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The Panda Project

A Guide Horse for the Blind

Mission Statement

Written by Ann Edie

Panda, a miniature horse, is a working guide horse for the blind. All of her guide training was taught with clicker training.

(Written in 2001)


I know many of you who are reading the Panda Project reports have many questions about the concept of using miniature horses as guides for the blind. You wonder about many of the same questions we had when we first considered this idea, including why use horses at all? As we began the project, I asked Ann Edie, Panda's owner, to write a mission statement for our work. What Ann created was a beautiful essay on her experience as a blind person. I am presenting it here to give everyone a fuller understanding of why we have taken on the training of Panda, and what we hope to accomplish with this project.


Alexandra Kurland




I have been legally blind since my birth in the post-World War II period. The cause of my blindness is Leber's congenital amaurosis, a genetic disorder related to retinitis pigmentosa, which causes both central acuity impairment and peripheral field loss, both of which get progressively worse over the years.


As a child. I was not taught to read braille. I could read print using heavy magnifying reading glasses and strong light, although it was a physically exhausting and frustratingly slow process for me. I was not taught cane travel techniques, so I got around as best I could, by using auditory and visual cues, and by limiting my travel to familiar routes and daylight hours, or depending on family members to go places with me.


My posture was adversely affected by my need to peer at the ground in front of my feet, and I felt very insecure and stressed when traveling outside my home. Furthermore, my heavy reading glasses and awkward manner of walking brought taunts of "Mr. Magoo" and "4 eyes" from other children, and caused me to consider the world of my peers to be a war zone, filled with land mines of embarrassment and ridicule.


I attended public schools where I depended almost exclusively on books read aloud or on tape; I never read an entire book in print, especially not for pleasure. My understanding of spelling, grammar, and other visual elements of language was greatly limited as a result of this lack of access to the printed word.


My independent travel was likewise limited by the lack of effective alternative travel techniques. Even while attending college in Washington, D.C., and graduate school in New Jersey, and later when I lived and worked in Japan and Taiwan for five years, I endured the daily stress of traveling without access to the most basic information available to sighted pedestrians, such as the nature of the walking surface before my feet, the presence of obstacles and dangers like open man holes or kids' toys left on the sidewalk, and the route number and destination of an approaching bus.


But perhaps more damaging than the physical danger and limitations imposed on me by the lack of alternative travel and literacy skills, was the damage to my self-concept and self-esteem caused by the need to appear sighted and function as a sighted person when I knew very well that I simply could not see the things that other people could easily see and that they depended upon to function as independent adults.


The message that I received when I was growing up was that to be acceptable in society I had to "look normal", that is, not blind, and that to admit that I was blind and needed to use "blind" techniques like braille or cane travel, was to accept second-class status as a "handicapped" person. The deeply ingrained belief in our society was, and to a large extent, still is, that blindness is a most horrible tragedy, and that blind people are helpless, dependent, and a burden on their families and society.


It was not until the 1980's, as my vision gradually decreased to nearly total functional blindness, that I began to become aware of the disability rights movement and consumer organizations of blind people. I embraced the philosophy that blindness is merely a human characteristic, like height or hair color, that it is no shame to be blind, but rather that it is perfectly respectable to be blind. I found that there were many other blind people who, like me, believed that alternative techniques such as cane travel and braille reading and writing, rather than stigmatizing people as "defective", actually freed us to function normally as independent and productive members of the community.


It was at this time that I sought and received cane travel instruction and began using a long white cane for independent travel. I also taught myself braille reading and writing. Far from making me feel inferior, these alternative techniques have enabled me to literally and figuratively stride toward my goals with my head held high and with confidence and self assurance.


After teaching English as a second language overseas and teaching Chinese language at the college level in the U.S. during the 1970's and '80's, and after taking some time off from teaching to raise my three children, I returned to graduate school in 1993-94 to obtain a second Masters Degree, this time in teaching students who are blind and visually impaired. I have been working as a teacher of the visually impaired in a public school system since 1995. My work with visually impaired students has kept me very involved in the major issues facing blind people today, issues of mobility, literacy, access to the environment and to information, employment, opportunity, and above all, the attitudes of the general public toward blindness and blind people.


An enduring theme in my life has been my love of animals, especially dogs and horses, and my enjoyment of training and living with them, both as pets and as working partners. As a young person, I had pet dogs and cats whom I taught tricks and basic house manners. As a teenager, I taught my miniature poodle to guide me around obstacles and along known routes as I took him out for walks at night when I couldn't see anything. In the 70's and 80's my Japanese mixed-breed dog, Chiko, acted as my unofficial guide dog, as well as my closest companion. I trained Chiko, and later my schipperke, Ryder, in obedience, and entered fun matches and obedience trials with them.


