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The Braille Monitor,  April 2001 EditionThis is a line.

The Guide Horse Foundation: Joke or Jeopardy?

by Eugenia Firth

Eugenia Firth
Eugenia Firth

  From the Editor: If you read newspapers, watch television, or use email, you have probably heard something recently about the Guide Horse Foundation and its plans to train miniature horses as guides for blind people. I frankly laughed the first time I read one of these articles. Then I read another piece describing a blind man in Maine who preferred to make a spectacle of himself bumping into things and people rather than admit that he was blind. He expects all this to change as soon as he is given a guide horse. He believes that he will no longer mind going places once he has his trusty little horse to show him the way.

     He is not alone, of course, in hoping that something outside himself will accomplish the hard work of coming to terms with vision loss. We who have walked this path know that disappointment and disillusionment lie ahead of this man and every blind person who hopes to short-circuit the adjustment-to-blindness process.

     Now the leaders of the National Association of Guide Dog Users, our guide dog division, have discovered how much more disturbing and even dangerous the guide horse plan is than we had first thought. Eugenia Firth is the Association's Secretary. In the following article she describes what she and NAGDU President Suzanne Whalen have discovered about the Guide Horse Foundation. This is what she says:

     Within the past year I have become aware of an organization called the Guide Horse Foundation, located in Kitrell, North Carolina. It is the brainchild of Don and Janet Burleson. Mr. and Mrs. Burleson propose to train miniature horses to serve as guides for the blind. Indeed the organization has already advertised that it plans to serve two students, Cheryl King of Washington state and Dan Shaw of Elsworth, Maine. Mrs. Burleson is a retired horse trainer, and Mr. Burleson designs Web sites.

     As far as I have been able to determine from my reading of several news stories about them, neither Mr. nor Mrs. Burleson has any knowledge of blind people and our needs. Furthermore Mrs. Burleson knows nothing about training guide animals for the blind. Suzanne Whalen, the president of the National Association of Guide Dog Users (NAGDU), discovered this in an extensive telephone interview with Mrs. Burleson. This interview demonstrated that the Burlesons have made no real effort to learn proper training methods for guides as they have evolved during the past seventy‑two years, first by The Seeing Eye and then by other guide dog schools. Also in her conversation Suzanne discovered many disadvantages of miniature horses as guides, disadvantages which my reading on the subject has corroborated.

     I first became interested in the Guide Horse Foundation through our division listserv, in which interested contributors discuss issues affecting guide dogs and their owners. When I first heard about miniature horses as guides, I had the same reaction as many other blind people: I laughed the concept off as a joke. However, I began to hear more about this idea, so I decided to start researching the topic for myself.

     The chief problems with the Guide Horse Foundation spring from the fact that, even if the horses can learn guide work, they are inflexible and ill-adapted to dealing with changing situations. By Mrs. Burleson's own admissions Guide Horse Foundation personnel know nothing about training guides for the blind and have made very little effort to ensure that the horses will be safe guides before accepting applicants. In addition, they do not adhere to the procedures normally followed in the guide dog industry to ensure that blind people receive the best matches possible.

     Mrs. Burleson told Suzanne that guide horses are not meant to replace guide dogs but only to offer another choice to blind horse lovers. She went on to say that the Guide Horse Foundation is experimenting at this stage to see whether miniature horses can work as safe, effective guides. I wonder if Mr. Shaw and Ms. King realize that they are the subjects of an experiment? Are they prepared to risk their lives for an uncertain outcome? What compelling reason could any blind person have for risking life and limb to obtain questionable mobility in these days when the methodologies for teaching cane travel and guide dog travel are well established?

     The only blind people the Guide Horse Foundation proposes to serve who might become that desperate are blind wheelchair users. Mrs. Burleson has chosen Nevada, one of her larger guide horses, to be the first guide horse to pull a wheelchair while guiding a blind person. Southeastern Guide Dogs, Inc., the only guide dog school currently teaching wheelchair guiding, has refined its program over the past several years. However, they started, like every other guide dog school, working with walking blind people. Mrs. Burleson, on the other hand, hasn't yet proven guide horses either safe or effective guides for walking blind people, much less for those who use wheelchairs.

     Last, but certainly not least, the media have presented blind people in a poor light when describing the services of the Foundation. Although an organization cannot control what the news media finally choose to say, its attitude as expressed to the reporter does convey its philosophy and its view of the people it serves. An organization with a positive philosophy of blindness would try, whenever interviewed by the media, to present a positive attitude about blind people and their abilities. This, as far as I can see, has not been the case with the Guide Horse Foundation. The news media have focused solely on the cuteness of the horses--in one story a blind woman paraded back and forth across a street with a miniature horse decked out in children's tennis shoes. Only once, and this was a story televised by the Discovery Channel, have I heard a reporter mention the problems. He said: "There's a whole stable full of problems." I wonder if this man realized just how right he was and what an unbelievable understatement he had made. The first guide dog school, The Seeing Eye, did not seek media attention until Morris Frank, the first person to use a Seeing Eye dog, had proven to himself and to his instructors that guide dogs were safe, effective mobility aids. Yet Guide Horse Foundation representatives, even though they claim their program is experimental, have been featured on "Good Morning America," CNN, Fox News, and in the Washington Post, the New York Times, USA Today, People magazine, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, to name only a few.

