Riding horseback through New York City’s Central Park and watching how that city’s livery horses reacted to automobiles showed Janet Burleson that horses have a strong sense of direction and can adapt well to the vagaries of city traffic patterns. A few of those rides—taken when her husband Don traveled to New York on business—and the fact that Janet owned a friendly and good-natured miniature horse at their farm in North Carolina, led the Burlesons to form the non-profit Guide Horse Foundation to provide blind individuals with free seeing-eye guides.
After the Burlesons, who have more than 30 years of experience raising and training horses, arrived home from one of those business trips, the couple immediately started training their mini, Twinkie, to guide the blind through the daily routines of life much as dogs are trained for the job. It started as an experiment and the Burlesons recruited Karen Clark, who has been blind since childhood and has 30 years of experience working with guide animals.
Twinkie was trained to cross streets, navigate elevators and escalators and respond to numerous voice commands. On top of her ability to lead her charge, Twinkie was right at home, lying quietly under restaurant tables when not guiding Clark. The horse proved miniatures could work as guides and inspired the Burlesons to continue their training.
As word spread of the couple’s project, nine other minis were added to the non-profit organization’s stable, all of which are in training, which is solely funded through donations. One, a 22-inch-tall, 50-pound female horse named Cuddles, will become the companion of Dan Shaw of Ellsworth, Maine, in May. Shaw had refused for years to get a guide dog. The thought of a guide horse, he says, was unique and, therefore, much more appealing.
As is par for the training, Shaw will spend a month at the Burlesons’ farm in Kittrell, outside Raleigh, to learn how to work with Cuddles. After that, Janet Burleson will travel to Maine and stay with Shaw and his guide for a couple of weeks to make sure the two are ready to hit the bricks without any coaching.
The housebroken Cuddles will wear a version of baby’s sneakers to negotiate the slick halls of malls and hard concrete sidewalks around town, and will neigh at the front door when she needs to go out. She will sleep in the house and ride in the family car. The horse has been taught to protect its master from moving cars and warn him about low branches. Unlike dogs, the horses don’t crave attention and are perfectly suited to wait patiently during appointments.
Of the 10 horses currently in training, six of them were donated. The training takes about eight months and the Burlesons use similar repetition exercises that are used when teaching horses other common tasks.
According to the Burlesons, who also raise Arabians, minis are a perfect alternative to guide dogs for some people and are better suited to guiding in a number of ways. They live three times as long as canines used as guide dogs and have much wider fields of vision (almost 350 degrees) because of the placement of their eyes. They also have excellent night vision and can see clearly in almost total darkness, according to the foundation.
Horses have been guiding humans to shelter and safety for centuries, Janet Burleson likes to point out, noting that though the horses in New York City are well-versed around loud traffic, the guide horses are better suited to people who live in non-urban areas.
For more information on the Guide Horse Foundation, you can visit the Website at www.guidehorse.com or call (252) 433-4755.