Abrea Hensley goes everywhere with her miniature horse. To the grocery store. To restaurants. To the movies.
Hensley’s horse is a lifesaver. With a variety of psychiatric disorders, Hensley depends on Flirty to alert her to anxiety attacks, steady her mobility and remind her about taking her meds.
Flirty stands about 27 inches at the shoulder, and came into Hensley’s life two years ago.
“She’s given me back my independence. Before I got her, I couldn’t even do simple tasks,” she said. “I was almost homebound before I got her.”
Now they could even fly commercial together — although Hensley hasn’t attempted to do that yet.
Although service animals have been allowed on flights, the U.S. government recently clarified the rules to specify that service horses can fly with their humans in need.
While Hensley said she isn’t ready to bring Flirty on a plane and possibly deal with reactions from others, she wants people to realize that service miniature horses are no different than support dogs.
“People don’t realize the level of training these animals have,” Hensley said. “They won’t poop on the plane. They are potty trained.”
For years, guidelines on which service and comfort animals could board a flight were called confusing and vague. Passengers, and even the crew, questioned the verification process for furry seatmates.
Growing public pressure from airlines and passengers led the U.S. Department of Transportation to create the new, clarified guidelines.
Here is what the DOT says:
“We believe that it would be in the public interest and within our discretionary authority to prioritize ensuring that the most commonly recognized service animals (i.e., dogs, cats, and miniature horses ) are accepted for transport.”
Before you worry about snakes on a plane, airlines can still say no to reptiles, along with ferrets, rodents and spiders.
But airlines cannot ban a specific species or breed of service animals, like Delta tried to do with pit bulls. “Enforcement action,” however, will only be on a case-by-case basis, according to the final statement document.
Airlines will still have the call on refusing to let an animal aboard. They can say no if the animal:
▪ is believed to be a threat to health or safety.
▪ is too large or too heavy for the cabin.
▪ is disruptive and is not in complete control of the owner.
▪ isn’t housebroken.
▪ isn’t allowed in the country the plane is traveling to.
Airlines can request that owners with emotional support animals give 48 hours’ notice and fill out paperwork, including a mental health professional form attesting to the need for the animal.
The agency gave airlines up to 30 days to update their policies to reflect the new regulations. Some of the suggestions and restrictions were already in individual airline policies.
Jessica Wellman, a service miniature horse handler and service animal trainer, hopes the clarifications will “make it easier for people who legitimately have and require the use of service animals instead of the people who go on and say this animal is a service or ESA [emotional support animal] to get them on a free flight.”
But frequent fliers like Abe Laeser, a former Miami-Dade prosecutor who has severe dog allergies, aren’t sure the clarifications will solve anything.
“It seems silly to bring a horse on [a plane]. What’s next? A baby rhinoceros? A pet alligator?” said Laeser, who lives in Weston. “Someone is going to have an iguana they caught in their backyard and they’re going to want it in there.”
Forget about iguanas — miniature horses are great service animals for mobility work, Wellman said. One of the perks is that they live a long time, up to 35 years, and can work for about 20 years.
Comfort animals ‘are the problem’
While Laeser finds the thought of a horse — even a mini one — on a plane odd, he said he doesn’t have a problem with trained service animals in general. He just doesn’t want untrained “comfort animals” flying in the cabin with him.
“I find there is a pet on almost every flight that I take,” Laeser said.
Unlike a service animal that is trained to do specific tasks like leading blind and visually impaired people around obstacles or detecting seizures before they strike, any animal can qualify to be a comfort animal with typically little or no training. These animals provide emotional support and comfort to their owners through companionship.
Laeser doesn’t agree with the 1986 Air Carrier Access, which requires airlines to carry not just trained animals but any animals that “assist the customer with physical/emotional/psychiatric/medical support.”
People, Laeser said, are using the vagueness of the term “comfort animal” to cheat the system and get their pet to travel for free without a cage.
“They are making a decision to have Fido on their lap and somehow that’s more important than me being able to breathe for two or three days,” he said.
Maria Olga Toledo, who lives in Miami, agrees and said she’s had several “nightmare” experiences on a plane. In one of them, a cat with a long leash began running up and down the aisles when she was sleeping, and almost gave her a “heart attack” when it went through her legs.
Her incident was tamed compared to others
In December 2017, an emotional support pit bull bit a 5-year-old girl on the face at an airport in Portland, Oregon. In June 2017, another emotional support dog flying with a former Marine reportedly attacked the man sitting next to the Marine.
