A woman who gained national attention for bringing her miniature horse as a service animal on an airplane is now hoping the attention does not affect the Department of Transportation's decision to let miniature horses fly.
Ronica Froese flew from her home in Michigan to Ontario International Airport in California, with a stop in Dallas. With her was Fred, the miniature service horse. A photo of Fred in first class, dressed in a sleeve to prevent his hair and dander from floating into the air, has gone viral. But Froese says a lot of the attention has been negative.
Froese's service horse is direct-to-retrieval trained, meaning he can help her pick up objects when she can't bend over or lift. "I have an incurable autoimmune disease I was diagnosed with four and a half years ago," she explained to CBS News, adding that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) approved miniature horses as service animals in 2011.
Froese got her first miniature horse, 280-pound Charlie, 14 months before she even got sick, she said. She ended up getting Freckle Butt Fred — or just Fred, for short — because he is a bit smaller than Charlie at 115 pounds. So, he can go more places — like airplanes.
Froese, who works as a finance manager, trained both of her service horses herself and told CBS News they aren't always with her, but on bad days when she needs help, they accompany her to work, the store or wherever else they are permitted.
Ahead of her vacation to Los Angeles, Froese contacted American Airlines and was told it was fine to fly with Fred. She purchased two first class tickets so she and Fred had space and weren't encroaching on anyone else. She also got advice from some friends who also train service horses, and she was confident about taking the flight with Fred.
"Since airlines have to allow miniature service horses — when the DOT made the ruling last August, they can't deny miniature service horses," Froese told CBS News, referring to the Department of Transportation's 2019 guidelines.
To address some of the debate regarding service animals in public places, the DOT clarified the guidelines in a statement issued in August 2019. "With respect to animal species, we indicated that we would focus our enforcement efforts on ensuring that the most commonly used service animals (dogs, cats, and miniature horses) are accepted for transport as service animals," the department said.
For her trip, Froese had to take four planes — from Michigan to Dallas and Dallas to California, then back. She said she received a few dirty looks along the way, but for the most part, the trip was successful and she was happy others got to see a miniature service horse in action.
"There's just not a big enough community for most people to see [a miniature service horse]," Froese said. "So it was a great experience... I could tell the people who weren't happy, but it is what it is. He was a picture-perfect service animal on the planes."
Froese said it took a lot of training to get Fred to a place where he could fly and stay calm. But now she's worried the attention her story is receiving may make it impossible to fly with him again.
"It's probably going to be the one and only time Fred and I are going to fly, because my gut tells me the Department of Transportation is going to say you can never fly again legally."
The Department of Transportation recently announced it is seeking to amend the guidelines again to ensure that those flying with service animals really need them and that the animals can be safety accommodated on a crowded passenger plane.
"The Department recognizes the integral role that service animals play in the lives of many individuals with disabilities and wants to ensure that individuals with disabilities can continue using their service animals while also reducing the likelihood that passengers wishing to travel with their pets on aircraft will be able to falsely claim their pets are service animals," the department said on January 22.
On February 5, it submitted new proposed rules that would only require airlines to accommodate trained service dogs — not other species.
"Under the Department's proposal, airlines could choose to transport other species of animals that assist individuals with disabilities in the cabin for free pursuant to an established airline policy, but would only be required under Federal law to recognize dogs as service animals," the department said in the proposal.
"Any requirement for the accommodation of passengers traveling with service animals onboard aircraft necessarily must be balanced against the health, safety, and mental and physical wellbeing of the other passengers and crew and must not interfere with the safe and efficient operation of the aircraft," the rule proposal states.
Froese and Fred flew to California on February 7 and back on February 13, so the proposed rule change was already in motion before her story went viral. Still, she is worried about that the small community she's part of will become even smaller soon.
"The miniature horse community went six steps forward last August, now we're going six steps back because the DOT is going to ban us on April 6th," she said. Comments on the rule proposal will be accepted until April 6.
Aside from her story negatively impacting the miniature service horse community, Froese also said it has negatively affected her life.
"When I did my interview with my local Fox affiliate on Saturday, I did not know this was going to snowball the way it has," Froese said, adding she has received "hatred online" about traveling with her horse.
"I'm a very positive person. But my mental state — I've just never been like this," she said. Froese said journalists and viewers alike have "bashed" her. She even threatened to sue reporters she said incorrectly reported on her and Fred.
"I wish the public would just understand that a miniature horse is such a better option for some people," she said.
Froese said she hopes Fred's flying story — and the aftermath — teaches others a lesson.
"I just want the public to know in a world where you can be anything, be kind," she said. "And that's what I wish people online would learn. You can bash people and there are some people who mentally can't take it. I'm lucky I can take it."