Dealing with Firework Fear in Horses

Horse in stable

Unexpected loud bangs are often a sign of danger.  They startle people and animals alike.  Humans know what fireworks are and that, for the most part, they are not a threat.  We also know what times of the year to expect them.  Animals do not know what fireworks are so are unprepared for them.  Their hearing and sense of smell are also more sensitive than ours causing fireworks to cause even more discomfort and fear.  Saying that though, some animals are more affected by fireworks than others. I know of horses who are not bothered by fireworks at all whereas their companions are terrified. To some degree how you interact with your horse when fireworks are around helping alter how they react.  It can also help them to deal with better coping mechanisms towards them.

 

Why are horses scared?

Horses are prey animals who live in a herd.  In the wild, they are hardly ever seen alone as this would make them more vulnerable to predation.  When as a herd, there’s always one or two horses that are still awake and stood when others are asleep.  These horses are listening and watching for predators all the time.  Horses can smell predators from long distances and they also keep their heads raised, allowing them to detect predators early.

Horses can also detect predators easier through their almost 360-degree vision, good night vision and sensitive hearing.  If one horse in the herd notices a potential predator they will scream, squeal or whinny to alert the others to the potential threat.  This quick alert allows the horses to wake up to assess the situation and flee if needed.  Being prey animals who rely on their senses to avoid predators in the wild, horses feel most confident when they can see all around them.  They are also more confident when around other horses to ensure predator detection is at its peak.  As a result, they prefer to be in open spaces with other horses.

Horses are naturally scared of the loud bangs such as fireworks.  To them, it’s likely a predator coming after them.  This is made worse by a firework’s acrid smell.  If horses become frightened they have evolved to go into flight mode rather than fight.  This means, if they are able to, they will flee or charge away from the source of the noise.

Horse in a stable
Stable your horse for fireworks?
Should they be in their stable??

Most horse owners feel the safest way to care for their horses when there are fireworks around is to keep them stabled.

Horse owners often believe stabling their horse is safer as being confined prevents them from becoming injured through carrying out flight behaviour.  They also believe that being stabled reduces their horses stress due it being both darker and quieter. However, most stables will not insulate the sound to an extent where horses are comfortable with fireworks.

Most stables mean horses are unable to fully see or touch their companions.  This seclusion increases their stress as they can no longer act as a herd when exposed to threats such as fireworks.

Finally, the restriction in a stable means horses can’t flee from the noise, they no longer have the choice of a proper flight reaction.  The horse is expected to overlook its own evolution and no longer react to a threat by fleeing.  Being unable to react in a normal manner can lead to phobias developing or worsening as the horse cannot act appropriately to the threat.

Some horses, however, follow their instinct and flee, resulting in them crashing through or jumping over their stable doors. Fleeing understandably and easily causes serious injuries from damage caused by the door or by fleeing towards other hazards.

Horse and fireworks
Turn them out into the field when there’s fireworks?
Or The Field?

Compared to when stabled, horses kept in a field can flee much more easily though this depends on the size of the field. As they have got more space they’re also less likely to get injured when trying to flee.

If outdoors, there is a larger area which they can look over rather than being enclosed and only seeing a small space.  Allowing them to see into the distance gives them the opportunity to investigate what is occurring and find places to flee to.

Finally, when in the field, a horse is likely to be with some companions who will help reassure each other through strength in numbers.

I have, however, heard of horses stampeding through fences due to fireworks and causing injuries or even fatalities. That risk is still present if stabled though as horses are more than strong enough to break out of their stable by sheer force, especially when panicking.

Saying that though, horses like a routine.  Their stress levels will be greater if you break their routine.  Therefore, it is often better to treat them as you normally would rather than suddenly go against their routine.

Stereo to distract from fireworks
Put on some music to help distract from the fireworks
How best to Help

Whether they are stabled or in a field you can do things to make them as calm and safe as possible;

  • Around bonfire night/ New Years Eve keep your eye out for local firework displays. Also, talk to your neighbours to see if they are letting any fireworks off.  This will help you prepare more as you will know how close they will be and the times they will be set off.
  • Allowing them to at least see a companion can help calm them down a bit
  • Putting on some music; that can both muffle the noise of fireworks and distract the horse from the fireworks.
  • Make sure there is no debris/ hazards in the stable or field that they could injure themselves on.
  • Try and ensure the field or stable is as secure as possible.
  • Ensure your horse is not left alone; someone needs to be there in case something goes wrong.  However, if a horse panics do NOT go in a stable with it.  If you do you will cause it more stress and may get injured.
  • Make sure you have your vet’s number in case they have an injury or are becoming extremely distressed.
  • If your horse has previously been distressed by fireworks talk to your vet about using sedatives to keep them calm.  Sedatives are not suitable for all horses.  Also, if your horse is sedated you must stay with them until it wears off to monitor them for problems with breathing, falling over and colic.
Further Advice

The British Horse Society also gives out information on how to help your horse around fireworks.

I hope this blog helps horse owners, riders and general members of the public to understand the issues facing horses and to try to help to reduce the horse’s fear levels.

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Author: Kim Halford

I'm a qualified vet and animal behaviour and welfare advisor. I am dedicated to improving the welfare of animals. I also want to work with organisations to improve the education of animal welfare and behaviour as well as improve the bond between animal and owner.

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