The Miniature Horse as a Service Animal
by Donnalee Ammons
You may consider the miniature horse as a service animal no more than a quirky novelty, but let’s get a complete picture of why and how the miniature horse can be a perfect service animal.
In the United States, miniature horses were first used in the coal mines of West Virginia. These sturdy little animals could pull two or three times their body weight through the deepest, narrowest tunnels of the coal mines. They took up minimal space and were easy to house and care for. In addition their temperament was docile and compliant. The first miniatures were stocky little animals eager to please their handlers.
Today’s miniature horse retains the same kind manner that made its forbearers such an asset to the early miners. Through selective breeding the miniature horse has become a more refined version of the animals so prized in the mines for a willing work ethic. Miniature horses continue to be “user friendly” equines. Years ago “dwarf” minis were more prevalent than today. Conscientious breeders have selectively bred to try to eradicate the dwarf gene. While extremely small, the dwarf brings numerous physical and health concerns and should not be considered for the role of a service animal.
In the early 90’s the Bossier Parish School System in Louisiana used miniature horses in it’s adapted physical education program. Children of all disabilities worked with the horses learning the skills necessary to groom, handle and show in competitive activities. While this was a therapeutic and skill building activity and the horses were well trained to respond to a variety of issues, the little horses were not trained service animals.
Miniature horses have proved very adaptable to interacting with the severely disabled, individuals in nursing facilities and the elderly. This promoted social interaction and often stimulated memory and conversation but once again the horse did not meet the definition of a service animal. It was not trained to take affirmative action to specific stimulus.
In over twenty years of being both a breeder of miniature horses and a special educator I have seen numerous instances of a miniature horse seeming to instinctively know what action to take in specific circumstances with the disabled, I truthfully cannot state that the animal would consistently respond in the same manner each time the triggering stimuli occurred.
A service animal must consistently respond to the target stimulus or target condition that the individual presents. More than one service need may be presented by the same individual. We have all heard or read about animals who courageously saved the family or a family member from fire or drowning but what we don’t know is would the animal provide this service every time the situation arose.
Probably the question most frequently asked is, “Can the miniature horse be house broken?”. Based on observation and experience with miniatures in the show ring, nursing homes and schools my response is yes applying a rule of reasonableness. Will the horse go all day without needing to relieve itself? Probably not, but the horse can be trained to shavings or a specific location. In taking horses to a state residential center for severely disabled adults it was possible to determine when the horse was in need of toileting. June bug, a 26 yr old mare, would fidget and shuffle telegraphing her need. A quick trip to the horse trailer solved the problem and Junie was ready to continue interacting.
At a recent institute on legal issues and the disabled, a presenter on service animals explained that failure to be house broken met the legal grounds for removing a service animal from the school setting. This talented presenter shared that if the dog lifted his leg on the teacher’s desk and marked his territory you could be reasonably sure he wasn’t house broken. I was pleased to be able to comment that in my years with miniature horses I had never seen one lift his leg on anything. We all enjoyed the touch of humor in the exchange.
The size of a full grown miniature horses can vary from 26” to 38”. There are instances of smaller animals but these would probably not be functional in the service setting. There are two main registering organizations. The American Miniature Horse Association (AMHA) which limits height to 34” and the American Miniature Horse Registry (AMHR) which also has a division for horses over 34” up to 38”. Knowing the client and the service need(s) will determine the desirable size of the service horse. One must also keep in mind that the functioning life span of the service horse can easily be 20 years. The possible physical changes of the handler should be considered when selecting an animal or the advantage of the longer life span of the miniature horse over a dog may be lost.
We will be adding information on the miniature horse in the role of a service animal as we explore needs and solutions. If you have questions or comments please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com We have just joined Facebook also.
The website www.guidehorse.org discusses the use of the miniature horse as a guide animal for the blind. There are multiple sites in response to keying in service miniature horses however in most instances the use described meets a definition of “therapy” horse rather than “service horse”.
Donnalee Ammons has worked with persons with disabilities in both the school and community environments for 51 years. She has bred, trained and shown miniature horses for 25 years.
We regret we no longer train service animals due to health reason but will be happy to assist you with information