Although I had known blind people who used guide dogs since my childhood, and although I admired these dogs and wished I could also use one, it was not until 1991 that I received my first guide dog, Bailey, from The Seeing Eye, Inc.. Bailey was a wonderful, chocolate Labrador retriever, who was my constant companion and partner for nine years until his death in October, 2000. He guided me everywhere, from the barn to the ballet, from school band and orchestra concerts to the 4th of July fireworks displays, from kindergarten classrooms to graduate school, from lonely rural roads to crowded holiday season malls and bustling airports, from familiar neighborhood walks to strange cities, from amusement park rides to a whale watch off the New England coast.


The use of a highly trained guide dog gave me greater confidence to tackle new geographic and psychological territory. I reveled in the fluidity and speed of travel I could achieve with my guide dog. I gloried in the little "bonuses" that a guide dog offered me over the use of the long cane, like the ability to navigate through open and unfamiliar parking lots to find the entrance to a building, or the ability to have the dog find "home" even when that home was an hotel room which we had stayed in for a single night and had traveled to and from only a time or two. Far from feeling dependent on my guide dog, I considered myself to be the senior partner in our working team, and I enjoyed putting in the time and energy which was required for training and relationship building to maintain a well-oiled working partnership.


Of course, besides being my working partner, Bailey was also a beloved member of my family and of the community in which he lived and worked. During the past year since Bailey's death, I have lived through the painful process of mourning the loss of my guide and companion, of applying for and anticipating the arrival of a successor dog, and in this case, of investing three months of intense physical, intellectual, and emotional effort in the process of adjusting to a new guide relationship which has ultimately proven unsuccessful. I am now awaiting my introduction to yet another successor dog, which will occur around Thanksgiving.


Horses have also been a personally rewarding and enjoyable part of my life. I took riding lessons first as a child, and later returned to riding whenever circumstances allowed, during college, when I lived in Virginia in the early 80's, and finally in 1995, when I returned seriously to riding. It was at that time that I became acquainted with Alexandra Kurland and learned about Clicker Training techniques. It was also at that time that I met Magnat, the athletically talented and gentlemanly gray Arabian who fulfilled my life's dream of owning, or belonging to, a special horse. In 1996 Magnat became my first riding horse. He has since been joined by my two Icelandic horses, Sindri, a chestnut stallion, and Fengur, a yellow dun gelding. Horseback riding gives me a wonderful feeling of freedom of movement, of speed and buoyancy, and of being connected in a fluid and graceful dance with another living being.


Over the years, as I have built close relationships with my horses, through training, riding, grooming, caring for, and just hanging out with them, I have come to appreciate the intelligence, sensitivity to our needs, and adaptability of horses. My horses have adapted with grace to the different handling techniques I use due to my blindness. They have also learned to interpret my requests and to make allowances for what I cannot see. In other words, they act in some ways as guide animals for me. When I am leading them, they stop before going through doorways or gates so that I can orient myself to the opening. They lead me directly to the paddock gate which I cannot see. They avoid obstacles in the arena or on the trail, and evaluate footing options rather than depending on me to direct their steps. They retrieve objects dropped in the arena or brushes dropped in the wash stall. They exhibit many qualities of a good guide dog, and I have often thought they would make excellent guides if only they were the size of dogs.


These three important threads of my life story--my experience of blindness, my relationship with dogs as companions and working partners, and my love of horses and respect for their intelligence and sensitivity--have been woven into a pattern which has sprung to life in the form of the Panda Project.


Alexandra Kurland and How the Panda Project Came About

In early 2000, I began hearing reports that miniature horses were being trained as guides for blind people. Unlike many other people who found the notion of miniature horse guides laughable, I was intrigued by the idea. My background as a cane and guide dog user and my experience as a horse person had given me some personal knowledge of mobility issues and a basic faith in the intelligence of horses and of their many qualities that would lend themselves to guide work. But, up until that time, I had not been aware that there were horses small enough to serve as guides.


I contacted Don and Janet Burleson by phone, and learned that they were establishing a non-profit organization, the Guide Horse Foundation, to train and provide miniature horse guides for blind people. At that time, they had trained their pet miniature horse as a demonstration of the concept of horses as guides, but they had not yet fully trained a miniature horse as a guide or placed a horse as a working guide. My guide dog, Bailey, was over 10 years old In October of 2000, my guide dog, Bailey, became suddenly ill and died, and I was thrust into the personal upheaval of adjusting to that loss and planning for my future mobility needs. I returned to cane travel as my mobility technique and continued my professional career and personal life with as much external equanimity as possible. But there is no way to avoid the great sense of loss and sadness when such a close and meaningful relationship as that which exists between a guide dog handler and a guide dog ends abruptly with the death of the canine partner. The reality of the situation that dogs have such a short life span compared to humans, and that the average guide dog user will need to suffer the loss of several guides during his/her lifetime, became very apparent to me. The 30-year life span of horses now seemed much more than a trivial advantage of horses over dogs as guides, that is, of course, if horses could actually do the job.


