Keeping your horses safe on bonfire night
While we enjoy the fireworks at this time of year we must not forget that bonfire night can be terrifying for our horses. Many find the loud noise and sudden flashes of light very frightening. Each year equine vets will have to treat horses that have injured themselves or had colic as a result of their fear.
By planning ahead you can make Bonfire Night as stress-free as possible for you and your horses. Make sure you have an emergency fire procedure in place. If you have any queries as to how to approach this, contact your local fire safety officer. Also make sure you have your vet’s emergency number in your mobile phone just in case.
Find out what displays are happening locally to you. Tell display organisers and your neighbours that there are horses nearby and ask them not to aim any fireworks in their direction. Bear in mind the fireworks will often start early and go on for far longer than the event is planned – people walking past your yard may randomly set off fireworks nearby. Be very careful out hacking in the days before and after the 5th November and don't ride out after dusk. On the day itself it may be wisest not to consider riding at all. You can always ride another day.
If your horse is terrified of loud noises, the good news is you can address your horse’s fears and potentially resolve the issue. There are CD’s available to introduce the sound of fireworks in controlled circumstances. However that will take time and therefore is something that would need to be done weeks ahead of the day.
If you are worried your horse will be anxious on the night, speak to your vet about your options for using calming products. Products like Zylkene or Confidence EQ may have a relaxing effect on your horse, but shouldn't be your only option to keep your horse calm.
On The Night
Keeping your horse’s stress to a minimum will depend on what they would prefer as an individual – there is no ‘correct’ way to manage bonfire night for every horse. However they must have equine company and calm, experienced people present in case there is an accident. If you are on a livery yard or have other horse owners nearby, get together and help each other out on the night, perhaps create a rota and take it in turns to watch out for each others horses.
Make sure your horse is somewhere familiar they are normally relaxed, with horse company they know. Bonfire night is not the time to introduce a new horse or put your horse in a different paddock.
Some horses would prefer to be out in the field where they can see the lights, hear the corresponding noise and retreat to a safe distance if they are anxious. Make sure there won’t be a display in the field next door to your horse or your neighbour isn't planning an impromptu display.
If you are going to leave your horse out, make sure that all your fencing is safe and there is nothing lying around in the field your horse could injure himself on if he panics. Giving a choice of different forages will encourage horses to keep their heads down and distract them (to a point!) from what is going on around them. Have plenty of extra piles of forage per number of horses – two piles for each horse is ideal – so everyone will have access to food even if a defensive horse moves another one on.
Some horses may prefer to be indoors. If you decide to leave your horse in the stable then ensure he has plenty to eat and keep him occupied. For some stable enrichment ideas have a look in my ’10 Steps to a Happy Horse’ article here.
Playing music on a radio near the stable can lessen the shock of the sudden noise of fireworks. If your horse hasn't heard a radio before, then start at a low volume just a few minutes at a time in the days preceding to prepare him. Increase the volume and length of the sessions gradually over time. Ideally you could see which music your horse seems most comfortable with – test his preference – I’d love to know what your feedback is on this. There has been some research indicating classical music could have beneficial effects on a horse's behaviour. If your horse does appear to be relaxed about having the radio on then you could leave it on for the duration of the display. If they seem at all stressed by it, turn it off!
Ear mufflers or earplugs may help, but if you have not used them previously you must take time and prepare your horse to become accustomed to them well before the night. Introduce them gradually, starting with just a minute or so at first then build up the time they are left on. Make sure your horse has positive associations with wearing them by giving him treats or a feed at the same time.
Be careful. A frightened horse can be extremely dangerous. Try not to get in the way if a horse becomes frightened as you could easily be injured yourself. Stay calm – as the horses will sense if you are anxious and you could increase their fears.
Many people are completely clueless when it comes to letting off fireworks – they don’t realise how much suffering fireworks can cause to animals, particularly horses hacking out or turned out in the field.
Don't set off fireworks – for everyone’s safety (including your own) go to an organised display. If you really have to set off fireworks, please consider how it will affect the local animals first.
And finally please don't release Chinese lanterns. They can cause fires, damage wildlife and the environment. Birds can get trapped in their remains and livestock (including horses) may eat the wires and this could cause serious injury or colic.
I wish you and your horses a safe night!
The BHS has an information leaflet and a great poster that you could print out and leave in local business and shops to inform non-horsey people how fireworks can affect horses. You can download the leaflet and poster here.
DEFRA has an information sheet here.