It really was a tiny horse in tennis shoes

Mark Andrews - The Cary News

They told you what they saw driving through the intersection of Chatam and Academy streets Thursday morning and you didn't believe them, did you? You thought they were joking. Or worse.

They were right, it was.

Twinkie was on duty - posing for photographers, actually - quietly passing back and forth across Chatam Street, across Academy Street, in her little running shoe halves safely escorting Karen Clark. Twinkie is just a bitty thing, 2 feet tall and 150 pounds.

The shoes are what seem to catch peoples' eye first, said Janet Burleson, who raised Twinkie on her family farm in Franklin County.

"Look at that dog in tennis shoes," Burleson said, recounting the typical reaction. "Oh my God. It's a horse."

Clark, Burleson and Burleson's husband Don were in downtown Cary on Thursday with a New York photographer who was working freelance for a London magazine.

Miniature horses as guides for the blind is still an idea. But the Burleson's said they have created a foundation to train Miniature Horses the to give to blind persons at no cost.

As small as she is, Twinkie is a little heavy for what the Burleson's believe would be the first Miniature Horse trained to guide a blind person. That honor could fall on Cuddles, who waited in the Burleson's van Thursday. Cuddles is 22 inches tall and weighs only 55 pounds.

Clark, who lives just outside Cary, uses a black Labrador named Richmond as a guide dog. But she has been helping the Burleson's publicize the idea of Miniature Horses as another option for blind persons.

In August 1999, the News and Observer published a story about the Burleson's and Twinkie. Early this year, Clark participated in a Fox Network television story comparing dogs and Miniature Horses as guides for the blind.

"Then 'Ripley's Believe It Or Not' got hold of it and did some shots," Clark said Thursday, "and it progressed from there."

On Thursday, the Burleson's chose downtown Cary for the photo shoot because it was relatively close to Clark's home and because of the look of the Chatam and Academy intersection. "We thought it would make a good backdrop," Janet Burleson said Friday.

But why Miniature Horses as guides for the blind?

For one thing, they typically live three or four times longer than dogs, the Burleson's said. They also require only about $20 a month to feed. Miniature Horses have a calm nature, great memories and peripheral vision the the Burleson's believe give them great potential as guide animals.

The Burleson got the idea from riding horses in traffic-choked Manhattan during Don's trips as a computer consultant. Janet has trained horses for more than 30 years and has known blind persons who ride horses.

The law that protects guide dogs would cover other guide animals too, as long as they are trained and aren't a health risk, Janet Burleson said. "It can be a Parrot or a monkey," she said, perhaps stretching the point.

Clark plans to stick with Richmond, her fourth guide dog. But she believes Miniature Horses are a viable alternative, especially for people who are allergic to dogs.

"I don't think you have to [make] a comparison that one is better than the other," Clark says. "It's just another option to help people live more independent lives."

Meanwhile, Twinkie continues to drawing double-takes. But Janet Burleson said almost all the reactions are friendly ones. And at the flea market and other crowded places, some people don't react at all. Burleson figures those folks must assume that the quiet little guide in running shoes is a dog.

"They just walk right by," she said.

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