     The leaders of the National Association of Guide Dog Users believe that our community is facing a very real threat which will require collective action of the sort for which the NFB is famous. No existing legislation that I know of provides protection from irresponsible guide-animal training. Pigs are supposed to be smarter than dogs. One day soon we may find pot-bellied pigs being ballyhooed as ideal guides--the Philadelphia Inquirer recently carried a story about two women who talked their way onto a US Airways flight with a 300-pound so-called therapy pig. Unless we draw the line and insist on common sense, the variety of ill-conceived notions and poorly trained animals imposed on blind people will be limited only by the imagination and creativity of well-meaning enthusiasts.

     Let us examine our immediate threat more closely. Unlike guide dogs and of course canes, guide horses limit their owners to rural areas and the suburbs. True, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Mr. Shaw plans to bring Cuddles, his guide horse, to Atlanta and ride the Metro during his training. However, whether he likes it or not, if he wants to keep a guide horse, he will need to return fairly soon to a rural area so that Cuddles can graze and run around outside. Guide horses can live for thirty years, which is one of their advantages as guides; but, according to Mrs. Burleson, the owner must stay in the rural environment during that time to benefit from that long life span.

     Suzanne discovered some other disturbing limitations to miniature horses. If you have a guide horse, forget about riding in taxis, Greyhound buses, or any other vehicle that requires your guide to curl up; horses cannot curl up. While they can, according to Mrs. Burleson, be taught to lie under tables, they prefer to stand. Even if they do lie down, they must spread themselves out. The complications arising from this fact are obvious to any experienced, independent blind traveler. However, inexperienced travelers, such as the newly blind and those happy to remain dependent upon sighted friends and family members who drive roomier vehicles, may be persuaded that thirty years of guide service is precious enough to sacrifice all possibility of independence. What we are talking about, however, is thirty years of prison—the prison of dependency and limitation.

     Mrs. Burleson mentioned to Suzanne some additional limitations. For example, guide horses cannot hold their waste products as long as guide dogs can. According to the Guide Horse Foundation Web site, excursions longer than five hours are not recommended without precautions, presumably those diapers the police horses wear. Guide dogs are somewhat flexible in this department. Responsible guide dog owners can tailor relief schedules to their own work schedules. However, if you have a guide horse, your horse's schedule will determine yours.

     At first, when Suzanne questioned Mrs. Burleson about graduates being required to remain in a rural or suburban setting in order to benefit from a guide horse, her first response was to say that of course blind people wouldn't move. Suzanne pointed out that blind people, like everybody else, refuse to stay where they are put. Mrs. Burleson's response was that, if the blind person had to move to a city, he or she could just give up the guide horse. There goes the longevity advantage. Unless you plan never to accept urban job offers, never to marry Mr. or Ms. Right and move to the big city, never to accept that wonderful scholarship you were just offered, you can't count on the advertised advantage of a thirty-year guide horse.

     Mrs. Burleson has also failed to consider the emotional pain of giving up a horse. In fact, I fear that some people who have come to love their guide horses will refuse to give them up, instead subjecting the animals to a living situation for which they are unsuited. If that happens, even one problem guide horse could cause access problems for guide dog owners.

     During the telephone interview Suzanne asked Mrs. Burleson to clarify what she planned to teach guide horses. She could not do this clearly. The Foundation's Web site gives a very good description of this process, but Mrs. Burleson, the trainer, was unable to outline her curriculum. At one point the subject of assessment came up. The Guide Horse Foundation plans to bring Mr. Shaw to the school for a week of assessment, yet Mrs. Burleson could not tell Suzanne what they planned to assess or how they were going to accomplish it. An established guide dog school can tell you what skills a blind person must possess to work successfully with a guide dog, and they can explain how they evaluate a person's performance with a guide dog. Mrs. Burleson had no idea what she was going to do with Mr. Shaw. Suzanne was speaking to her toward the end of January, and Shaw is scheduled to arrive some time in March. As a guide dog user with thirty‑one years of experience, I would be unwilling to work with a guide dog instructor who exhibited so little knowledge of methodology or techniques.

     Suzanne and Mrs. Burleson discussed established procedures in guide dog schools for choosing which dog a person is to receive. Cuddles, one of the horses, has already been chosen for Mr. Shaw, even though Mrs. Burleson has never evaluated him or formed a clear idea of what she is looking for in a solid working team. In a guide dog school an instructor takes the student on a walk to determine speed, pull, and the student's balance while walking. Based on conversations with the student and other assessments, the instructor matches the personality of the guide dog with the personality of the person.

     No responsible guide dog school would choose a dog or make a definite match with as little information as Mrs. Burleson has used to choose Cuddles for Mr. Shaw. When Suzanne pointed out this problem, Mrs. Burleson admitted that she knew nothing about how guide dog schools pick dogs for blind people even though this process is one of the most critical aspects of training. In fact, Mrs. Burleson said that Cuddles would work for anyone but that, if this relationship didn't work out, she had nine other horses from which to pick.

     All of this adds up to one thing: trouble for any blind person unwise or unfortunate enough to choose this method of mobility. We in the Federation could just sit back and let this school fail naturally, which is likely to happen eventually. However, before the school fails, blind people will be at risk, and they will make exhibitions of themselves with ridiculous‑looking guides wearing tennis shoes. These are not the booties we guide dog users sometimes use for our dogs' protection against hot concrete or snowy sidewalks; these are cutdown children's tennis shoes on the feet of tiny horses.

     In addition, because of the relief problems, guide dog users may well face increased discrimination in restaurants, apartment buildings, and other public accommodations. The Board of the National Association of Guide Dog Users has voted to bring a resolution opposing the Guide Horse Foundation and its activities to our convention this summer for consideration. My fellow Federationists, we need the support of every cane and guide dog user. All of us have an interest in blind people being presented in a positive way. We guide dog users must protect our rights or risk losing them.

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