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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

 

 

Guide horses

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A BREED APART

Seeing-eye horse leads the way

Magnolia resident and "Pal" welcome in shops, eateries, schools

By DEBORAH FLETCHER
Chronicle Correspondent
 
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Who: Guide Horse Foundation, a nonprofit group that trains and provides guide horses to people who are blind and visually-impaired.
Info: Call 252-433-4755 or visit www.guidehorse.com.
After a lifetime of fighting juvenile diabetes, Donna Grahmann wasn't willing to give up when blindness overtook her in 2003.

So, the Magnolia woman made a little change in her life. She got Pal, a miniature horse trained to guide the blind and visually-impaired in the same way that a seeing-eye dog does.

 

"I don't have to use someone's elbow or a cane and that's a good feeling," Grahmann said. "I can do what I need to do because he can go anywhere. He leads me in the direction I need him to go and blocks me from obstacles."

The size of a large dog, Pal accompanies Grahmann any place a seeing-eye dog would go, alerting her to changes in elevation, surface and obstacles in her path.

A miniature horse must not be taller than 34 inches at the withers, or point of the shoulder, and if there were no size reference, the miniature might give the illusion of being a full-sized horse, according to the Web site, theminiaturehorse.com.

Grahmann, 44, received the little horse for free from the Guide Animal Foundation, a nonprofit organization that trains only the smallest miniature horses, 26-28 inches, to work with the blind.

Janet Burleson, the trainer and co-founder of the foundation, said the guide animals must be small so they aren't so strong that they could accidentally hurt a blind person. They must also be little enough to get into small spaces, she said.

Burleson said the animals are not meant to replace guide dogs.

"There are people, like Donna, who show dogs, who might not want to bring in a dog that would make the other dogs jealous," Burleson said.

And some people are allergic to dogs, or are afraid of them.

Most of the horses are donated to the foundation, and people volunteer their time to train them.

"If it were being done by a paid trainer we estimate it would cost $30,000 to $35,000," Burleson said.

Burleson said it takes about a year to train the animals,

Once an animal has been paired with a person, the two are trained together at Burleson's home in Kittrell, N.C., then again at the home of the recipient.

Since beginning the foundation in 1999, Burleson has matched one other person with a guide horse. There are 80 people are on a waiting list, and nine horses are at various stages in their training, she said.

Pal weighs 151 pounds and stands 29 1/2 inches, hoof to withers, Grahmann said.

The animal travels in the back seat of Grahmann's extended-cab pickup truck when family members take them on outings.

The rest of the time, Pal stays in the pasture or barn with Grahmann's menagerie of full-sized horse, sheep, chickens, cats and the border collies that Grahmann shows competitively.

"I didn't want an animal to live in the house, and I don't need it," Grahmann said. "I know my house. I've got it memorized."

But, she does need him to guide her in unfamiliar surroundings. Just last week, Pal helped Grahmann maneuver through the aisles at the new Target store in Tomball.

"At Target, people kind of gathered around me with their baskets. Pal blocked me, so I wouldn't run into them," she said.

Often clad in sneakers so he won't slip on slick surfaces, Pal is an odd sight at the businesses and stores around Magnolia and Tomball, Grahmann said.

Guide horses must be trained not to urinate, or defecate indoors, in the same way other pets are, Burleson said.

"You train them just like you do a dog. You reward it from going in the proper place and discourage it from going in inappropriate places," she said.

Curious onlookers often slow Grahmann and Pal down with questions, and many want to pet the horse, even though he wears a sign, "Do not touch, Service animal on duty," Grahmann said.

Grahmann and Pal are regulars at Denny's, where staff and patrons have gotten accustomed to them.

"It's unusual to see a horse. People expect to see a dog," said Omni Chavez, a server at the Tomball restaurant.

Outfitted with a harness, Pal guides Grahmann through the restaurant a couple of times a week.

"The animal guides her to the seat, or booth, wherever she is going to sit. Then he stands very still. He doesn't make a lot of movements. He doesn't make any noise," said Chavez.

Grahmann said the horse knows he is not on duty when the handle is resting on his back.

"When the handle on his harness touches his back that means he's off duty and he's supposed to take a nap," she said.

Being squired about by a horse does have its humorous moments, Grahmann said.

Once when she was being interviewed at a television station in College Station, Pal spotted something that interested him.

"He started to nibble on an artificial plant," Grahmann laughed.

Chronicle correspondent Valerie Sweeten also contributed to this story.

 

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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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