PHOENIX (KSAZ) - Dogs have been assisting people with disabilities for years, but with much success, one local organization is looking to add miniature horses to the list of service animals they train.
"They like to have a job. Once they have a job, they're very dedicated to doing this job," said Chip Wilson, President of the Arizona Horse Council.
It's a typical day here at the Apache Greyhound Park where service dogs with Paws 4 Life train. For 10 years, the organization has strictly trained pups, but now there's a new kid on the block.
"He's our test pilot, he's our first one and he's so mellow, I think he's going to do just fine," said Tuni House, President of Paws 4 Life.
"A person that can't bend, a person that's in a wheelchair, it can pull the wheelchair, but it can also retrieve objects for them when they can't. When they don't have use of their hands, we teach them tasks like phone, shoes, keys, glasses, open the door, close the cabinet. Push and pull basically, and these guys are very capable, you teach them to pick up a ball up, they'll be able to pick anything up once they learn to pick up the ball," added House.
A miniature horse can be trained to do basically everything that these service dogs can do and it will serve its owner for many years.
"Miniature horses, their life expectancy is over 35 years, close to 40 years, so that puts the miniature horse service ability close to 30 years where as a dog is 8 to 12 years," said Wilson.
Wilson says in some cases, miniature horses are smarter than dogs and just like dogs, they will train for 18 months to become certified.
"It would be someone that has a balance problem. You can grab ahold of a horse and pull yourself up much better. You can grab ahold of the horse and hold on. They have a special harness for someone who has that type of a problem that they can hang onto. Someone that's in a wheelchair that needs assistance to move about, this one can actually do it," explained Wilson.
Wilson says this new pilot program was made possible after the Americans with Disabilities Act made specific provisions.
"Nationally in 2011, they changed the disability act to make it so a service animal can be a miniature horse, primarily before it's always been dogs," he said. "Basically it's a new frontier for the disabilities act."
If all goes well, House is expecting to add several more miniature horses to the program, so don't be surprised if you see a miniature horse in the grocery store, bank or anywhere else a person who needs their assistance might be.
Wilson says miniature horses do need more room than a dog and will typically need more outdoor space, but he does say they can be house trained.