Whizz, bang! - coping with the unexpected
Kate Hore RNutr(Animal). Snr Nutritionist at NAF
Horses have well developed cognitive skills with a good ability to learn, and to remember previous experiences. They are emotionally developed, such that research has shown they can recognise human emotion from the facial expression alone, and even remember that person’s earlier demeanour when they meet them again later in the day. All this means that in horses we have an animal that, when trained correctly, in a calm, repeatable, positive way, can learn to cope with almost anything. However what about the unexpected? Ultimately the horse is a flight animal, and if startled or frightened their reaction will be reactive and will be to get away from that situation as quickly as they can, come what may. That is not always safe or appropriate for the modern horse. So how can we help them cope with the unexpected, such as a local fireworks display?
Traditionally fireworks were only let off around November 5th, and maybe for New Years Eve, but increasingly we see them as a year round potential threat. Over summer, weddings are often the culprits, so if you have wedding venues near your yard ask them for a list of dates and times when fireworks will be set off, and maybe discuss with them positioning of their display so to minimise exposure for local horses and livestock.
Horses cope best in a routine, so don’t make any sudden changes. If your horse lives out, then leave them out, and if they are usually stabled then keep them stabled – but do check for any potential hazards in their environment to minimise risk. If turned out, choose a field furthest away; and if stabled try leaving a radio on outside the box to distract them. Ideally either you or an experienced friend should stay with the horses through the display, both to help them stay calm and to watch for any issues. Remember, horses pick up on human emotions easily, so stay calm and positive, and try to enjoy the free display.
From a dietary point of view, it’s a good idea to provide ad lib hay, for both stabled and grazing horses, to help keep them occupied. For reactive types it may be advised to feed a short term natural calmer, just to give your horse that extra bit of thinking space, allowing them to work out that while it’s a loud noise, it’s not actually hurting them. If you feel your horse is particularly likely to panic and become upset, then discuss with your vet what your best options are. They may advise use of a sedative, or even moving your horse for the night.
If the display is close to your land, don’t forget to carry out a check of your fields the following morning and clear any debris which could be potentially dangerous for your horse.