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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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Her Perfect Pal

By Jeanne Marie Laskas

For the first time in four years, Donna Grahmann, who is nearly blind, walked around a department store without the aid of her husband or her mother. Instead, she shopped with Pal, her horse.

            Yes, a horse. At 151 pounds and 2.5-feet tall, Pal, a registered miniature horse and trained guide, is learning to go everywhere with Grahmann, 43, of Magnolia, Texas.  Pal wears a harness and a blanket that says. “Do not touch. Assistance animal on duty,” and specially made sneakers so his hooves don’t skid on slippery surfaces. A side benefit of the sneakers is that the clip, clop, clip, clop sound of Pal’s gate is muffles, causing less of a stir among strangers who aren’t used to seeing a horse, say, trotting by the makeup counter, or for that matter, wandering through the linen department. Pal did a great job of warning Grahmann that a pile of blankets had just fallen into one isle, and led her clear of them.

            Later, Grahmann met her husband, David, who had been shopping on his own, and they went outside. It was time to test some of Pal’s 23 verbal commands, such as: “Okay, Pal. Find the truck!” And so Pal clopped to the truck and quietly took his place in the back of the extended cab.  He hung his head over the front seat, and Grahmann gave him a carrot and a scratch. “That’s my buddy,” she said. “Good boy.”

            Pal arrived in Grahmann’s life on Thanksgiving Day, 2003, and ever since it’s been a learning experience. Using miniature horses as guide animals is still in its infancy. Just three have been placed in U.S. homes by the Guide Horse Foundation of Kittrell, North Carolina, the first organization to train miniature horses, a breed more known to make great pet than guide animals.

            An animal lover by nature, Grahmann had considered getting a guide dog when her eyesight dramatically worsened in the 1990s due to her life long battle with diabetes. But she was disheartened by the lengthy waiting list of the program she looked into. There were also her three border collies. How would they handle a new dog constantly be her side? She gave up on the idea. Back then, as she lost all the sight in her right eye and the surgeries on her left reduced her to small spots of vision, it seemed everything was impossible.

            Indeed, it was as if her whole, happy life was coming apart.

            Horses were her first love. As a kid, she had asked her mother for a horse every year for Christmas, and when she turned 17, her wish finally came true. Grahmann rode Rebel in horse shows for years, winning ribbons and state championships—and he eventually led her to David, a contractor whom she met at the barn where the horse was boarded. When she married David, Rebel came too, moving into a small barn in the couple’s three-acre backyard. Grahmann continues to ride in competitions even as her eyesight deteriorated. “Rebel and I were automatic,” she says. “I trusted him with my life.”

Then, in 1990, she lost Rebel to a single bolt of lightening while he stood by the barn. It was a devastating loss for the woman who was already losing so much. As darkness filled her world in the most literal ways, what she held onto the memory of Rebel’s eyes. She never found another horse with “Rebel eyes.”

            One day in 2002, her mother was with her in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. “You’re not going to believe this,” her mother said, reading a magazine. “Guide horses?” She read the article to Grahmann.  The Guide Horse Foundation was founded in 1999 by Janet Burleson, a veteran horse trainer, and her husband, Don. Their inspiration, in part was their pet miniature horse, Twinkie (she’s the mascot for the organization, and not in service), who followed them around like a dog.

            Anyone who has ever seen a police horse navigate city traffic knows that well-trained horses can be incredibly calm and focused. As herd animals, horses can form bonds for life, making them ideal service animals. Horses also have great memories, are vigilant, and can see 360 degrees and have excellent night vision. Burleson, who had trained Arabians for 30 years, knew how to teach commands, and with the help of guide-dog trainers, eventually came up with a system that worked.

            The volunteer-run Guide Horse Foundation is funded by donation, so the horses are placed free of charge. Each horse goes through at least six months of training by Burleson and her team.  Guide horses aren’t for everyone—you need a yard big enough for grazing and a small shelter—but they’re alternatives for people who are allergic to or afraid of dogs, and for those who want a guide animals with a long life span: Miniature horses normally live up to 35 years.

            Grahmann went to North Carolina for a three-week training course on how to work with Pal. He already knew the verbal commands, but she had to learn how to handle his harness, how to ride escalators with him, how to cross the street, and how to know just when he had to go outside. (Yes, horses can be house-trained)

            “Pal has totally changed my life,” Grahmann says. “I couldn’t go anywhere by myself before—and—now look at me!” She and her husband are teaching Pal the layout of the whole mall—they simply take him for walks, making note of doors and elevators. Once Pal learns its layout, Grahmann will be free to wander into the food court and into dressing rooms, just the two of them. He doesn’t help her inside her home, although it would certainly be possible to train him to. But Grahmann doesn’t need a lot of help around the house, so she keep’s Pal in Rebel’s old barn, with a companion horse, also a miniature. (The foundation insists that the horses have companions for their mental health, and so they donate them, too)

            Pal has already brought Grahmann some degree of mobility, such as on that recent day of shopping in a department store.  A small moment, but a real joy for a woman who for years has been unable to move about without the assistance of a family member. But her newfound freedom is about more tan just logistics.

            “Pal has Rebel eyes,” she says with a whisper of longing. “I saw them the first day I met him.” She saw them through the small spots of vision. She saw them and fell in love. “I embraced him and loved him and petted him, and he soaked it all in. He’s become the calming force in my life.” 

 

 

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Training Miniature Horses as Guide Animals for the Blind

Janet Burleson

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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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