Home » Getting Horses Used To Fireworks In Four Easy Steps!

Getting Horses Used To Fireworks In Four Easy Steps!

We can help our horse navigate sudden loud noises like Fireworks…

Leading up to New Years there were many posts on social media from horse owners stressing about the fireworks that would inevitably happen, because horses can easily panic, blind-run and hurt themselves when exposed to sudden loud noises. The thought of Fireworks and horses can be extremely overwhelming for equestrians, especially if the horse has already had an accident previously.

On the positive side, training for Fireworks using counterconditioning and desensitization can be very helpful. It often even works for horses who have already developed a fear of them. This can save a lot of stress for us and our horses, as well as money in vet bills!

New Years has just passed which means we have likely just seen how our horses currently react to fireworks. At this point it is unlikely that we can convince other people to stop with the Fireworks. Instead we can improve our horse’s reactions to them.

Now is a great time to begin getting our horses used to Fireworks. I am a firm believer in being proactive using positive reinforcement to help horses feel more comfortable and safe in their environment which prepares them to live a healthy life around humans. (Note that this can work with horses who are trained with traditional negative reinforcement as well.)

Here are the four steps, that you can do to get your horse ready for the next Fireworks. These steps are a combination of counterconditioning and careful desensitization.

Step 1:

Find a recording/audio of the fireworks noise. You can use the audio from my clip here… this is helpful because you can control the volume. This makes it easier when gradually introducing the noise. 

Step 2:

Ensure your horse is where they feel most safe (for mine it’s in their paddock with friends). Set them up for success by ensuring they are in a quiet environment where they seem to typically feel safe, with low to no stressors.

Step 3:

Expose your horse at the lowest audible volume to the noise (desensitization), Follow the noise immediately with a low value reinforcer (counter conditioning). I use Timothy pellets. Video example here… Once your horse shows no stress reaction to the low volume noise, and immediately looks for the reinforcement after the noise, you can slightly increase the volume. Repeat this slowly until you have reached full volume. This takes time, so be careful to have patience and don’t go too fast. It is better to spend too long instead of not enough time at each step. When I say it takes time expect to consistently work on this over a few months. If it happens quicker you will be pleasantly surprised. This helps keep our own frustration out of the training (some horses figure this out in a few minutes and others take a lot longer, it depends a lot on their personality and learning history). Also be mindful and take a step back if the new volume gets too much of a response from your horse. With patience you will get there! We are quite a few steps in and at a higher volume here.

Always easy in theory. There are lots of variables that can change the outcome. Feel free to send me a message if you get stuck.

Step 4:

Once your horse is no longer reacting to the noise at full volume in the area where he feels safe, you can now take him to new environments (including night time) and start the process at a low volume again. Eventually your horse will be very comfortable with the noise at full volume everywhere and Fireworks will likely no longer be something either of you worry about.

The Final Test:

You can see the final behaviour here. My horses handled Fireworks very well this New Years!! Notice that I have free choice loose hay available to them. Typically their hay is netted, but the extra food keeps them eating which helps maintain relaxation.

Starting the earliest we can before the next big holiday involving Fireworks is a great idea!

A couple of mistakes to be mindful of (in no particular order):

Reinforcement must follow the noise:

Make sure the reinforcement immediately follows the noise, and does not happen first. Be sure to give your horse the reinforcer directly after the noise. If the reinforcer comes first, the horse can associate the reinforcer with the noise and refuse to take the reinforcer. This can even happen with high value reinforcers like apples or oats. We don’t want to distract the horse beforehand, we want him to hear the noise, so that we can follow it with something he likes!

Be really mindful of your horse’s stress levels:

Be mindful of your horse’s threshold. If the noise even at it’s lowest volume gets a stress reaction from your horse stop and let them relax before playing it again. Don’t repeat if they are becoming more and more stressed. This can look like sitting with a book/meditating in their paddock after a repetition while waiting for them to return to their hay. Be mindful to play the sound again only after they have grazed their hay for a period of time (at least 10 minutes) this prevents the grazing of the hay accidentally getting conditioned as something the horse shouldn’t do in the presence of scary noises. It may even be that you only do one repetition per day for a while until your horse realizes that each time he hears the sound a reinforcer appears.

Environmental Set Up Is Very Important:

Antecedent arrangement is important. I like working with plenty of hay available and in a place where I know my horse is typically relaxed. This helps reduce the chance of other environmental stressors or triggers stacking up and producing a bigger reaction to the noise. Try to pick a time of day when everything is quiet as well. The extra hay provides my horse with the option for relaxed grazing in-between.

Feed after every rep, even if the reaction isn’t quite what you hoped for:

Provide a good amount of reinforcement, don’t withhold food. I typically measure out Fox’s food ration before we begin working (to be mindful of his weight), and then I am very generous with the reinforcement directly after the noise, regardless of his reaction. Basically showing him Firework sounds equal good things! Only fade out following with the food when your horse is ready, and remains eating his hay unfazed by the noise.

Other horse around can help, but they can also hinder. Be aware of how they are affecting your horse:

Working amongst other horses can be reassuring for your horse especially if the other horses are calm around the noise. If the whole group becomes stressed by the sound it is better to work with your horse in his paddock/where he feels safe with his friends at a distance where they can’t influence his reaction with theirs. With Fox I had progressed to showing Fox the sound without the support of his friends, but if his friends had been nervous of the sounds too, or they were attempting to get the food themselves, I would have started with the set up in the picture instead of moving there next. This process is easier if the other horses are calm, but it can absolutely be done alone as well.

Congratulations if you successfully got your horses used to Fireworks. Now be mindful that they may need to revisit the training after a big exposure to Fireworks.

Finally be mindful of assuming your horse doesn’t have some residual fear. If he makes it through the fireworks evening calmly (congratulations if he does!) be sure to run through the entire training process again making sure he is still ok at each step before assuming he is fully over the fear.

I hope this was helpful, and can make the holidays with Fireworks a little less stressful for you and your horse! If you need hands-on help visit my coaching page here to work with me!

Happy Training! Wishing you all the best in 2024!

Courtney

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