, since the horses like to be outside when possible.
"[Horses] are not for everyone, thats for sure," Mr. Shaw said. "The only thing Im worried about is for [Cuddles] to be accepted everywhere. She is a real guide animal," Mr. Shaw said. Once people learn about her, he hopes theyll accept her, he added.
For more information:
To find out more about miniature guide horses, visit the Guide Horse Foundation website.
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