February 5, 2001
08:25 PM

Cuddles is scheduled to be the first guide horse placed into full-time service with a blind person. The 1-year-old red roan filly measures 22 inches tall.

Don and Janet Burleson volunteer their time to train Cuddles and other horses.

inside restaurant
Cuddles has also been taught to lie down when she is waiting for her handler while on duty. Here she is inside a restaurant.

It is not a stretch to think of a horse as a guide, but the sight of one has people turning their heads.

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Guide Horses Have the Sighted Doing a Double Take

FRANKLINTON (WRAL) -- The town of Franklinton is usually a quiet place where nothing unusual happens. But lately, people have been seeing something quite out of the ordinary that has become more common across the country.

Cuddles is the talk of Franklinton.

"Today, we're practicing crossing the street. She has to learn to look for traffic and determine when it's safe to cross," says trainer Janet Burleson.

Janet and her husband, Don, are training the one-year-old red roan filly to be a guide for the blind.

It is a first. No one has ever used a pygmy horse as a guide, and no one has tried to train them to do it.

"Absolutely. We're the only people in the world doing it today," says Don.

The Burlesons say it is not such a stretch. Finding the safe course is in a horse's blood.

"From wounded calvary soldiers being carried off the battle field to drunken farmers pulling themselves into a buckboard and just telling Nellie to take them home," says Don.

It is not a stretch to think of a horse as a guide, but the sight of one has people turning their heads.

"I thought it was a dog, and then when it turned around, I saw its head. I just wanted to fall out. I said, 'I've got to see more of that,'" says resident Rosa Kearney.

Service animals are trained to go wherever their handler goes. So, just like seeing eye dogs, guide horses can accompany their handlers just about anywhere.

"Oh, we've always gotten very favorable response from people in restaurants, supermarkets and shopping malls. A lot of people don't even notice that she's a horse," says Janet.

The Burlesons say people stare and ask questions, but more often, they smile at the sight of Cuddles.

More smiles are on the way. There are five more pygmy horses at the Burleson's home and a long waiting list of horse lovers who need an extra set of eyes.

Novelist Patricia Cornwall donated the horses the Burlesons are currently training, and the couple donates their time. Future owners get the trained horses at no charge.

While guide dogs live a useful life of seven to 10 years, pygmy horses have a life expectancy of 25 to 35 years; some live even longer.

Reporter: Rick Armstrong
OnLine Producer:
Michelle Singer

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