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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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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?

Check out his shoes!! "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 in traffic."

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 .) 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 Janet's estimation.

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 said.)

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 well accepted."

Kisses! Blam!Back 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 "over-the-top."

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 gig.

Article from Melena Ryzik,

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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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