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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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This horse knows the way

It's a tale of a legally blind Lansdale woman and her guide pony.

Philadelphia Inquirer


Shari Bernstiel always wanted a horse. Even when she began losing her sight in elementary school, she begged her mother for a pony every year for her birthday.

"She'd say, 'Where would we keep it?' " said Bernstiel - a good question, considering that the family lived in a townhouse in North Wales. "I'd say, 'I'll keep it in my bedroom.' "

In December, Bernstiel, who is legally blind, got her wish, though it's not exactly the horse of her dreams. Tonto is a 27-inch miniature horse Bernstiel uses as a guide animal, one of the first of its kind in the nation.

And while Tonto doesn't live in her bedroom, he does spend a good deal of time in the house. "Do you see hoofprints on the carpet?" Bernstiel asked, as the 115-pound potbellied pony wandered around the basement of her family's busy house in Lansdale.

The mini-horse, bred from a Shetland pony and slightly taller than a German shepherd, is part of an experimental program of the Guide Horse Foundation in Kittrell, N.C.

"It's one of the coolest new uses for animals for helping people," said Sue McDonnell, an equine behavior specialist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. McDonnell, who also has a miniature horse - there are 150,000 registered in the United States - said the animals are easy to train and enjoy living with people.

A few years ago Bernstiel's mother told her to watch a segment on the TV show 20/20 about the first guide horse, Cuddles.

"I was shocked, but if you think about it, look at Roy Rogers and Trigger, look at what he trained that horse to do," said Bernstiel, whose house has so many horse knickknacks and stuffed animals it's easy to trip over them if you're not careful.

A love of horses and ever-dwindling sight have defined Bernstiel's life since childhood, when she was diagnosed with Stargardt's disease, a degenerative condition. With her sight getting worse in recent years, "I figured with the passion I had for horses this seemed like a thing to try."

Why not a dog? Blame it on Rio, her neurotic German shepherd. "I thought he'd get jealous," she said.

The big advantage of horses is their 35-to-40-year life expectancy, three times that of dogs. The downside is the upkeep: They require a (miniature) barn, hay and grain, regular hoof clippings, and a companion horse. And forget about the lawn - Bernstiel's has been nibbled to mud.

Janet Burleson, who started the Guide Horse Foundation, is a longtime horse trainer who got the idea from watching her own miniature, Twinkie, navigate her way through a flea market, carefully avoiding electrical cords and picking the smoothest paths.

"She was working like a guide naturally," Burleson said.

She and her husband, Don, placed their first horse with a man in Maine in 2001. Bernstiel and a woman in Texas got the next two. The foundation gives the horses away, relying on donations for the $25,000 cost of training an animal for six months to a year.

Bernstiel, chosen out of 80 applicants, worked with Tonto for three weeks before bringing him home on Dec. 13 to join a packed household consisting of her husband, Jim, four teenage boys (including identical triplets), a dog and three cats.

Like a guide dog, Tonto doesn't move on his own. He responds to 23 commands, such as right and left, or load up and unload to get in and out of a van. "I can't just say, 'Tonto, I want to go to Clemens,' " Bernstiel said.

On a walk around her neighborhood, he deftly negotiated traffic, muddy sidewalks, and a construction vehicle blocking their path. With a little nudging, he trotted across the street, his hooves clicking on the pavement.

The duo are an endless source of fascination. A car with an elderly couple inside slowed down to gawk. Whenever Bernstiel goes to a store, she draws a crowd. What irks her are the people, mostly adults, who try to pet her horse even though he wears a sign saying that he's working.

Caring for Tonto requires more than a brushing and some kibble. Tonto and her buddy, Kayla, live in a small barn in the backyard that her husband and sons built. Bernstiel has to groom and feed them, muck out the stall, and learn basic horse psychology.

As for potty problems, well, there haven't been any so far. Tonto is house-trained, and paws the ground when he has to go outside. When he's inside he wears four modified baby sneakers so he doesn't slip on floors.

Bernstiel hasn't been to any public place where Tonto was not allowed, though one store manager waved an arm in front of her face to see if she was really blind.

"I don't have to answer questions [about Tonto] but I will, because I know people have never heard of this. But I always know my rights," she said, meaning she's legally allowed to take Tonto on planes, trains and buses, and into movie theaters and restaurants. For now, they mostly walk to nearby stores.

While Bernstiel is smitten with her horse, some people think the idea is strange.

"We don't know that there's a good reason [to have a guide horse]. Dogs have worked successfully for almost a century," said Joanne Ritter, a spokeswoman for Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, Calif.

Ritter sees drawbacks, such as problems gaining access to places run by people who don't know what to make of a guide horse, and more attention on the blind person. As for a dog's shorter life span, she said, people's needs change over the years, so getting a new animal every so often could be a good thing.

Anyone who's ridden a horse can imagine the biggest potential drawback: As prey animals, horses are easily spooked. But like horses used in battle or to police city streets, the miniatures are trained to "spook in place," said Burleson.

Bernstiel's animal-loving family pitches in to care for Tonto. Her dog, however, has issues. "He's such an insecure nut, he's pathetic," she said, making sure to pet the dog while scratching Tonto's chest.

Bernstiel and her horse have a special bond, but that doesn't mean she's given up her dream of having a normal-sized horse.

"People say you've gotten your horse," she said. "I say, it's not the same thing. It's not like I'm going riding off into the sunset on Tonto."


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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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