This year, 5th November is on a Tuesday – and that means we’re not expecting a Fireworks Night so much as a Fireworks Week!
As prey animals, horses are by their very nature predisposed to panic at loud noises, especially in the dark. Bright flashes of light don’t help either! And panicked horses are rather inclined to run into things and hurt themselves (I’ve spent many hours stitching up horses who have lost arguments with fences, hedges, gates and stable walls).
There are three important elements to keeping horses safe when there are fireworks in the air:
1) Help them to avoid injury
2) Distract them
3) Keep them calm
To avoid injury, I generally recommend that horses be stabled when fireworks are expected. That probably means dusk to dawn for the next fortnight or so, but if possible, find out when displays are expected in your area. You can then focus on those dates and times (but don’t forget that many people will set off a few rockets for themselves and their families). Inside their stables, horses can still become frightened, but they’re not surrounded by the scary noises, and they can’t bolt and get up so much speed, so they’re less likely to cause themselves serious injuries. It can also be helpful to leave the stable light on overnight – more light inside the stable means flashes outside are less visible, but make sure your horse copes OK with the lights on overnight first!
If you don’t have stables, first of all, see if you can borrow one for a few nights, especially if you have a really spooky or nervous horse. If not, the next best thing is to “accident-proof” the field you’re planning to turn them out in as far as possible – make sure the fencing is safe, remove any wire, fill in potholes, etc. Also, consider tying white or pale feed sacks to fencing, to make it more visible in poor light – tie them tightly, though, so they don’t flap and cause a stampede themselves.
Distraction just means keep them busy so they’re less interested in what’s going on outside. This generally means a well filled hay rack, and any toys your horse likes. Turnips on a rope are good, and horse balls filled with food or treats are a favourite with my two, who’ll spend hours chasing the balls round the stable for a mouthful of pasture nuts!
Finally, calming. For a herd animal like a horse, the most reassuring thing is having stable mates within sight/sound/smell – this is vital, and if they can touch noses or groom each other, its even better. However, it may not be enough on its own, especially for very nervous individuals. If your horse is particularly panicky, you should contact your vet (as soon as possible now), as they may need prescription medicines to help them cope. If possible, its best to avoid sedation, as it may lead to the horse becoming more nervous next year (as with dogs and cats), but unfortunately, horses are so big and powerful it may be necessary for their safety and yours. Your vet will be able to advise you on the best strategy for your horses.
There is increasingly, however, a middle road, as there are a wide variety of calmers on the market. Most are based on magnesium or amino acid combinations; these can be good to take the edge off, but usually need long term use. Others (e.g. Calmex powder) are designed to work immediately, although there is often little scientific proof of their effectiveness. Another fairly new product on the market is Zylkene Equine. This is based on the milk protein casein, which studies suggest is broken down in the body into a benzodiazepine-like molecule. This has a similar effect to Valium to reduce anxiety and stress.
As usual, I’d advise you to discuss with your vet the exact product you’re thinking of using, as they’ll be able to give you impartial advice as to how effective a product is likely to be. This is especially important if your horse is on any other medication: just because a product is natural or herbal doesn’t mean it won’t interact or interfere with another medicine.
That said, not every horse needs anything extra – I’ll never forget going to one yard on bonfire night evening and seeing a row of horses lined up at the fence watching the fireworks display two fields off with every sign of enjoyment…
The bottom line is that you need to find out what works best for your horse: every horse is an individual, and they need to be managed as such. We may enjoy the fireworks – but not all of our horses do!