By Joan Quade and Jennifer Wendt
Barna, Guzy & Steffen, Ltd
Service dogs in our society have become commonplace. Being a nation of pet owners and dog lovers, most people are not surprised that dogs can provide assistance to their owners. But one may be surprised to hear that miniature horses are now being trained and used to assist those with disabilities.
Yes, miniature horses. They are about the size of a large dog and are extremely cute. Horses are intelligent and have a long history with humans. While we have all seen service dogs, many of us have not seen miniature horses yet. We are all accustomed to seeing dogs in stores, schools, restaurants and even airports.
Service animals provide the means for greater independence to individuals with visual difficulties, hearing impairments, or other disabilities. Some service dogs learn to turn off lights, pick up objects, open doors, and can even warn their owner of an impending seizure or a danger in the streets. Service dogs have changed the lives of many disabled individuals.
There is, however, a high cost to training service dogs and they have a shorter lifespan than horses. This is one of the reasons cited for training horses as service animals.
Even though the horses are miniature, they may present different issues in the workplace and public than dogs. The first question that most clients ask is whether, under the law, miniature horses can be used as service animals.
The answer is yes. The law does not limit service animals to dogs. Federal law permits disabled people to take “service animals” into public places covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), including restaurants, stores, and schools. 42 U.S.C. § 12182(a); 28 C.F.R § 36.201(a).
Under federal law, 28 C.F.R. § 36.104, a service animal is any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal trained to do tasks for an individual with a disability. Minnesota law uses federal law to define service animal. Minn. Stat. § 363A.19(c). Therefore, a miniature horse could qualify under Minnesota law as a service animal.
The only qualification under both Federal and State law is that the miniature horse must be trained to work for the benefit of a disabled individual, in order to be classified as a service animal. Currently there is no requirement specifying the amount or type of training that a dog or miniature horse must receive to qualify as a service animal. The focus is whether the tasks the service animal has been trained to perform, are for the benefit of the disabled individual and whether they help lessen the disability.
While miniature horses may never replace service dogs, they are becoming the new trend in service animals for many reasons. The argument for the miniature horses include that miniature horses have a long lifespan, as they live on average between 25 and 35 years, while service dogs usually only live between 8 and 12 years. This is important not only because of the personal attachment, but because of the expense of training service dogs.
Also, miniature horses are said to have a calm nature and great memory, which allows them to remember dangerous situations and remain calm. Miniature horses are well-suited to be guide animals for the blind because they have a 350 degree range of vision.
Miniature horses are also capable of pulling wheelchairs, entering buses, using escalators, and assisting with steadying those who cannot walk on their own without support. Miniature horses are capable of riding in cars or taxi cabs with their handlers.
In addition, these horses are trained to recognize signal lights and stop signs, identify and alert handlers to curbs, and recognize and avoid hazards in the environment.
Besides being calm, miniature horses are said to have a focused demeanor, high stamina, and are safety conscious. Additionally, it is said that the more the horse learns, the greater its capacity for future learning.
Service horse training involves teaching horses to lead handlers, recognize voice commands, avoid obstacles, and recognize changes in surface elevation. They can also be trained to ignore commands that are not given by their handlers.
Experts say miniature horses are very clean and can be housebroken.
Also, there may be a religious or cultural preference for a horse. For example, some individuals from Muslim cultures consider dogs unacceptable, but will accept horses as service animals.
Miniature horse farms are located all over the United States. The American Miniature Horse Association provides free advice on purchasing a miniature horse, as well as classified ads listing miniature horses for sale by private farms and breeders all over the country. It is also possible to adopt a miniature horse, and one miniature horse rescue organization trains miniature horses as service horses.
In Minnesota, several farms and breeders can be found selling miniature horses, but mostly these appear to cater to those who would like a miniature horse as a pet. Currently, in Minnesota it appears that there are no organizations that specifically train miniature horses to be service animals, but because of the number of breeders selling miniature horses, locating someone who is capable of training a mini as a service animal could be possible.
Training a miniature horse to be a service animal takes a great deal of time and should only be done by an expert with many years of experiences with horses.
There is little case law on assistance / service animals around the country. However, recently Arizona changed its law to recognize only two kinds of service animals: dogs and miniature horses.
In Alaska, a miniature horse was trained to help a 4-year old who suffers from a genetic disorder that will ultimately force him into a wheelchair. The miniature horse attends preschool with the boy.
A woman in Michigan owns a service horse called Cali, which she chose instead of a dog because she is a devout Muslim and a dog was unacceptable. Cali attends classes with her at both the University of Michigan and Michigan State.
Miniature horses are now considered service animals in Illinois, to be permitted in schools and all public places.
Minnesota courts have yet to address a miniature horse service animal case. In federal cases regarding service animals other than dogs, the courts’ findings have indicated specific criteria need to be met in order for an animal to qualify as a “service” animal.
For example in Tennessee, a court held that a miniature horse was not a service animal, because it was only a pet and companion for a little girl and did not perform any tasks that would benefit her as a disabled individual. Access Now, Inc. v. Town of Jasper, 268 F. Supp. 2d 973, 980 (E.D. Tenn. 2003).
In Missouri, a court held that a monkey was not a service animal, because the woman who owned it could not show that the monkey had been specifically trained to perform tasks related to her disability. Rose v. Springfield-Greene County Health Dep’t, 668 F. Supp. 2d 1206, 1214-1216 (W.D. Mo. 2009).
Miniature horses as service animals is a growing trend around the country. If you or your company have concerns or questions regarding the legality of the horse entering public places such as a school or work, or if you have questions about your or another person’s rights as a disabled person, we would be happy to assist you.
This article is intended to provide general information only and should not be used as a substitute for legal counsel or advice.