Last week, after months of deliberation, the Department of Transportation released formal guidance regarding animals on planes. The 28-page document makes it clear that three types of service animals should be prioritized for travel: cats, dogs and miniature horses.
Yes, miniature horses. The document repeatedly includes mini horses in a trio of “the most commonly recognized service animals” and the “most commonly used service animals.”
Shortly after the guidelines’ release, a photo of a small ginger horse, squeezed in front of a woman’s knees, circulated on the internet. It appeared atop numerous articles, without any sort of caption, only adding to the questions raised by the travel document: If flying horses are so common, how come I’ve never rolled my carry-on past one? How could that photo be real? And even if it is, why would you ever want to squeeze a horse in front of a seat like that?
So, is that picture real?
Yes. Compared with cats and dogs, miniature horses are still a rare sight on planes. But the horse in the photo, Confetti, is far from the only miniature to have ever flown. According to the website of a ranch that was involved in raising Confetti, the picture — which shows the horse pressed against her owner — was taken on a Delta flight in 2004, somewhere between Atlanta and Boston.
Why a mini horse?
There are many reasons someone would fly with a miniature horse, disability experts say. Although a growing number of emotional support animals have emerged in recent years, in the case of miniature horses, their function as service animal is primarily physical, said Kenneth Shiotani, a senior staff lawyer at the National Disability Rights Network.
For some blind people, such as Confetti’s owner, guide horses serve as a compelling alternative to guide dogs. The animals are mild-mannered and fast learners, with nearly 360-degree vision. They may also offer balance support to individuals with physical disabilities.
Mona Ramouni, who has more experience traveling with a miniature horse than perhaps anyone else in America, pointed out that training a service animal takes thousands of hours. “With a dog you’ll get eight to 10 years if you are lucky,” she said, adding that “with a horse you get 35, 40 years.” Ramouni’s own horse, Cali, is 14. “She’s just getting to middle age,” she said.
How do you get a horse to the airport?
True miniature horses, which are not to be confused with ponies, are less than 34 inches in height. They were bred to be pets for European nobility in the 1600s, according to the International Museum of the Horse.
Their compact size makes them capable of fitting into the back of a hatchback, which is how Ramouni and her husband typically get Cali to the airport. “She’ll jump into the back of the car,” Ramouni said.
How do you get the horse on the plane?
Ramouni usually buys flights on short notice, calling the airline the day before to give a heads up that she will be traveling with a horse. Occasionally airlines have told her that they did not have room, she said, but she is hopeful that the new guidelines will discourage such behavior.
Going through security with Cali tends to prompt giggles and declarations from workers that “I’ve never checked a horse before.” Airport officials will sometimes ask for Cali’s official “horse ID,” Ramouni said. Unaware of any organization that offers such a thing, she and a friend eventually made a card themselves.
Before going to the gate, Ramouni will ask someone to lead them to the women’s restroom.“My horse has been trained to go potty in a plastic bag,” she said. “I would just give her the command to go potty, then I flush it down the toilet.”
Seeing a horse in an airport restroom tends to spark questions like, “Is that real?” She enjoys indulging the question, she said, but on one occasion, she relished responding to a drunken woman with, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
How do you fit a horse in front of your seat?
It does not seem strange that miniature horses are among the most commonly “recognized” service animals because there is a long history of evidence that they are helpful to people with disabilities, said Jennifer Mathis, director of policy and legal advocacy at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.
But though they may technically be among the “most commonly used” service animals according to The Department of Transportation, they are still rare. Ramouni said she knew a couple of other blind people who had flown, but “it’s kind of uncharted territory.”
Airlines that have engaged with miniature horses before typically put Ramouni and Cali in the bulkhead row, which has more legroom and no seats in front. Throughout the flight Cali stands at Ramouni’s feet.
For many people, their most memorable encounter with a miniature horse might have been seeing Li’l Sebastian on the TV show “Parks and Recreation” or visiting a petting zoo. As a sort of mini horse ambassador, Ramouni feels pressure to ensure Cali doesn’t stink up a plane.
“I don’t want my accidents to be someone’s first impression,” she said. Cali is used to going for long stretches without urinating, but Ramouni has created a tidy defecation setup for long flights: When she senses that Cali needs to go, she signals the horse, who then goes into a deodorized bag.
On the way down, Ramouni gives Cali ice to chew for the pressure. She doesn’t like to fly too often — or for too long — because she knows that flying is hard on horses, small and large.
It works out best when she has a friend or family member pick up the other end. Onetime, she said, she tried to hail a cab with Cali. No one stopped.
Ramouni said she was hopeful that the new regulations would encourage other people to fly with their guide horses and, in doing so, would help make a case for guide horses over guide dogs. The next frontier, she said, is international travel.