The Panda Project
A Guide Horse for the Blind
Panda: A Guide for Ann
By Rosanna Hansen
Photographs by Neil Soderstrom
A children's book, written for grades 3-5
In 2003 Ann Edie and I had the pleasure of working with author and editor Rosanna Hansen and photographer Neil Soderstrom on a children's book about Panda and guide horses for the blind. Their book has been published by Boyds Mills, the publishers of Highlights Magazine.
Panda's book is beautiful. Neil captured many wonderful moments as he followed Panda through her transition to working guide. Here are some of the many wonderful photos he took, together with the stories behind them.
Panda in my car
As part of her guide training Panda needed to learn to travel in a car. For her comfort and safety I took the backseat out of my subcompact and built a platform for her to stand on. At first I drove at â€œgrannyâ€? speeds through town, inching my way around turns. Now Panda has become a pro at cars, handling normal driving speeds with ease and even holding her on on city buses and other transportation challenges.
This picture was taken on the first day we worked with Neil. He was faced with the challenge of photographing a black and white horse, and bringing the highlights up on her face. To get the clarity of these photos he used reflecting light panes and long exposure times. Panda proved what a solid, nothing-spooks-me-horse she is during these photo shoots. What you are not seeing in these pictures are the silver reflector panels surrounding her from above and to the sides.
Panda at the Post Office
This was one of my favorite photos. It gets a full page spread in Panda's book. Neil was following us on our daily routine which included a trip to the post office. As you can imagine Panda attracted a lot of attention in my suburban community. You can't stage moments like this. Neil was ready with his camera when these little boys encountered Panda for the first time. I love how on the job Panda remained. Here she is showing off. The grown-up are talking please don't interrupt manners while I visit with the family.
The question I get asked the most about Panda is about house breaking. This photo shows her ringing her bell, which is her way of signaling to us that she needs to go out. What you don't see in this photo are the spotlights and ever present light panels. Panda didn't seem to mind all the distractions and extra people around. She still understood what bells are for.
Panda spends much of her time in the house, but she also has an outside stall where she sleeps at night. This and many other beautiful photos in the book describe Panda's life as a working guide, including her daily visits to the barn. My personal favorite of the book photos shows Panda and Robin nose to nose sharing a snack of hay. Talk about contrast in size!
We spent a day with Neil taking pictures in downtown Albany, the capital of New York State. This construction site made a great picture. Panda is superb at working through complex obstacles. She is particularly good at avoiding overhead obstacles like this traffic barrier blocking the sidewalk.
Stairs both big and small are an important part of Panda's guide work. Panda got lots of practice scaling all sorts of stairs during our photo shots, including this one at the State Library.
We had several visits to area restaurants and our local supermarket to get photos for the book. An important part of Panda's training was learning to wait quietly while Ann is engaged in other activities. Here standing quietly also meant don't move for the
four second exposure Neil was using to handle the complexities of lighting this indoor space. I don't know which was harder - Panda not twitching a muscle for four seconds. or Ann and I looking as though we're carrying on with a natural conversation. I can't imagine what the other diners in the restaurant must have been thinking!
Fetching the Keys
Fetching is something Panda loves. Here's she's picking up Ann's house keys and delivering them expertly to her hand. This was actually a brand new behavior when Neil took these pictures. We trained it while he was setting up the lights for some shots in Ann's living room.
While we were waiting for him, we taught Panda to retrieve a dog toy, a fabric frisbee. We thought that would make a great shot, but Neil didn't see how this related to guide work, so I dropped my car keys on the floor.
Without any hesitation Panda picked up the keys and handed them to me. Okay, that would make a great shot, but to get good lighting Neil had to have the lights set up and the camera focused on a precise spot. That meant Ann had to hold her hand absolutely still while Panda brought the keys to her. That's not normally how a retrieve is taught. Usually you help the horse out, moving your hand to help get the item from them.
Panda was amazing. Even with the added difficulty of delivering the keys to Ann's fixed hand position, she kept working while Neil shot several rolls of film to get the perfect picture.
The next day we were filming in the high school where Ann worked. I dropped my visitor's pass. It was just a slim piece of plastic, like a credit card with an alligator clip. Before I had a chance to get it, Panda retrieved it for me! She had clearly generalized the task. Just like our big horse she's become a super retriever.
A good guide allows the blind handler to travel safely, and to enjoy the rich diversity of life. Here Ann and Panda are enjoying Innesfree Garden with family and friends.
Soderstrom Photos & Publishing Services
32 Carlson Rd. Wingdale, NY 12594
Please direct all requests to reprint these photos to Neil Soderstrom.
Panda's beautiful book was in print until 2016. You may be able to find copies on the internet.
From School Library Journal
Grade 3-5 Everyone knows about guide dogs for the blind. But guide horses? Panda is a miniature horse, one of the first to be trained to help Ann Edie, a blind woman. Readers are introduced to Panda and Ann and taken through their day together. While the woman teaches at a high school, Panda stays nearby. She accompanies Ann to the grocery store, and on a picnic. She's truly part of the family. The audience learns how the horse was trained and how she came into Ann's life after her beloved guide dog succumbed to old age. . . . The topic is fresh and interesting. The writing is inviting and clear; the pictures are heart-warming. Abundant photographs are large and colorful. . . . A pleasant, upbeat introduction to a current subject.
Anne Chapman Callaghan, Racine Public Library, WI
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