Helping Hooves   Angels

Blind people who don't fancy dogs will be able to get around virtually everywhere with Janet and Don Burleson's miniature Guide Horses.

Janet and Don Burleson train mini-horses to do what guide dogs have been doing for years

People Magazine by Michaele Ballard, February 26, 2001

As she ambles around the Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh, N.C., Twinkie is creating quite a stir.

Harried shoppers stop in their tracks. Kid's gaze openmouthed. After all,, you don't get to see a 24-in.-tall miniature horse wearing sneakers (two pairs, for traction) every time you head to the store. The blue blanket on Twinkie's back explains her presence. It reads: Assistance Animal in Training.

Twinkie, learning the skills she needs to help a blind person around a crowded mall -- including navigating elevators and escalators -- is one of 10 tiny horses being trained at Janet and Don Burleson's 13-acre farm in Kittrell, N.C., outside Raleigh. By later this year, The Burleson's hope to have the horses placed with blind and visually impaired people around the U.S., to serve as an equine version of guide dogs. "Horses are natural guides," says Janet, 26. "They are extremely calm and they have phenomenal memories." The Burlesons, who set up the nonprofit Guide Horse Foundation last May to defray the expenses of acquiring and training the animals (roughly $25,000 each), believe the horses will be especially suitable for vision-impaired people who live in suburban and rural areas. "Our goal," says Don Burleson, 44, "is to make them available to the recipients at no cost."

The couple -- she's a Web designer, he's a database consultant, and they met on the Internet -- were newlyweds in 1998 when they bought Smokey, their first miniature horse, as a pet. Soon after the clatter of little hooves turned into a mini-stampede, as they added horses the way other people accumulate goldfish. "They are very intelligent, easy to housebreak and incredibly easygoing," says Janet -- the daughter of Amos, a salesman, and Jean, a home-maker -- who began training horses as a teenager. "They come in, eat popcorn and watch TV with us."

It was Twinkie, a silver-dappled mare they acquired in November 1998, who gave them the idea that horses could be useful to people in need. "When we saw how accessible and eager to work she was," says Don, "we began to realize the possibilities."

  Training Twinkie wasn't completely without hitches. "The first time we took her to a grocery store," says Don, "she snapped up a Snickers bar." Still, as word of their work spread, the Burlesons began getting donations (One backer is mystery writer Patricia Cornwell, who has donated $30,000 to the foundation. "The governor in Isle of Dogs, the book I'm working on, has bad eyesight," she says. "I thought it would be great fun to have a Guide Horse clomping around the governor's mansion."

In February 2000, after months of training, Twinkie was put to the test at the mall, guiding homemaker and part-time student Karen Clark, 53, of Raleigh, who lost her eyesight as a child and has already outlived three guide dogs. "On the average, miniature horses live 30 to 40 years," says Don. "A guide dog's life span is only 10 to 12 years. Mini-horses are also less costly to maintain -- they eat grass, maybe $20 a year in oats." And, says Clark, "when we stopped, Twinkie would stand there quietly, where a dog has to sniff everything." In fact, says Janet, the horses even take naps while standing in line.

  • Michael Neill
  • Michaele Ballard in Kittrell

The only drawback to horses,
says Burleson (with Cuddles),
is that "they can't lie down
and curl up like a dog."