The mission of the Guide Horse Foundation is to provide a safe, cost-effective, and reliable mobility alternative for visually impaired people and to deliver trained guide horses at no cost to the recipient. It also aims to help tiny horses by providing them with a higher purpose in life.
In 1999, former horse trainer Janet Burleson and her husband Don visited New York City and rented horses to ride in Central Park. They were impressed by how calm the animals were in heavy traffic and that they knew they could turn right at red lights. After the couple's vacation, they decided they would train their pet miniature horse Twinkie to lead a blind woman through a shopping mall. After determining that many blind people were interested in guide horses and receiving $30,000 in funding from mystery writer Patricia Cornwell, the Burlesons bought ten horses and began training them to become guides.
An estimated 0.5 percent of the United States population is legally blind and about one percent of this group, or 10,000 people, currently uses a guide dog. While the dogs do a good job, some people would rather use a horse as a guide because they may be allergic to dogs, prefer that their guide animal live outdoors when off duty, or desire a guide with a lifespan of thirty to forty years. Guide horses are also less expensive to maintain.
Currently, volunteers train the miniature horses, using the techniques used to train show horses and guide dogs. The training process, which takes six months to a year, is difficult and requires the services of a professional trainer since the animals will be entrusted with a human life. After the horse has completed its training with the horse trainer, recipients attend a three-week training program with their guide horses.
Miniature horses are very intelligent, obey voice commands, and can be housebroken. They also possess nearly 350-degree vision and are extremely sensitive to motion in their field of vision. Guide horses also have excellent night vision and can see clearly in almost total darkness. They can also be trained to guide and ride in vehicles, taxis, busses, and subway cars
The Guide Horse Foundation delivered the first guide horse to enter full-time service last year. The horse, named Cuddles, was given to Dan Shaw, who owns a bait-shop in Ellsworth, Maine, and suffers from a degenerative eye disease. Two more candidates have been selected to receive horses after the animals have been trained.
The organization has received quite a bit of media attention since it was formed. It has been featured on television on ABC's 20/20 news program, Ripley's Believe It or Not!, the Fox Network, CNN, ABC News, NBC, News, and CBS News. Print publications that have run stories about the guide horses include Time magazine, People magazine, the New York Times.
The Guide Horse Foundation provides a wealth of information about the young program. It explains how the nonprofit was formed, the support it has received, and the philosophy behind the Burlesons' horse training program. It also features many pictures of miniature horses, articles that have featured the animals, and instructions on how to apply for a guide horse.
The organization, which does not charge for its horses, relies on funding from individuals and corporations. Currently, horse trainer volunteers do all of the training, but the Guide Horse Foundation hopes to get the funding to hire a full-time professional horse trainer to expand its program. The nonprofit would also like to secure funding for a mobile home to house recipients of guide horses while they are going through the training program.