Call of the WildBy Thornton W. Blease
Fido, move over and welcome the miniature horses to the service world. Miniature horses are a new animal species, ready to aid people with disabilities.
Most people are familiar with canine service animals- guide dogs for the sight-impaired, hearing dogs for the hearing impaired, dogs that assist with physical disabilities by pulling wheelchairs or retrieving various items. Yet, many do not realize there are many types of service animals assisting with a variety of disabilities.
A service animal is not a pet or companion. They perform some functions and tasks that a disabled individual cannot perform on their own. They are trained to ease a person’s disability by performing tasks as leading, pulling, retrieving, alerting, providing balance and stability. They have rights under ADA. They must be allowed to accompany the disabled individual in all areas of public facilities. This includes medical offices, retail stores, governmental facilities including the courthouse and post offices, taxis, trains, buses and airplanes. Miniature horses must fly in first-class or bulkhead areas, as economy or coach does not provide enough headroom. In addition, “An individual with a service animal may not be segregated from other customers” (USDOJ).
Guide Horses are not a new “novelty.” In fact, the Guide Horse Foundation has been in existence for over a decade. And, in 2010, after much discussion and confusion of what constitutes a service animal, a final rule was published in the Federal Register to amend the service animal definition to be limited to dogs
and miniature horses. This new regulation went into effect in March 2011 (ADA Fact Sheet). A person may still keep a service animal such as a pig or monkey for their personal use, but they are not granted public access.
Perhaps the most famous guide horse is Panda of Albany, New York, Ann Edie’s fuzzy black and white horse barely tall enough to reach her hip. The story is told of one Halloween night when a group of children dressed in their costumes ran past Edie. “Cool costume,” one of the kids said.
She wasn’t dressed up. She was simply blind and out for an evening walk, gripping her guide horse’s leather harness.
Since there were no sidewalks, Panda led her along the edge of the street, maneuvering around drainage ditches, mailboxes and other obstacles in the road. When cars passed, Panda paused and waited for them to pass.
At a busy intersection, Panda stopped and tapped her hoof. Edie told Panda to find the button on the traffic light. Panda raised her head inches from the pole, allowing Edie to run her hand along Panda’s nose and press the walk signal button.
Why are miniature horses being utilized as guide animals? Horses are natural guides. When another horse goes blind in a herd, a sighted horse accepts responsibility for the welfare of the blind horse and guides it with the herd. In equestrian competitions, many blind humans ride horses and some blind people ride alone on trails, relying on the horse to guide them safely to their designation.
Their greatest advantage is their long lifespans. Miniature horses can live up to 50 years, with the average lifespan 30-40 years in contrast to a guide dog with a useful lifespan of 8-12 years. This allows continuity of service for a longer time span.
Another advantage is their acceptance in the public. They are not perceived as pets, hence Guide Horses are immediately recognized as a working service animal. Also, trained horses are calm. Calvary horses have proven that horses can remain calm in stressful situations. They possess phenomenal memories and high stamina. A horse will remember a dangerous situation decades after the occurrence. They are normally safety conscious. Horses are constantly on the lookout for danger and have a natural tendency to guide their master along the safest route possible. They have excellent vision and focus. They can remain focused when petted or groomed, by well-meaning strangers. Finally, they are well mannered and look awesome in sneakers.