Thursday, February 8, 2001
update Pygmy pony in final training for life as seeing-eye
Cox News Service
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Cuddles doesn't wear shoes back on
the farm. But here at Crabtree Valley Mall, the tiny pony wears
scuffed white baby shoes -- four of them -- during her training
That person happens
to be 44-year-old Dan Shaw, who sells fish bait and tackle in
Ellsworth, Maine. On March 3, he plans to rendezvous with
year-old Cuddles at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport as
they prepare for their new lives together.
On March 6 their
unusual journey will carry them to Atlanta, where Shaw and his
shaggy, reddish-brown companion plan to practice riding
escalators, elevators, moving sidewalks and people movers in
Hartsfield International Airport. They also want to ride MARTA,
Atlanta's rapid transit, to prepare for riding the subway in
Boston, where Shaw has relatives.
"There has never been
horse on MARTA
before," said transit system spokeswoman Kimberly Willis. But as
long as Cuddles is serving as a "service animal" to Shaw, it is
entitled by the Americans with Disabilities Act to ride MARTA,
spokeswoman Yolanda Clark said she "would assume" Cuddles would
have the same rights as a Seeing Eye dog.
It "gives me tears"
to think about meeting Cuddles, Shaw said.
"I just can't wait
for the freedom of walking down the street with Cuddles," said
Shaw, who lost his vision to an eye disease 27 years ago. He is
married, with four children and 12 grandchildren. Of Cuddles, he
said, "She will be like family."
46-year-old Janet Burleson, said her pupil will be the first
at least in the seven decades since Seeing Eye dogs have emerged
as the dominant
and visually impaired people.
At 55 pounds and 21
inches tall at the shoulder, Cuddles is one of a dozen pygmy
ponies that Burleson and her husband, Donald, 44, raise on their
Rocky Ford, N.C., farm. A year ago, they created the nonprofit
Foundation with the goal of providing an alternative to Seeing
Eye dogs, which for some
and visually impaired people aren't an attractive option.
According to the
nonprofit The Seeing Eye Inc., it has trained more than 12,500
dogs since 1929 for nearly 6,000 people in the United States and
But Shaw said he
never sought a Seeing Eye dog because he figured it would die
before he did, leaving him to grieve and to face finding another
dog, which he might outlive as well. He figures Cuddles might
"She will live like
35 years," said Shaw, who learned about the Burlesons' ponies
last spring watching "Ripley's Believe It or Not" on television.
"I said to my wife,
'That is what I want,' " Shaw said. "I'd be proud to walk down
the street with a pony."
Most of the estimated
100,000 miniature horses in the United States are pets, Donald
In North Carolina,
the Burlesons transport Cuddles to Raleigh shopping malls in
their dark green minivan. It's essentially a rolling litterbox,
with the floor behind the front seats covered with wood chips.
When she has to go, Cuddles scratches her right front hoof on
the ground, and the Burlesons lead her with rope and harness to
customized two pairs of baby shoes by removing the heels and
sewing together the leather uppers at the back. They protect
Cuddles' feet from broken glass and hot asphalt and keep her
from slipping on tile and hardwood floors.
One recent afternoon,
the Burlesons took Cuddles to lunch at the Tip Top Drive-In &
Restaurant in Henderson, N.C. The women in a corner booth stared
and smiled faintly as Janet Burleson forced the pony down onto
the floor, where she eventually fell asleep.
Diner Richard Meador
sat down nearby. He looked, then looked again. "Is that real?"
he said. "It looks stuffed."
"He is a seeing-eye
Tammy West said. Added the restaurant's owner, Eddie Short, "I
love her like a child."
The Burlesons said
they have a waiting list of more than 30 people who would like
After turning Cuddles over to Shaw in May, Janet Burleson plans
to train one every two or three months. Their charity gives them
away free of charge, forcing them to rely on contributions to
buy, train and care for the ponies.
received $30,000 last year from crime novelist Patricia
Cornwell, whose gift enabled the Burlesons to buy six ponies at
auction in South Carolina. Pygmy ponies cost from $2,000 to
Cornwell's gift also
pays for the animals' care and training. After Burleson called
them, the ponies emerged from a weathered barn. In the warm sun,
they ran and playfully butted heads.
The ponies have
strong memories and excellent night vision. The Burlesons also
discovered two years ago, when they rented saddle horses to ride
in New York City, that the animals are calm in traffic. The
horses they rode had been trained to turn at certain
intersections, suggesting to the Burlesons that their ponies
could be trained to
Back in North
Carolina, they trained their pet pony, Twinkie, with the help of
blind woman in
Raleigh. Of critical importance was the pony's ability to learn
"intelligent disobedience," Donald Burleson said.
That skill would come
in handy if the pony's
owner signaled for it to cross the street into oncoming traffic,
"You can train a
horse to do
anything a dog can do," Burleson said. "If we were deciding what
kind of animal to use 100 years ago, when most people owned
horses, horses would be a natural choice."