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Most people who require a service animal to assist with a disability use dogs, but new federal guidelines also permit use of an animal that might come as a surprise: miniature horses.
Horse experts, disability advocates and breeders say not many people use miniature horses, but the new Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines could change that.
"As much work as she is — and she is a lot more work than a dog — I would not trade her for 10 dogs," said Mona Ramouni, 30, a blind woman who lives in East Lansing, Mich., and attends classes at both Michigan State University and the University of Michigan.
Her 5-year-old mini is named Cali (short for Mexicali Rose), stands 30 inches tall and is the size of a Newfoundland dog. Cali likes watching television, pizza, rolling around in the mud and attention, which she gets a lot of because she is a people-magnet, Ramouni said.
"You can train them to do some pretty amazing things," said Emily Weiss, senior director of shelter research and development for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Most horses live into their late 20s and early 30s, Weiss said, two or three times the lifespan of a dog.
The ADA rules are basically the same for dogs and minis, as long as the horse is housebroken.
Ramouni says she wrote everyone she knows asking them to petition the Department of Justice to include miniature horses in the new ADA law.
Dolores Arste, an animal trainer and relationship coach in Mena, Ark., did her part. She was Cali's trainer and says five other minis in the United States serve as guides for the blind. All of the trainers wrote to the DOJ, she said.
Ramouni went blind shortly after birth. Growing up in Detroit, she could not have a dog because her devout Muslim family considered them unclean.
Unlike service animals, who learn to turn off lights, open refrigerators and pick up dropped objects, guide animals have to lead their handlers around danger, get into cars and onto public transportation and follow others, Arste said.
Because a guide animal's job is to get the handler safely from Point A to Point B, "they have to able and willing to disobey commands, so it takes a special dog or horse," Arste said. If there are tools or toys or debris on a path, the animal has to resist even if the handler says go, she explained.
On the other hand, the animal also has to trust the handler to make the final decision. Ramouni recalled Cali hesitating at a flight of stairs, but ultimately accepting Ramouni's urging to go. "She trusted me enough to do it for me," Ramouni said.
Horses need more room than dogs and are more work for owners. Dogs are fed and walked a couple of times a day, while horses eat hay and grass and produce waste throughout the day, Weiss said.
But minis can be housetrained, Arste said. Miniature horses can be fed hay or grass in the form of pellets or cubes, though that can cause ulcers, said Karen Malcor-Chapman, who owns the KPM HoneyPony ranch in Norco.
Even the smallest mini needs an 8-by-10-foot stall and room to run, said Malcor-Chapman, who is also a professional mini mare midwife.
"A horse is meant to be in an environment where he can move about, small or not, eat throughout the day and be with his buddies," Weiss said.
Horses don't get fleas, but they do get parasites, ticks and attract some other pests, Weiss said.
Arste doesn't think there will be a run on miniature horses because of the new law, but Weiss worries that some individuals may rush to get them, then leave them homeless if it doesn't work out.
"It's not unusual, unfortunately, for them to end up on the slaughterhouse floor because there's no home for them," Weiss said.
Ramouni and Arste have kept a blog tracking Cali's career as a guide horse. On March 17, Ramouni wrote:
"Life is hard sometimes — complicated and full of challenges that we think we might not be able to handle. ... If Cali can try, if Cali can persevere, it is my duty, my privilege, to keep on keeping on as well, because I can't let my sweet girl down."