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Sometimes It Takes a Miniature Horse to Do the Work of a Seeing Eye Dog


RALEIGH, N.C. — As Delta Flight 192 lifts off for Atlanta, a small chestnut horse lies stretched across the floor in a bulkhead row. Her name is Cuddles, and she carries a heavy responsibility on her 2-foot-high shoulders.

Cuddles is a 55-pound miniature, one of more than 120,000 registered in the United States. But the words printed on a burgundy blanket fastened across her back reveal what makes her unique: "Service Animal In Training. Do Not Touch."

Janet Burleson, who has trained 18-month-old Cuddles for the past seven months, says that she is the first horse to go into full-time service as a guide animal--and the first allowed to fly in the passenger cabin on Delta, perhaps on any airline.

Seated toe to horse in Row 20 are Burleson, her husband, Don, and Cuddles' new owner, Dan Shaw. The 44-year-old Shaw, who owns a bait shop in Eastern Maine, has suffered from retinitis pigmentosa since he was 17. It has left him with pinhole vision.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 22, 2001 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Missing caption--In a story Wednesday, a caption for a photograph was inadvertently left out of the story "Sometimes It Takes a Miniature Horse to Do the Work of a Seeing Eye Dog." It should have read: Dan Shaw, left, with his new guide horse, Cuddles, and her trainers, Janet and Don Burleson.

Shaw, Cuddles and the Burlesons, who own a ranch 30 miles north of Raleigh, face a busy day in Atlanta. They chose Atlanta because it is the closest city to Raleigh with a rapid rail system. Shaw, a graduate of the Carroll School for the blind in Boston, often returns there to visit friends and family. He uses the subway and wants Cuddles to experience a similar environment. Besides riding on the subway, Cuddles will guide Shaw through the vast airport terminals and lead him onto elevators, escalators and people movers.

As Shaw moves along a concourse of Hartsfield International Airport, his left hand grasps the little horse's reins and metal harness. People turn to stare. Cuddles looks straight ahead, sure-footed in the white leather baby shoes she wears for traction on the slippery floor.

"Is that really a seeing-eye horse?" asks Sandy Feenstra from Cleveland. "I haven't seen any of those in Ohio. But hey, if it works, it works."

The Burlesons are so convinced that horses can be a reliable alternative to dogs for the visually impaired that they have established the nonprofit Guide Horse Foundation ( Its mission is to deliver trained guide horses at no cost.

They have more than 40 applicants on the waiting list who have given various reasons for preferring a horse to a guide dog: allergy to canines, fear of dogs, needing an animal with more stamina. One woman says she walks four miles to work each day, and the trek makes her dog's paws bleed.

Shaw's desire for a horse is purely emotional.

"Horses live 35 to 40 years," he says. "I'm an animal lover. To lose a dog after eight to 10 years, and then have another to train, and have to do that three or four times in my lifetime . . . that's painful."

Last March, as Shaw's wife, Ann, was filling out an application for his first guide dog, the television was tuned to "Ripley's Believe It or Not." The show featured a segment on the Burlesons and a miniature horse named Twinkie, who was being trained to lead a blind woman. To Shaw, the timing was "divine providence."

"I want one of them instead of a guide dog," he remembers telling Ann. "I don't know what it will take, or what it's going to cost, but that's the way I want to go."

When Shaw located the Burlesons, however, he was disappointed to learn they had no horse to offer. They were still trying to raise money to buy some more miniatures, and then they would have to spend eight to 10 months to train them. To the Burlesons' delight, Patricia Cornwell, the crime novelist, donated $30,000 to their effort. In an upcoming book, "Isle of Dogs," Cornwell, who has visited the Burlesons' ranch, includes a blind character led by a guide horse. The couple used the money to purchase six miniature horses from a breeder in South Carolina. One of them, Cuddles, soon was in training for Shaw. A second, Cricket, is destined for a blind woman in Gig Harbor, Wash.

Earlier this month, horse and master finally met in Raleigh, the closest city to the Burlesons' ranch with an airport. "They seemed to have made an instant connection," Janet Burleson says. "There was such joy in his face. He's crying. Both of us are crying. Sometimes when I was doing the [training], I'd get frustrated. But when I saw the end result. . . ."

The Burlesons are proud of Cuddles. She knows basic leading and responds to 23 voice commands, including "wait" (not whoa) and "forward" (not giddyap). Just as important, she is housebroken. "She will absolutely let you know when she needs to go," Janet Burleson says. "She'll stand and stomp her foot and whinny. If she has to go really bad, she will stomp her foot and cross her back legs. I'm not kidding."

Michele Pouliot, director of research and development for the San Rafael, Calif.-based Guide Dogs for the Blind Inc., has trained dogs for 26 years and owns two miniature horses. Although she's never considered training the horses to guide, she is keeping an open mind: "Our take is, we don't know what they are doing, so why criticize it? Maybe it's great."

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