There are an estimated 150,000 miniature horses registered in
the United States. A good one costs around $2,000 and they exist
primarily for the enjoyment of the people who raise them; but
this story is about one of them whose destiny was of a different
kind. Cuddles will become the eyes of 44-year-old Shaw.
Shaw is an accomplished craftsman and has built beautiful
arbors and birdhouses on his property. In recent years, a
disease called retinitis pigmentosa has reduced his field of
vision to the size of a pinhole. He will soon be completely
blind. In spite of his disability, he has used his sense of
touch to continue building the arbors and birdhouses which
surround his property, and has also built a bait and tackle shop
for himself as a place to work near his home.
"I couldn't find a way of getting into town to get a job
? but I knew if I had my own business I could do it and run it
my way," Shaw says.
Around 900 miles southwest of where Shaw lives, in Kittrell,
N.C., Cuddles trained to use her abilities as a horse in a new
way as an assistance animal for the blind. Janet and Don
Burleson, who also own Arabians, have been preparing Cuddles to
be Shaw's companion.
When they got the idea to train miniature horses, the
Burlesons had no intention of competing with guide dogs. They
only wanted to give more options to visually impaired horse
lovers, who in turn will have to supply plenty of grazing space.
A visit to the Clermont Stables, which are located in the heart
of New York City, further inspired them. They were impressed
with the ability of the horses, as they made their way through
the busy streets that lead to Central Park. The horses remained
calm in traffic and responded to traffic patterns.
"They have evolved as an animal that always seeks out
the safest, most direct path to get from point A to point B, and
they're always safety conscious," says Janet Burlson.
And miniature guide horses can also be house trained. They
have no offensive ordor, and they bond well with humans. Some of
the first miniature horses were said to have been the pets of
When novelist Patricia Cornwell heard that the Burlesons were
training miniatures to use as guide animals, she donated seed
money to their program. At precisely the same time, Shaw had
finally decided he needed a guide dog's help and contacted the
Burlesons. What especially appealed to him was the fact that the
same miniature horse could be with him for the rest of his life.
"I've loved horses all my life. It was the idea of them
living almost 35 to 40 years, Where I could have one animal and
it would last me all that time," Shaw says.
Out of dozens of applications, the Burlesons selected Shaw to
be the first person to receive a guide horse, free of charge. He
was beside himself with excitement and earlier this month he
flew to North Carolina for some preliminary training. The
Burlesons met him at the airport with Cuddles in tow, who was
wearing little sneakers to keep her from slipping on the airport
"Oh, she's everything I thought she'd be. When I first
met her, we hit it right off. It was kind of a strange
thing," Shaw remembers, "It was almost like it was
meant to be,"
It turned into an extraordinary weekend, in which Cuddles and
Dan went through their paces together including a visit to a
large shopping mall in Raleigh, N.C. "When I told her to
wait, she would wait. And then when I told to find the button
for the elevator, she took me to the elevator and actually
stopped in front of the button," Shaw says.
Negotiating the shopping mall successfully made Shaw so happy
he burst into tears. "It wasn't a cry of, of depression or
anything like that, it was a cry of relief and excitement,"
Shaw says, "It was like having eyes again."
One of his last tests was to take Cuddles on a round-trip
flight between Raleigh and Atlanta, Ga. Cuddles took her place
in the bulkhead row and was able to take a nap in spite of the
shaky floor of the plane.
Cuddles will be only 2 years old when she's expected to join
him for good sometime in June. In the mean time, there is one
more thing Shaw wants to build. "I'm going to build her a
little barn with a little corral of her own because I don't
really feel you should take away what she really is and that's a