A Tiny Horse with Big City Cool
[Note: Because of a technical snafu, this story, written for the Times,
did not make it into the July 15th, 2004 paper. And the New Yorker,
surprisingly, said no. Enjoy!]
So this tiny horse wearing sneakers walks into a comedy club...
It sounds like a joke, but on Tuesday night, it was reality: a tiny
horse, just 26 inches tall, wearing even tinier sneakers, graced the
stage of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, a comedy club in Chelsea.
The horse, Scout, wasn't a punchline, but he did get his own round of
applause. A black-and-white male with a blond mane and white and
lavender sneakers (more on the footwear later), Scout is a
representative of the Guide Horse Foundation, an organization which
trains miniature horses for use as guide animals for the blind. The
horses live up to twice as long as guide dogs, and can be a good choice
for someone with dog allergies.
An improv group at the theater had decided to donate money to the
foundation, and invited Scout and his owners, Janet and Donald Burleson,
to a benefit show. So the three of them packed into their mini-van and
made the nine-hour drive from Kittrell, North Carolina on Sunday, for a
three-day stay at a hotel on the West Side. (New York hotel rooms being
what they are, Scout slept on the floor.)
Whoa, Nelly! A miniature horse in the city? Isn't that a bit - surreal?
"Dear lord, yes," said Will Hines, a member of the improv group,
Monkeydick, who found he had performance anxiety when sharing the stage
with 85 lbs. of equine cuteness. Any comedy bit, Hines said, "is totally
trumped when an actual tiny horse clomps up on stage next to you." (For
the record, Scout is too small to really clomp. It's more of a scuttle.)
But Janet Burleson, who, along with her husband, runs the foundation and
trains the horses at their horse farm, thought the visit was a perfect
opportunity for multi-tasking. "We thought it was a great idea because
it gave us a chance to come for city training," she said in a phone
conversation yesterday, Scout whinnying in the background, as the
threesome made their way back home.
Like guide dogs, guide horses need to be accustomed to any situation, so
in addition to the comedy club, the Burlesons trotted Scout around Times
Square and Central Park, where he made friends with the carriage horses.
"They reached down and touched noses with him," Janet said. "And one of
them shared a carrot with him. That made his day."
In fact, it was a city horse that helped inspire her to train miniatures
as service animals. On a business trip here seven years ago, she and her
husband rented horses to ride in Central Park. The stable was located a
few blocks away from the park, but the horses handled the commute well.
"The horses were aware of the traffic patterns," Janet, a middle-aged
blonde, recalled. "They were able to weave in and out and stop at
intersections. That's what led us to believe that a horse could operate
A few years later, when Donald acquired Twinkie, a particularly small
miniature, as a pet, and the couple found that she was both
companionable ("just like a dog") and good at navigation, they decided
to create a training program using Twinkie as a prototype.
Since 2001 they have donated horses, free of charge, to blind people in
Maine, Texas, and Florida. (Their first horse, Cuddles, went to Dan
Shaw, a bait shop owner in Ellsworth, Maine, who is now seeking the
Democratic nomination for state representative from House District 38;
his website is danandcuddles.com
.) There are no horses in the New York City area yet, but "hopefully
we'll have one in New York before too long," Janet said.
In the mean time, the Burlesons complete Scout's year-long training by
traveling the city, patiently answering questions about him (yes, he has
been on the subway) and posing for photos - about 1000 in two days, by
For his part, Scout is as proper as a show pony, standing stock still
and silent even as flashbulbs pop and countless hands reach out to pet
him, despite the advice on his burgundy blanket, which warns: "Please Do
Not Touch. Guide Animal at Work."
"You would think that taking him off the farm and bringing him to a big
city like New York, that he would just be going bonkers," Janet said.
"But he's just like, 'oh, it's cool, you know.'
Like any tourist, though, Scout has his favorite places. "Just in the
couple of days we were here, he really understood about going to Central
Park," Janet said. "He just picks up his pace when he gets closer and
closer, and he'll start whinnying when he gets close enough to smell the
park." (That might be nature calling: the park is the perfect place for
Scout, who is house-trained, to "go potty;" yes, the Burlesons follow
the pooper-scooper law. "That's just good manners," Southern-bred Janet
For their part, New Yorkers are curious but not bowled over. "I think
the main thing that surprised us at the beginning was that people were
so accepting," Janet said. "I mean, they immediately said, 'Oh, it's a
guide horse.' Even though they'd never seen one before, it was just very
at the Upright Citizens Brigade, Scout was un-phased by laughter or
bursts of applause, like the most veteran performer. "I'm sure we were
more nervous than he was," Hines, the improviser, noted.
The improv group had opened their show by inviting Janet and Scout
onstage to take questions from the audience. Of course, one of the first
was about the sneakers. Don Burleson designed them out of children's
shoes for extra traction and to protect the animal's feet from hot
pavement and rocks. Had he ever considered using the sneakers that light
up with each step? No, Don said, though he had considered making horse
cowboy boots (horseboy boots?) but then decided that was too
Had they considered a reality show based around Scout? someone shouted.
The Burlesons laughed it off, but why not? He's already scored a comedy
Article from Melena Ryzik,