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Patricia Cornwell with Trip, one of the horses she donated to the guide Horse Foundation

Patricia Cornwell with Trip

Don and Janet Burleson - Copyright 2000 by Lisa Carpenter

Copyright © 2000 by Lisa Carpenter

Dan with Cuddles - Copyright (c) 2001 by Cathleen MacDonald
Copyright © 2001 by Cathleen MacDonald

Cuddles in Harness - Copyright (c) 2001 by Cathleen MacDonald

Copyright © 2001 by Cathleen MacDonald

Don and Janet with Trip and Ras

Copyright © 2000 by Lisa Carpenter

Cuddles on the first flight of a horse on a commercial flight

Copyright © 2001 by Erik Lesser
The worlds first horse to fly in the passenger cabin

Cuddles guiding Dan Shaw

Copyright © 2001 by Erik Lesser

Cuddles at Lunch

Copyright © 2001 by Erik Lesser

Copyright © 2001 by Wiley Miller



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No more horsing around
Ellsworth man adopts equine to help him see
ELLSWORTH - Many people, either out of necessity or preference, use horses as a mode of transportation.

Ellsworth resident Dan Shaw soon may count as one of these people because he, too, will have a horse to help him get around.

Shaw, however, will not use his horse as a pair of substitute legs, as many people do. Instead, he will use the mare as a pair of substitute eyes.

Shaw is 99 percent blind and in the process of adopting a miniature guide horse to help him negotiate the physical world around him. Guide dogs are nothing new and can occasionally be seen helping sight-challenged people as they venture out into public spaces. Using a miniature horse for the same purpose, however, is something that Shaw will be the first documented person in the world to do.

Shaw recently experienced a milestone in the relationship he is developing with the 23-inch tall horse, whose name is Cuddles. Last week he flew down to Raleigh, N.C., where she is being trained for her unprecedented mission, and met Cuddles for the first time. He said the horse, along with her trainers Janet and Don Burleson, met him at the airport when he got off the plane.

"I got down on my knees and said hello to her," Shaw explained. "We hit it off right away."

The introduction was not a private one. The story of Shaw and Cuddles is one that has developed national and international appeal. According to Shaw, the media outlets on hand to cover the event included television networks ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox, cable network The Discovery Channel, and the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune newspapers. Even reporters from England and Japan were there to see Shaw meet Cuddles face-to-face for the first time.

"Everybody was there," Shaw said. "It was awesome."

According to Shaw, who grew up on the North Shore in Massachusetts, all the publicity around him and Cuddles contrasts starkly with the attention his degenerative condition originally received. He said that even though he was diagnosed with retinisis pigmentosis at the age of 17, it has taken him a while to accept the fact that eventually he will be completely blind. Though the disease is genetically transmitted and his three brothers all have it as well, he hid his condition from his friends and family for years, he said.

"I lost a lot of friends, unfortunately, because I would make things up about not being able to go out at night," Shaw explained. His fear of going out made dating difficult, he added, and his failing eyesight made him appear intoxicated. He said he couldn't even go into a tavern, walk to the bar and order a beer.

"I'd be shut off before I got to the bar because I'd knock over a table and they would assume I already had too much to drink," Shaw said.

Fears for his personal safety was a motivating factor in keeping his condition a secret, according to Shaw.

"Where I came from, you didn't walk down the street with a cane," he said, adding that as a youth he saw blind people get mugged and have their wallets and shoes taken.

Shaw said he gradually accepted his condition and took lessons on how to deal with it. He has taken courses for the blind on how to use power tools, which led to him building decks on his house on North Bend Road, and has learned how to cook and how to sew.

He runs a tackle shop in the garage next to his home, but because of his blindness has been unable to overcome problems presented by getting from one unfamiliar place to another, be it by walking down the street or by using public transportation. He said he had finally decided to apply for a guide dog to help him get around when last March he and his wife Ann found out about the Burlesons and their Guide Horse Foundation on the "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" television program. He said he instantly realized getting a guide horse, rather than a dog, was just what he needed.

"I said 'Ann, this is me.' I always wanted a horse as a little kid," Shaw said. He added he had to make many phone calls but was finally able to get in touch with the Burlesons.

Shaw stressed that he does not think that people who get a guide dog are making a bad choice.

"I'm not saying they are better than guide dogs," he said. "It's just that I prefer a guide horse."

Shaw said miniature horses can live much longer than dogs, up to 40 years, and can see nearly 360 degrees because of the placement of their eyes on their head. Cuddles, he added, will wear specially designed soft-sole shoes when she goes inside houses and buildings so her hooves will not slip on smooth surfaces.

She is also housebroken, Shaw said. She will got to the door and paw her hoof when she has to go outside, he explained, and will neigh if Shaw does not respond quickly enough.

He said he will build her a corral and a small barn in his back yard - he's hoping someone will donate the necessary lumber - so Cuddles can have a place to play and relax when she's not guiding him around.

Shaw said the reason he will be the first person in the world to have a guide horse is because, until the Burlesons came up with the idea of training horses to assist the blind a few years ago, no one had thought of it before. Shaw was the first to call and to request he be put on their waiting list, he said.

It's not as if there was a long list, Shaw explained. The reason there was a wait is because the Burlesons, experienced horse trainers who already had their own miniature horse, had to find financial support for their Guide Horse Foundation before they could proceed with acquiring and training miniature horses as guide animals. He said they started with 10 horses, but that they now have 30.

"If you had to pay for it yourself, you're looking at $30,000," Shaw said. He added author Patricia Cornwell contributed the money that enabled the Burlesons to acquire train Cuddles for him.

Shaw said that during his trip south, he flew with the Burlesons and Cuddles for a day trip to Atlanta. Cuddles sat on the plane with him without making any fuss or mess, he said.

"She flew perfectly the whole way," he said. "She never even moved, which I was impressed with."

In Atlanta, he and Cuddles rode the subway, and went to dining establishments and shopping malls. Shaw said Cuddles stood under the table at a restaurant they went to without any problems, guided him up escalators and even guided him to elevators and showed him where the buttons were with her nose.

"I can't believe how well she did," Shaw said. "She did everything and she did it real well."

Shaw said after their trip to Atlanta, he went with Cuddles into a Pet store in Raleigh without the Burlesons so he could see how he and Cuddles would do on their own. He said because store clerks were stocking shelves when he and the horse were in the store, there were a lot of obstacles to maneuver around. He didn't hit one, he added.

"I cried. I couldn't believe it," Shaw said. "It was the most amazing thing."

He said he didn't want to leave Cuddles behind when he came back to Maine last week , but added he looks forward to training with her in May and to bringing her back to Ellsworth in June.

"I'm so psyched, I can't wait," he said. "It was a really good experience. If I had any doubts, I don't have any more."

Anyone interested in learning more about the Guide Horse Foundation can look it up on the Internet at

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The Guide Horse Foundation has the utmost respect for The Seeing Eye® and their seventy-two years of outstanding work with assistance animals for the blind. Even though the press often calls our horses "seeing eye horses", please note that The Guide Horse Foundation is not affiliated with or sanctioned by the Seeing-Eye® or any of the Guide Dog training organizations. Seeing-Eye® is a registered trademark of the Seeing-Eye, Inc.

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