Mobility service animals: Meet Tonka

Large breed dogs (such as great Danes) and miniature horses are often used as mobility service animals. These animals are trained as service animals for people who have mobility-related disabilities. The person uses the animal to lean on while walking. As well, the animal can be trained to perform lots of other tasks to help make the person’s life easier.

Donna Scarpa of The Tiny Trotters, in Los Osos, California, recently trained a miniature horse named Tonka as a service animal for mobility support. Tonka helps his owner with her balance while she is walking, standing, and sitting. He is also a big help for stairs, curbs, and changes in terrain. This post (and the video at the end) will introduce you to Tonka and the training he went through.

Why use a horse as a mobility service animal?

I admit that before talking to Donna, I didn’t know much about mobility service animals. My first (ignorant) reaction was– why a horse, rather than just a cane? However, a service animal such as Tonka can be trained to help with many tasks that could seem small to you or me, but that could be very difficult for a person with a disability.

For example, many people with mobility disabilities have a lot of difficulty bending over to pick something up. Tonka is trained to pick up dropped items, such as a set of keys, and hand them back to his owner. Also, Tonka is trained to assist his owner in getting back up, if she were to fall.

A service animal such as Tonka can also offer his owner a new sense of independence. Many times, the person and service animal can work together to solve a task. Then, the person no longer has to rely on asking other people for help.

The ADA now recognizes miniature horses as service animals for people who are blind or disabled. A miniature horse is a great size for a service animal, since most are not that much larger than a large breed dog. As well, a miniature horse will often live to be 30-40 years old, where as most large breed dogs only live about 10 years.

How was Tonka trained?

Tonka went into service at the end of August. Tonka is not a first. Donna has trained other mobility service horses. I’ve been chatting some with Donna about Tonka’s training. When training Tonka she had to consider all sorts of unique things that don’t usually have to be taken into account when training horses.

Donna used clicker training and positive methods to train Tonka. She also did much of his training at liberty (without a harness or lead line). She calls this stage of the training “shadow walking.” Tonka learned to be her shadow and to stay positioned at all times to her right in the correct spot. According to Donna, one of the hardest things to train was right hand turns. Tonka had to learn to walk smoothly and carefully, while listening to his handler and not bumping into her.

Here’s a bit more specific information about Tonka’s training, which Donna gave me to share:

Because of where the handle is on his harness, in order for the human to have a comfortable and balanced right arm, Tonka had to learn to walk more forward than we usually expect of our horses. Which then presented a problem with right hand turns. He had to learn to read body language more so than what is required of most horses and the margin for error had to be very small. In the first part of the video (below), you see Tonka concentrating very hard on matching his stride to Rita’s. I had worked with him at a very slow, shuffle type step. Good thing I did. In the 2nd part of the video, you see how much better her stride was. After just 3 days her confidence grew. She could feel him adjusting to her imbalances.

Donna had to prepare Tonka for many situations that a “normal” horse would never encounter. She also had to train him to be calm and confident, even in completely new situations. For example, Tonka had been in a forklift cage during training, but never on an elevator. His first encounter with an elevator was when he was on the job helping his new owner. His first time on an elevator, they got off at when the door opened the first time. So, the next time on the second elevator, he wanted to get off when the door opened, but it was not their floor. However, he quickly figured things out and by his third elevator ride, he knew that he need to wait until his owner indicated it was time to get off.

Donna also taught Tonka to stand completely still while she used him to stand up. She said that she would “fling my arms over his neck and drag myself up, leaning and hanging on him.” It was very important for Tonka to learn to stand absolutely still during this. That way, if his new owner ever slipped and fell, she would be able to use him as support to help herself stand up.

Donna spent eight months training Tonka before taking him to Oregon. There she spent 10 days doing a crash course with Tonka and his new owner. Check out the YouTube video below to see Tonka in action, helping his new owner Rita. You can learn more about Donna Scarpa on her website, The Tiny Trotters.

Watch on YouTube: Tonka: A miniature horse service animal

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  • This is so cool Mary! I was recently reading a book about a greyhound as a service dog for mobility issues. It makes a lot of sense how a horse would be a better alternative because of their life span :-) love it!

    • Hi Aimee,

      Glad you liked the post. Yes, I imagine we’ll see more (mini) horses as service animals in the future because the longer life span is a big plus. Still, there are some advantages that do make dogs better in some situations. (Ex. a dog can usually fit in a much smaller / tighter space, such as lying down underneath a table at a restaurant.)

      ~Mary

  • Cynthia

    Hi Mary, I’m sure you must know about Panda, the guide horse that Alexandra Kurland trained but just in case you don’t, here’s a link: http://www.theclickercenter.com/ThePandaProject.html

    • Hi Cynthia,

      Thanks for the link. Yes, I have heard about awesome Panda! She is definitely one amazing little horse.

      I’m not sure whether I’ve written about her on my blog on not in the past, that would be a good topic for a future post, I think. :)

      cheers,

      Mary

  • Hertha

    Thanks for posting that link, Mary. That is a lovely level-headed pony and I can imagine the hours and hours of work to train to that level. Cheers, Hertha

  • maplepi

    Did you ever have problems with him kicking out at things? Or are minis less flighty than some of the bigger horses? Also, how receptive is the public?

    • Good questions.

      I was not the one to train Tonka, but I know he underwent extensive training to make sure that he was completely confident and happy in all sorts of different public settings. Minis can be flighty just like bigger horses. However, a service animal (such a Tonka) is selected originally based on their temperament and personality and then the extensive training prepares the mini to be relaxed and brave, even when encountering new or strange things.

      From what I have heard, the public has been generally receptive to horses as service animals. Many people are amazed / shocked at first, I think. However, there are advantages to using horses rather than dogs in some situations.

      cheers,

      Mary

  • betty benson

    Donna, I’m disabled and would love to have a mini horse, I fall, its hard to get around even with a cane, I have a hard time bending over to pick things up, I have 5 blown disk in my back, my knees are bone to bone, I’ve been in bed for 21/2 years, ive got to get up and walk. My Dr. Said for me to get and walk… well,I need help.
    So if you can tell me how to get a mini horse or who to call please let me know.
    thank you so much.
    Betty Benson
    9286363366

    • Hi Betty,

      This was a guest post that Donna wrote for my blog.

      Send me an email at mary@stalecheerios.com and I will try to put you in contact with Donna!

      cheers,

      Mary

      • Rebecca Whitley

        Hi Mary,

        Do you still have contact with Donna? I was hoping to pick her brain for myself. I have many questions if she’s willing to speak with me?

        Ladylovescastle@gmail.com

        Thank you

        Rebecca

        • Hi Rebecca,

          I will send you an email!

          Best,

          Mary