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Two people and a horse on an airplane Jacqueline Day for Vox

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What it’s like to take a mini horse on an airplane

It’s now legal to fly with a service horse in the US. Mona Ramouni is one of the few people who does it.

Mona Ramouni is 39 and went blind shortly after she was born. To get around, she uses the assistance of a professionally trained miniature guide horse named Cali. Cali has been with her for 10 years — through a marriage, two pregnancies, and a degree from Michigan State — and she’ll be with her for whatever comes next.

Ramouni’s reasoning for this seemingly nontraditional choice is simple: Guide dogs are lucky to make it to their 15th birthday, while mini horses frequently thrive into their 30s. Some even make it to 50. The idea of building an unconscious harmony with a guide hound, only to swap it out with a new one every decade, she told me via phone, seemed like a lot of hard, painful work.

In 2010, the American With Disabilities Act was revised to recognize miniature horses, alongside dogs, as potential candidates for service certification. Foundations routinely train and deliver service horses to the blind (Ramouni herself occasionally does this), but functionally, equine guides remain in the minority compared to canines, and Ramouni is one of the very few tenders who has taken their mini horse onto a plane.

This was the subject of a brief internet mania a couple of weeks ago, when US Department of Transportation ruled that guide horses, like guide dogs, are allowed on domestic airways. It was funny to imagine another ghastly headache — an ornery colt in the bulkhead — added on to the nightmare we’ve already made of commercial flying. But this is the exact stigma Ramouni wants to push against. She wants to travel around the country comfortably and to give others in the service horse community the same sense of agency.

Ramouni and Cali are pioneers within their niche. She told me that on her first flight with her horse, there wasn’t a specific centralized ruling on horses and air travel. Even today, as the arbitration becomes clearer, the social stigma of stashing a 200-pound mammal in the exit row is too tough a pill to swallow for the average owner. We talked about the ins and outs of flying with a service horse, the trust she has with Cali, and how that trust motivates her as an activist.

Do you remember the first time you took Cali on a flight with you?

The first time I took her, I want to say I went to New York [from Michigan]. I was nervous. There are not many people who take horses on flights, and I was worried that they weren’t going to let me do it or only let me on at the last minute. I wanted to make sure Cali didn’t do something that she shouldn’t do. There are little kids around; you can’t predict everything [a horse does].

It made me think about things that I hadn’t planned for before and things that I didn’t realize that were going to happen, or things that didn’t happen that I thought might. One of the things is that Cali, because of the pressure of takeoff, she fell. There’s not that much you can do. I’m not strong enough to hold her up. But she got back up; she was great.

She trusts me like I trust her, so we were able to get through it together, but if she was with someone she didn’t know — it could’ve been a problem; it could’ve stressed her out. Another thing is that I knew she wouldn’t drink water when we were traveling, and I knew that she had pressure in her ears. So I had her chew ice chips.

What’s it like checking in a horse at a terminal?

They make me go through the security checkpoint like everyone else, and they’ll take the horse from me. They walk her through, and they check her in.

Does security ever ask advice if they don’t know how to handle a horse?

In Detroit, it was hilarious because they were worried that Cali was going to kick them. I didn’t really reassure them because I thought it was funny.

What’s your preferred seat arrangements on a plane with a horse?

I have to sit in the bulkhead [rows with extra legroom], so she can sit in front of me. That’s my only requirement.

What do the people next to you think when they realize they’ll be sitting next to a horse for a flight?

People either really, really like the horse or really, really dislike it. I haven’t found many people who were in between, like, “Oh, you have a horse, cool.”

You’ve mentioned that you like to make sure the horse has a bathroom break before getting on board. Can you tell me about that process?

There are service animal relief spots in an airport, but those relief spots are for dogs. A horse isn’t going to want to use the bathroom where dogs have been, because they’re prey animals. So what I ended up doing was teaching the horse to come to a handicap stall, and I’d put a bag on her and tell her to go potty, because I’ve taught her to go potty in [areas like that] before. Once she’s finished, I flush it down the toilet.

Is there a limit to the length of time you can take a horse on a plane? Is there a specific number of hours you’d be okay with having Cali in the air for?

That’s a good question. We’re going to test this because hopefully I’m going to be sending a horse to England for somebody. I want to break up the trip into two flights, just because I think it’d be easier for the horse.

Recently, the US government has made it clear that service horses are allowed on planes. You’re a pioneer in this, so does it feel nice to see that airlines are clarifying that mini horses are allowed to fly?

Yes, yes, it does. I just hope that they make sure that it’s a service horse, and not an emotional support animal, because people can abuse that. I’ve had friends who’ve said, “I’m going to take my dog and put a vest on it and say it’s a service dog.” And I’m like, “No, no, you’re not; you’re not screwing it up for me. I worked way too hard to do this.” Taking a horse on a plane — you wouldn’t do this unless it was absolutely necessary.

Is there anything you’d like to see change at airports to be more accommodating for service horses?

Just more knowledge, more training. I have a problem with adults a lot who want to pet the horse, and she doesn’t really want to be pet. That kind of thing. People will say, “Come with me,” and then they’ll grab the horse. That’s not how you’re supposed to do it. Let the blind person deal with the horse, because they know what they’re doing.

Within the service horse community, very few have actually taken those horses on a plane — despite the fact that airlines allow it. Why do you think it’s still so rare?

They’re nervous: The horse has to go potty. Is someone going to freak out? You have to deal with that. It’s like taking a screaming kid on a plane. You don’t want to want to be the person that everyone hates. You can’t just be like, “Okay, let me just get off and get back on.” Taking a horse on a flight is not easy.

You’ve talked in the past about how traveling with a miniature horse is like traveling with a pop star. Are people always coming up to you and talking to you about Cali?

Let me put it this way. I’m a Muslim, and when my sister walks around, she knows that people are looking at her because she’s wearing a hijab. When I go around, people don’t even notice that I’m wearing a hijab because they’re so focused on the horse. My sister is uncomfortable a lot of time because people stare or cross the street to get away from her. I don’t have that problem at all because they’re like, “I don’t care what you are or what you believe in; you have a horse!”

What do you think gave you the confidence to be one of the few service horse owners to take this on?

I think it was just because I have this horse who has allowed me to do things that I never thought I’d ever be able to do. She gave me that confidence. And I wanted to stand up for her too. That she can do this, and she can help me. When I got her, I realized my dream is to train these horses and give other people the opportunities that Cali has given me. If it wasn’t for Cali, I’d never have left home. I wouldn’t have gotten married. I wouldn’t have had my two girls. That’s all because of Cali; she’s done that for me. I’m not going to back down. I know someone who’s had a guide horse for years, and they won’t fly. Somebody has to do it.

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