"There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man."

This familiar sentiment generally is credited to Sir Winston Churchill, although he might have borrowed the idea from Theodore Roosevelt. Ronald Reagan, a cowboy at heart, certainly laid claim to it after he became president. No matter who came up with the quote, it is undeniably true. Anyone who doubts that fact should spend time with an equine assisted learning program or an activity that matches horses and individuals with handicaps or anyone with their horse.

The anecdotal history of horses as providers of physical and emotional support is rich, but do horses satisfy the legal requirements to be considered a "service animal?"

In most cases the answer is no, at least according to new Department of Justice regulations aimed at clarifying parts of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA was enacted in 1990 to alleviate discrimination against individuals with physical or mental disabilities. Among the things the ADA did was to require reasonable accommodations for specially trained guide dogs for the visually impaired and for other service animals. The law has been tweaked from time to time, most recently through a series of changes to existing regulations that will take effect in 2011.

Among the changes is a more restrictive definition of "service animal."

The new regulation states, in part, that "service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition." The regulation provides a number of examples of tasks that qualify, such as aiding a person with vision or hearing problems, performing non-violent protection, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving items, and providing physical support or assistance to individuals with "mobility disabilities," as well as some tasks that do not.

Interestingly, crime deterrence or the "provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship" are not acceptable qualifying tasks for a service animal.

The new definition seems very straightforward: Only dogs can be service animals under the ADA. No other species need apply. As with many (maybe most) laws, however, there is a twist.

Despite the clear definition of a service animal as a dog, a separate section of the regulations require that public entities "make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures to permit the use of a miniature horse by an individual with a disability if the miniature horse has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability." In deciding whether to allow a miniature horse as a service animal a public entity will be required to consider a number of factors, including the size and weight of the miniature horse, whether the horse’s handler has sufficient control over the animal, whether there are legitimate safety concerns, and whether the horse is housebroken.

The regulation does not appear to automatically disqualify a miniature horse if the animal is not housebroken, which probably is a good thing. It is not at all clear how you actually housebreak a miniature horse, or for that matter, a horse of any size.

The new ADA definition of service animal will apply only to public entities and their obligation to accommodate service animals. Officials definitions of things tend to crop up in other contexts, however, and the exclusion of "emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship" as qualifying functions of a service animal raises a more general question:

We all have support systems of one kind or another. Where do horses fit into yours?