Guide horses put their best hooves forward

Animals' calm nature, 350-degree vision enable them to help blind

March 14, 2001|By Diane Suchetka | Diane Suchetka,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

KITTRELL, N.C. - At the Tip Top Restaurant in downtown Henderson, Janet and Don Burleson talk, in the corner booth, between bites of pineapple-coconut cake. The other customers are like steam from their coffee, they can't help but rise up from their tables.

Then they stare.

"Isn't that wild?" one woman says, gawking from a spot she's staked out in the middle of the restaurant, 4 feet from the Burlesons.

She's staring under their table, where their pet, Cuddles, is waiting, not making a sound.

"It's got shoes on," the woman says, to no one.

Patiently, the Burlesons answer questions everyone's tossing their way, even one from a man who yells: "Y'all blind?"

They smile, shake their heads no, and finish dessert.

Then the Burlesons pay their check and head out the door, where another man's shaking his head.

`I've seen everything'

"Now, I've seen everything," he says.

Cuddles is a horse.

She's training in Kittrell, home to what the Burlesons say is the only guide horse school in the world.

Here, between the tobacco and soybean farms halfway between Durham and the Virginia line, is the headquarters of the nonprofit Guide Horse Foundation.

Out behind the two-story farmhouse with lace curtains are fenced pastures and paddocks where the Burlesons keep 34 horses. Of those, 12 are pygmies, just 22 to 26 inches tall. And the Burlesons are teaching 10 of them to help the blind.

The horses' calm nature, almost 350-degree vision and amazing memories - not to mention size - make them perfect for the job.

"Being herd animals, they're all about safety," says Janet, who grew up in Charlotte as Janet Lavender.

And they've been guiding people for centuries, Don says.

In the 1800s in New York, he says, when taxis were horse-drawn carriages, cabbies would announce the name of a hotel. And their horses would trot straight there.

"Even drunken farmers," Don says, "they'd pour themselves onto the buckboard and say `Nellie, home' and then go to sleep."

Nothing against dogs, the Burlesons say. They have three.

"We're just trying to give blind people more options," Don says.

Dan Shaw, a blind man from Maine, has his own reasons for preferring horses to dogs.

Guide dogs die after eight or 10 years, he says. These horses live for 40 or more.

There are other advantages too.

"They don't get fleas and they don't chase squirrels," says Don.

"They can see in almost total darkness," Janet adds. "They stay very focused.

"And they're great lawn mowers."

Behaving like dogs

The Burlesons never meant to get into this line of work. Janet, a horse trainer, and Don, a semi-retired database consultant, were raising horses. (Janet has trained them since she was 8.) In 1998, they bought their first two pygmies, as pets.

They couldn't help but notice how much Twinkie and Smokey behaved like dogs. The horses, the size of Labrador retrievers, followed the Burlesons around, rode in their van and were housebroken in a week.

A few months later, the Burlesons rented horses in Central Park and noticed how calm they were, even in Manhattan traffic.

The guide horse idea popped into their heads. Why not give it a try?

As soon as they headed out with knee-high horses on leashes, crowds gathered. The media weren't far behind. Soon, blind people were calling, asking how to get one.

The procedure is simple. Those who want horses fill out an application and submit references. The Burlesons follow up with interviews and talks with their doctors.

There's no charge to the blind person. But there is a waiting list, with 30 names on it now.

The process is slow because it takes about a year to train the elfin horses. The Burlesons begin with basic socialization, acclimating the horses to harnesses and humans.

They move on to verbal commands: Wait. Forward. Right. Left.

And there's housebreaking.

Horses pick that up faster than dogs. They learn, quickly, to go to the door and paw at the floor when they want to go out.

"The reason people think you can't housetrain a horse," Don says, "is because no one's ever asked them to."

International attention

The horses are drawing international attention. Japanese and German television crews have traveled to Kittrell. And mystery writer and former Charlotte Observer reporter Patricia Cornwell has visited the Burlesons' farm four times to learn more about them.

She's writing one of the horses into a novel. And she bought six to donate to the blind.

Others are helping too. A South Carolina man has donated two more horses. A nearby Lion's Club plans to sponsor one. The Burlesons train the horses for free. And a 4-H group is offering to groom them.

"We've never actually sought any publicity," Don says. "It seems to find us."

Early next month, Shaw will fly to North Carolina and become the first blind person to be matched with a trained guide horse.

Then he'll fly to Atlanta with Cuddles, making the horse one of the first ever to travel in the cabin of a commercial airline.

Together they'll ride commuter trains and negotiate city traffic.

The Burlesons will test how well Cuddles has learned intelligent disobedience. That's her ability to not cross the street even if Shaw orders her too, because she sees danger he can't.

Shaw will train again with Cuddles for a month in May.

If all goes well, the Burlesons will hand the horse over then.

"I'm counting the days," says Shaw, who's 44 and has 1 percent of his vision left. "It's so exciting, I don't care if people know if I'm blind anymore. She's helped me accept my blindness.

"And now," he says, "we're going to grow old together."

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