Last month, we broke the news that the United States Department of Transportation updated its guidelines to officially permit miniature horses on commercial flights as service animals. The reaction at the time was strong, to say the least. But it doesn't compare to the internet imbroglio that erupted after the first miniature horse to take advantage of the new policy recently took flight.
If contemporaneous social media accounts are to be believed, passengers on an Aug. 30 American Airlines flight from Chicago, Illinois to Omaha, Nebraska were mostly amused by the sight of Abrea Hensley and her miniature horse Flirty at the check-in desk and aboard the plane. Flirty is a legitimate psychiatric service animal who helps Hensley ward off physically crippling anxiety attacks, not a dubious "emotional support animal." She's also got her own Twitter and Instagram accounts, if you're into that sort of thing.
It's worth noting American Airlines had approved miniature horses in the cabin prior to the DoT policy update—the animals are officially recognized by the ADA—but Flirty's brief flight is a good test of this new world. So how'd it go? Pretty good, apparently. In her social media posts, Abrea explained that Flirty was calm and quiet during the flight, even napping for a brief period. She booked bulkhead-row seats, though with only a curtain between her and the last row of business class on the smaller regional jet, she admitted the horse struggled to keep her balance on takeoff and landing and bumped into the seatback several times.
Still, fellow passengers were more curious about the unusual sight more than anything else, and the American Airlines crew was impressed enough with Flirty's behavior that they asked to take a group photo. Reflecting on the voyage, Hensley decided that while air travel is workable, it's just a little too much stress on Flirty, and it's too hard to avoid inconveniencing others. She wrote that she'd continue to travel long distances by car unless it's an emergency.
All's well, right? Wrong. Unfortunately for Hensley and Flirty, the miniature horse policy update came at a time when controversies over emotional support animals on planes are fresh in the public mind. Passengers have conflated "support" animals with service animals to bring increasingly outlandish pets ranging from snakes to hamsters to spiders onto flights, with one traveler even being denied the chance to bring a peacock aboard.
An unfortunate side effect is that there's a lot of misplaced mistrust being directed at people like Hensley with trained, certified service animals like Flirty, who thanks to rigorous training is no more likely to inconvenience other travelers than an equally sized seeing-eye dog. Since her story became news last week, her Twitter feed has been inundated with people complaining about what they see as someone pushing the rules to the breaking point.
"People who need "emotional support" animals shouldn't be flying. I feel sorry for your poor horse and that person in first class whose flight you ruined," one person wrote. "It's the height of selfishness," another chimed in. "What a joke this sh*t has become with service animals," another ranted.
The overall wisdom of bringing a miniature horse on a plane can be debated. One legitimate question that was raised in our initial coverage (and not answered here) is what would happen to the unrestrained animal during severe turbulence. But Hensley's actions are 100 percent legal here—and according to American Airlines policy, they would have been legal even before the DoT announcement—so discourse shouldn't involve lobbing rude tweets at a woman with a disability.