The Fourth of July means barbeques, parades, and, for horse owners in certain neighborhoods, nervous anticipation of their horses' reactions to the inevitable flashes of light and deafening noise of fireworks. Preparing for the onslaught might require some planning and training time, according to Lexington, Ky., Mounted Police Officer Lisa Rakes.
"There's nothing like the real thing," Rakes noted, but with careful training before, as well as judicious management on the day of the pyrotechnic event, the reactions can hopefully be minimized.
Rakes advised horse owners to train their horses to associate fireworks with something pleasant--a mouthful of grain or a favorite treat.
"I would get some fireworks and start them at distance away, where they're not that loud," Rakes said. "As soon as the fireworks go off, you immediately reward him with something positive. Do that until it gets to the point that when the fireworks go off, he's not jumping. After you get to that point, then you can start maybe moving them a little closer, or as close as you think fireworks might go off for the farm you're at."
She advised introducing a green horse to the experience with a solid, nonreactive buddy nearby to help boost the green horse’s confidence.
On the day of the display, Rakes said a horse owner's management strategy depends on their facility. She advised leaving horses outside if there is sufficient space for the horses to react without encountering a barrier.
"If it's a big enough area that you're not concerned the horses are going to run through the fence then you can just leave them out," Rakes said. "But if it's a small area where the horses might get spooked and run through the fence or go over the fence, then it would probably be safer to leave them in."
She suggested that horse owners turn on stable lights and crank the barn radio up if horses are left in.
Atwood Asbury, DVM, Dipl. ACT, professor emeritus at the University of Florida and a retired dean of that veterinary school, said that owners might be surprised at some horses’ lack of interest in fireworks—and cautioned against turning to sedatives or anything intended block the horse’s hearing (such as pompoms) without knowing whether their horse will be upset in the first place.
"My advice is to see how they react before using any techniques or medications to control the animal, because in many cases there will be no problem,” Asbury said. "In fact, the use of tranquilizers before the noise is applied may cause a startle response at an inappropriate time … In extreme cases small doses of tranquilizer may be needed. But try not to repeat this frequently."
If a horse owner is in a situation where horses become upset when being handled--such as at a horse show or fair with fireworks--Rakes advises diverting their attention back to the handler.
"If they start to get upset, really, you can't make them stand still--you've got to allow them enough room to be able to move around," Rakes said. "Best thing to do is put them to work--disengage the hindquarters, make them back, make them go sideways. Get them focused off what's going on outside or around them and get them focused on you to sort of divert their brain."
Rakes also noted that horse owners should call and report an illegal firework display--especially considering the dry conditions in many areas of the country.
"Call anytime," Rakes said. "We don't investigate every firework we hear because there just aren't enough of us, but if a neighbor calls in and complains, or there's a fire hazard, we'll send an officer to investigate it and have them shut it down or cite them, and take care of the situation."