In early 2001, I began hearing more media reports about the Guide Horse Foundation and the miniature horse as a guide animal for blind people. Although I was acutely concerned about what I saw as the frivolous and cute tone of the reports in the popular media about guide horses, I still felt that the concept was worth serious consideration. I again contacted the Burlesons and learned that they were in the process of training the first working partnership between a blind person and a miniature horse guide; this was Dan Shaw of Maine and his guide horse Cuddles.


The publicity about the guide horse experiment seemed to be receiving an overwhelmingly favorable reception among the general public. But many blind people, like myself, had concerns about the tone of the media coverage as well as many questions about whether horses could really fulfill all the requirements of guide work and gain acceptance in society.


Alexandra Kurland and I visited the Burleson's in May of 2001, just as Mr. Shaw and Cuddles were completing their training and preparing to return home. Mr. Shaw expressed great confidence in Cuddles' ability as a guide and attested to the exhilarating feeling of freedom which comes from partnership with a well-trained guide. We were impressed with Cuddles' guide work and with her calm and unobtrusive manner in all public places. She was very professional and did not in the least occasion embarrassment or ridicule.


The Burlesons and Dan Shaw and Cuddles were in the process of answering many of the questions about whether miniature horses could do the job of providing safe and efficient mobility for blind people in our contemporary complex lives. However, we came away with many remaining questions, especially about whether horses could really live full time in the human social environment and whether this lifestyle would be physically and emotionally healthy for the horse.


Furthermore, although the Guide Horse Foundation accepted my application as a candidate to receive a trained guide horse, they were not planning to have any more guides trained and ready to place until the spring of 2002. Since I was already in the process of applying for a new guide dog, and since a guide horse was not an immediate possibility for me, I decided to go ahead and train with a new guide dog, while continuing to explore the concept of miniature horses as guides for future reference.


During this past summer, we searched for miniature horses which might be of the appropriate size and age, and otherwise suitable to train as guide horses. We identified several candidates, and after viewing videotapes, interviewing miniature horse breeders, and traveling to Florida to see some of the horses, we felt that we had found a very promising and bright young filly who might help us answer some of the questions about horses as guide animals. This filly is Panda Bear, from Gross Hill Farm. I have purchased "Panda" and brought her to New York, where she is now living with and being trained by Alexandra Kurland for service as a guide horse.


Panda is in the very early stages of training--what might be called "puppy raising". She is being house trained and learning to walk politely on lead. She is being socialized and exposed to the many environments and experiences that she will be expected to deal with as a working guide. We are under no time pressure to produce a finished guide in a certain period. We can allow Panda to tell us when she is ready to move on to higher levels of training. And we can take the time necessary to explore the many questions surrounding the use of miniature horses as guides for blind people.




Our purpose in undertaking the "Panda Project" is to explore whether miniature horses can be trained using positive, reward-based training methods to perform all the tasks of a guide animal for the blind, and whether miniature horses can comfortably adjust to living and working in the contemporary human environment. Some of the specific questions we hope to begin to answer are:


  Can a horse be truly house trained? Is this healthy for a horse?

  Can a horse be trained to relieve on cue? In unfamiliar places as well as accustomed places?

  How long can a horse comfortably remain indoors before needing to go outside to relieve?

  Is a horse intelligent enough to learn and perform all the tasks of a guide animal, including "intelligent disobedience"?

  Are horses emotionally stable enough to function in our human environment over a long period of time without suffering from stress?

  Will the horse-human bond satisfy the horse's need for social contact?

  Will horses be able to live in all the places we humans might want to live and to travel to all the places we want to travel to?

  Will horses be able to ride in public and private transportation of all types?

  Will horse guides fulfill their potential by providing us with many years of reliable and consistent service?

  What advantages and disadvantages might there be to using a horse guide as compared with using a dog guide or a cane as a mobility aide?

  What sacrifices and accommodations might we need to make in order to use successfully a horse guide, and what is the balance between these accommodations and the benefits we receive by choosing this mobility aid? 


Some of these questions obviously require many years of experience to begin to answer. And many cannot be answered on the basis of training one individual horse to do guide work. The Panda Project is intended only to begin to investigate some of these questions in a systematic way. As Dan Shaw and Cuddles live their lives and go about their daily activities, and as the Guide Horse Foundation trains more working teams, there will be more data for thoughtful people to collect, analyze, and discuss, and answers may begin to emerge. Our hope is that we can provide blind people with some of the information upon which to base their decisions as to the choice of a mobility technique which suits their needs, fits their lifestyles, and enhances their independence and self-confidence. My personal hope is that some day I will move with grace and joy down all the paths and avenues of my life with Panda at my side as my trusted and skilled equine guide and partner.


Ann Edie

Nov. 2001


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