02/26/2001 at 01:00 AM EST
As she ambles around the Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh, N.C., Twinkie is creating quite a stir. Harried shoppers stop in their tracks. Kids gaze openmouthed. After all, you don't get to see a 24-in.-tall miniature horse wearing sneakers (two pairs, for traction) and adult diapers (just in case) every time you head to the store. The green 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 Burlesons hope to have the horses placed with blind and vision-impaired people around the U.S., to serve as an equine version of guide dogs. "Horses are natural guides," says Janet, 46. "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 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 site designer, he's a database consultant, and they met over the Internet—were newlyweds in 1998 when they bought Smokey, their first miniature horse, as a pet. Soon 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 the 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 sight as a child and has already outlived three guide dogs. "On the average, miniature horses live 30 to 40 years," says Don. "A 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 are so mellow they even take naps while standing in line.
The first guide horses are to go to their new homes in a few months. Among the recipients: Cheryle King, 40, of Gig Harbor, Wash., who lost her sight in 1999 to multiple sclerosis. "I don't think a dog would fit my lifestyle," says King, a former secretary. "I go on trail rides. I think a horse would watch out for my safety better."
And since the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates that people with guide animals cannot be denied access to public accommodations, makes no distinction between dogs and horses, King will be flying 3-year-old Cricket home with her in style. "She will fly in the front row of the coach section," says Don Burleson. "We've already discussed it with [the airline]. They said that if a passenger is unhappy traveling with an animal, airline personnel will gladly make other arrangements—for the passenger."
Michaele Ballard in Kittrell