“Flight attendants have been bitten by some of these emotional support animals,” Taylor Garland, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants union, told the Miami Herald in February 2018. “Emotional support dogs that were clearly not trained to be on a plane have bitten real service dogs who are. There’s a security issue — any kind of chaos in the cabin, the crew has got to worry that it’s a diversionary tactic for something much worse.”
And don’t forget the poop and pee.
“Defecation and urination are a big issue,” Garland said. “A big issue.”
Laeser also doesn’t believe the airlines are properly vetting the furry passengers.
“No one from the airlines is at the gate asking if you have the right papers,” Laeser said. “I don’t care what the airlines say, no one is getting thrown off because they didn’t bring their papers with them.”
It’s also easy to buy an official-looking emotional support certificate or ID card bearing your pet’s holographic image online, though some airlines like American Airlines have reinforced their policy to require a letter from a mental health professional reaffirming the passenger’s need for the animal.
Those who are caught misrepresenting a service animal, however, could be fined $500 in Florida and may face up to 60 days in jail.
While Hensley and Wellman don’t think fake service and comfort animals are as common as some make it seem, they both say it causes trouble for those with real service animals. They themselves have experienced it.
Hensley, who lives in Nebraska, said Flirty is about two inches taller than a golden retriever. A Great Dane, which is a popular service dog breed, “would tower over her,” according to Hensley. It doesn’t stop the “harassment.”
People have tried to climb onto Flirty, who weighs 136 pounds, and have even told Hensley she shouldn’t be bringing livestock inside. They don’t realize she’s a legitimate service horse, she said.
Wellman, who lives in Ocala and is a service animal trainer, has also had problems at home.
One of her neighbors didn’t like having Honey, a 31-inch tall miniature service horse, and a service horse in training next door. The problem quickly escalated.
“We had to go to court to keep her on our property,” Wellman said.
Wellman has a progressive autoimmune disease that gives her joint and inflammation issues. She also has Crohn’s disease. She already had a service dog but luck brought Honey to her.
“I actually won her in a $5 raffle,” she said. “I never intended to really get her. I pretty much put money in to a raffle. ... Then they called me and were like, ‘You won!’ And I was like, ‘Oh, goodie, what did I win?’
“She was the grand prize.”
Since that day in 2010, her “cane with a brain” has been helping her move around. She also provides some emotional support.
“She’s freedom, she’s security, she’s really just always able to help me out no matter what,” Wellman said. “That freedom of not having to rely on another human being to do just kind of normal simple things that most people take for granted.”
Wellman and Hensley said people need to realize that the animals they’re seeing in restaurants or on flights with behavior problems aren’t legitimate service animals. Honey and Flirty, for instance, received training for two years.
People, Wellman said, rarely notice or hear stories of service animals doing their jobs — like earlier this month when a woman traveling to West Palm Beach passed out and was saved by her service dog.
Since 2011, the American Disability Act has allowed miniature horses that are “individually trained to work and perform tasks for a person with a disability” to be considered service animals. Previously, only dogs were officially recognized.
That doesn’t mean you won’t have a service pig or monkey as your seatmate. They could be considered service animals, but it’s up to individual carriers to decide on a case-by-case basis, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act National Network.
But, what about a peacock?
While airlines are not required to accept “unusual service animals,” the policy does not completely define the term. Airlines requested that the DOT declare a wide variety of species — including birds, hedgehogs and animals with hooves and horns — “unusual service animals” and allow them to be categorically banned. The agency refused, saying it didn’t have the authority.
Now that the DOT has clarified that miniature horses can take to the skies, what’s it like to fly with one?
Here’s how it works for Southwest Airlines, which made headlines last year after its updated policy said trained service dogs, cats and miniature horses were welcome on flights.
After checking in at the ticket counter, the passenger and the miniature service horse would board at the gate area, according to a Southwest Airlines spokeswoman. The horse would then be accommodated on the floor of the first row of seats at the forward bulkhead wall, which typically has more room, she said.
Even with the extra space, Wellman said she would probably buy the seats in the entire row if she decided to fly to make sure she wouldn’t bother anyone.
But, Wellman and Hensley hope the consideration goes both ways.
“Ignore the service animal,” Hensley said. “Pretend it’s not there and interact with the person like they’re a normal human being.”