Desensitizing Horses to Fireworks

While your horse might never have to work the crowds on the Fourth of July, there are tips here to keep your horses safe from "neighbor" celebrations.
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Have you ever had your neighbors shoot off fireworks out in the country?

Summer is synonymous with fireworks. Pyrotechnics are also popular for ringing in the New Year and celebrating major milestones like graduation. Not only can the loud noise and bright light spook a horse, but the smell of fireworks nearby might also trigger a horse to think about fire. Mounted police horses must be prepared to react stoically to fireworks. In training sessions, they walk through smoke and hear fireworks explode, which sets them up for success for loud celebrations on crowded streets.

Lisa Rakes, Captain of the Kentucky Horse Park mounted police, is one of the most decorated mounted police officers in the country, having trained the top-ranked Lexington Mounted Police unit horses and riders as the unit's in-house trainer before taking over the Kentucky Horse Park mounted unit. She explained that this type of training to loud noises, startling lights and explosion smell starts slowly and quietly, building once the horse has shown that it can handle it.

The first thing she recommended is introducing noise in a controlled way. Start from a distance and slowly get closer. At mounted police training events, the horses are trained gradually to accept firecrackers being tossed at their feet. (Yes, that actually happens in crowd situations.) The horse gets rest when it relaxes. The key is for the human to develop a good sense of timing so the “give” of reward is done at the appropriate time.

“It always helps for the horse to have a buddy," said Rakes. "They are social creatures and do not like to live alone, and they will handle situations much better if they have a friend. That friend can also be the human.”

Even though your horses might never work amid fireworks, try these three tips to help them stay comfortable in the event of a neighborhood display:

  • Neighbors likely don’t realize that fireworks could unsettle horses. Talk with those living nearby to find out if they plan to light any off. Ask them to shoot fireworks away from your barns and fields. 
  • Stall or turnout? Choosing to leave your horse in the stall or in the paddock comes down to the individual horse and its living environment. You don't want a startled horse to run through a fence, but neither do you want it to hurt itself because it can't "flee" the noise and explosions.
  • Nervous, anxious horses might benefit from sedation. Talk with your veterinarian before giving any medication.
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