I thought I’d write and talk a bit more about what kind of an animal the horse really is in 2016. So what kind of an animal is the horse really?
A herd animal
Contrary to many other animals, the horse is truly a herd animal. It feels safer when there are other horses around. Being alone is completely alien to a horse and is one of the things you have to put the most effort into training. You’ve probably seen horses in separate paddocks resting together, even though there are fences in between them? If a horse is kept in a box, it will often hold its head high enough to have visual contact with other horses even when resting.
A prey animal
Horses, unlike people, would never run into a cave and hide in a frightening situation. A horse feels safer in an open space where it can see far. The horse’s instincts tells it to flee if it is frightened and even though you can keep a horse from running by putting walls around it this won’t remove the need to flee.
These two facts about the horse as an animal goes quite far to explain why there are so many trailer loading problems. It also explains why I didn’t lock my horses inside on New Year’s Eve.
The Finnish Hevostietokeskus (Horse Information Center) has an excellent video clip that shows a horse reacting to fireworks: https://www.facebook.com/hevostietokeskus/videos/538317802995066/
I’ve heard of several horses who have injured themselves inside during New Year’s Eve. I’ve also heard of several horses who’ve ran through a fence and injured themselves when they were out. Both ways have their risks. Why do I choose to leave my horses out? Apart from the two reasons listed above, it’s also because I trust the horse to be a horse.
Give the horse a chance to learn and habituate
Horses learn surprisingly quickly. If a horse is badly frightened, it may learn from just one repetition. If it isn’t greatly scared, it will still learn from just twenty or so repetitions. Horses are different: some are braver than others, some move more expressively than others. But they have one thing in common: they are remarkably quick learners. I have two, now older (17 and 20) mares that are both fairly brave horses and also luckily the horses that other horses tend to look to.
The first year these mares and the other horses were outside on New Year’s Eve they ran a bit when the first fireworks went off. This was probably a week or two before the last day of the year, as I then lived near a big city and New Year was on the whole a bit like WWIII. But then what happened? Because the rockets didn’t cause fear or pain, the horses habituated. The essential part is this: the new thing (firework) wasn’t followed by punishment.
In a way it was good luck that I wasn’t riding one of the horses when the first bang went off. No matter how good a rider you are – and I’m not – it’s quite impossible not to punish a horse who spooks and runs off. Even an involuntary punishment still works as a punishment learning-wise: it’s completely the same to the horse if the reins are pulled on purpose or by accident. It may still learn that firework = pain.
But if a new, even a slightly frightening stimulus (=firework) is repeated without any bad consequences, the horse usually habituates to it. And this happened to my horses one by one. When New Year’s Eve rolls around again and the world explodes, our horses still behaves more or less like this:
My apologies for the crappy video quality. You do see a lot of interesting things in the clip: even though the horses don’t run around, of course neither are they relaxed. At the most intense point in the evening, even the most greedy horse doesn’t eat. The horses are gathered in an unusually tight group. But even though the group has one draft horse, where there has been systematic selection for less dramatic expression of tension or fear, the group also has an Arab, two PRE Andalusians and a Lusitano, all breeds that are famous for their ability to move.
It has been interesting to see how this behaviour has been passed on to new horses. Yes, new horses, and these older ones too, do run a little when the bombardments begins, but they settle down fairly quickly to eat and gather around in an open area to watch.
Ways to calm
I do the same things every year: I spread a full round bale of good hay all around the paddock, so the horses have some species-specific stuff to do during the night. When we have two kinds of hay, as this year, I give them the better tasting one. If there’s snow, I throw some concentrate feed around for them to sniff out as well. Grazing calms a horse down. I also make sure the horses have room to move if they have the need to, so some years I’ve sacrificed one of the hay fields even though it got muddy.
The horses are also used to being housed in a group and used to each other. I have never seen them go inside when the fireworks go off. I also make sure our fences are sturdy. But it seems like the most essential thing is habituation: giving the horse a chance to learn, that not even fireworks cause punishment. This goes for anything you want your horse to develop a calm attitude towards: walking over a tarp, loading into a trailer or jumping fences. Horses habituate to the most surprising things if you give them a chance to.