April 17, 2024

Are Miniature Horses Capable of Being Service Animals?

Author: Jonny Lupsha, News Writer
Go to Source

By Jonny Lupsha, News Writer

The Department of Transportation has released guidelines for airline policies to include miniature horses as service animals, The New York Times reported. Many travelers are used to seeing dogs and cats, but horses come as a surprise. U.S. service animals include a long list of varieties.

Brown miniature horse
Surprisingly, miniature horses have been added to guidelines for airline policies that list types of service animals. Photo by Freedom-Photo / Shutterstock

Most of us may conflate flying horses with unicorns or Bigfoot, but with a little help from your commercial airliner, they seem to be just around the corner. People have been using horses as service animals around their towns and on airplanes in record levels recently. The article in The Times said that equine support has been ongoing in the air since at least 2004, when a viral picture of a miniature horse on a Delta flight was taken. In addition, the article said that the Department of Transportation released a 28-page document prioritizing horses just below dogs and cats as service animals. This leaves many asking “Why horses?” and “How intelligent are animals really?”

Social Learning and Service Qualifications

The Americans with Disabilities Act website defines service animals as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” However, service animals extend far beyond dogs. The page has a devoted section to miniature horses.

“A public entity or private business must allow a person with a disability to bring a miniature horse on the premises as long as it has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of the individual with a disability,” the site reads. “The rules that apply to service dogs also apply to miniature horses.”

So how do animals get trained to “do work or perform tasks,” exactly? “Animals with higher cognitive abilities may learn by trial and error, and they may also learn from watching adult animals—and this is called social learning,” said Dr. Donald E. Moore III, director of the Oregon Zoo and senior science advisor at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. “You may have witnessed social learning in mammalian carnivores, maybe even in your own household. But zoologists have recorded instances of social learning among fish, reptiles, and birds, too.”

As examples, Dr. Moore pointed to a mother cat teaching her kitten to hunt, a dog teaching its puppy how to ascend and descend stairs, and a bird building a nest from different building materials than its ancestors.

Educated Horses

Dr. Moore cited a specific example of equine intelligence in Clever Hans, a horse from the early 20th century who seemed to be able to count. “He could correctly answer math questions asked by his owner, or even by someone else,” he said. “The German Board of Education was skeptical about Hans’s intelligence, so they appointed the Hans Commission to evaluate his behavior. This large commission of animal scientists and educators determined after close observation that no tricks were involved in these demonstrations—that there was no fraud.”

Unfortunately, further tests proved that Hans was reading humans’ body language and reactions rather than calculating mathematics. “If someone knew the answer to the questions asked, they had different body posture or their facial expression would change as Hans got close to the correct answer,” Dr. Moore said. “If Hans could not see these cues from humans, he was only right about 5 percent of the time. Hans could read cues because horses need to read one another’s body postures and facial expressions in nature.”

And yet horses and humans differ drastically, physiologically speaking. Hans’s domestication process may have taught him much about human behavior, which is still relatively clever for a horse, after all.

Whichever reasoning or habits cause service animals to perform the complex tasks their owners require, they’re clearly capable of understanding and doing more than most of us would expect. Regardless of the species—even miniature horses—they’re fostering a symbiotic relationship with people who exhibit disabilities and require their assistance. It may surprise us to see a miniature horse on an airplane, but that horse may be studying us just as much as we’re studying it.

Dr. Donald E. Moore, III, Ph.D.

Dr. Donald E. Moore III contributed to this article. Dr. Moore is the director of the Oregon Zoo and senior science advisor at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Management and Zoology and a doctoral degree in Conservation Biology from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

Read more