At your service: The next assistance animal you see could be a house-trained horse

Pearl, a miniature horse, enjoys a reward of oats from Jaime Ellsworth for touching a light switch. Pearl is being trained as an assistance animal — one of only 150 assistance horses in the United States. - Jane K. Fox
Pearl, a miniature horse, enjoys a reward of oats from Jaime Ellsworth for touching a light switch. Pearl is being trained as an assistance animal — one of only 150 assistance horses in the United States.
— image credit: Jane K. Fox

San Juan Island is now host to the next generation of assistance animal. And she is only 24 inches high.

You might not think a miniature horse would be a prime candidate for such service. However, local artist Jaime Ellsworth, an assistance-animal trainer, is one of few in the nation proving that supposition wrong.

“Pearl has been in training for a month, learning everything I offer her almost on the first try. She is extremely intelligent,” Ellsworth says.

By the time training is completed in two years, Pearl will be able to operate effectively as a guide for seeing- or hearing-impaired people. Whether it be turning on the light switch, alerting the owner if the door bell rings or fetching the telephone, Pearl will be trained in a full range of service tasks.

Ellsworth and Pearl are breaking new ground in the area of horse as helper. The service animal jacket Pearl wears has been traditionally reserved for guide dogs. Dogs have always been thought of as loyal, intelligent, responsive and devoted. Horses, on the other hand, have nuances of exclusivity. Almost anyone can have a dog. Horses require a different level of finance and skill.

Not so with service horses, Ellsworth says.

In fact, service horses overtake service dogs in several categories. For one thing, a miniature horse will live for about 30 or 40 years, whereas a dog sometimes lives no longer than 10 years. This longevity of life can be a real asset to someone dependent on the animal.

“The loss of a service animal can be devastating ... (with a horse) a person doesn’t go through that loss every 10 years or so. The longer you have an animal with you, the more you will bond and the more the animal will learn.”

Another element is the horse’s loyalty and ability to bond. Fidelity has long been associated with the dog, but the horse is equally capable of sticking to their owner. In fact, Ellsworth says, being a horse, not a dog, actually helps in this respect.

“A horse is an excellent candidate for guide animal because they don’t follow scents or other dogs. The horse focuses on the handler.”

Pearl is also as affectionate as a dog, if not quite as exuberant. She may not chase balls and roll over your feet, but Ellsworth says the horse “loves to snuggle,” and will quite happily stand peacefully with her nose in the crook of Ellsworth’s arm. “Horses bond very close, she is very calm.”

Additionally, everywhere the dog can go, Pearl can go too. Ellsworth has a collection of dogs, some indeed being trained for service, and Pearl will curl up with them on the rug, and ride with them in the car. “She loves to go in the car, she runs with the dogs to the car and stands with her head between the seats.”

Aside from other beneficial behavioral traits, the horse is also cheaper to feed than a dog. “It costs about a quarter a day to feed, and she keeps your lawn mowed. Also, their manure can be composted.” (Incidentally, Pearl is house-trained.)

The list goes on. It is perhaps surprising, then, that at this point in time Ellsworth estimates there are only around 150 guide horses working in the USA. Most, moreover, are on the East Coast. In fact, it was after reading about a horse in Massachusetts, Panda, that got Ellsworth interested in the idea.

“I just don’t think many people know about them,” Ellsworth says.

After Pearl’s training is complete, Ellsworth will evaluate what kind of person Pearl could best help. Then, with the help of other assistant animal organizations, she will place her in a new home. “It could be anywhere in the country and we will do an initial minimum month training and then have ongoing contact with them.”

Until that point, Pearl will continue to learn, snuggle, and ride in the car.

For more information on miniature horses as service animals, contact Ellsworth by e-mail,

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