This article was originally published in the Las Cruces Bulletin on Friday, June 17, 2016
The electric light parade is coming up here in Las Cruces. My thoughts turn to my experience driving our pony in it with a dear friend riding in the cart beside me. Another friend ended up walking with us to help reassure our pony, Andy. You see, that nightime parade pushed every possible equine instinct for fight or flight to the limit.
I should have realized that fact, but I had never watched the parade before. From fireworks going off to neon-covered children to a hail storm – Andy faced a barrage of triggers. We had also, unfortunately, ended up with the fire engine behind us wailing its sirens, flashing its lights and honking its horn. Heck, it scared the willies out of me! Andy had cotton pressed into his ears and was covered in lavender oil. We all survived.
But survival is exactly the goal for horses in any questionable situation. They are prey animals. In the wild, their instincts act to prevent them becoming a meal. In the stable, with trusted people, they know they are not likely to be preyed upon. On the trail (or in a parade in the dark), the likelihood of something frightening happening is palpable. Horses will flee suddenly from a perceived threat simply because their deep seated instincts can override their trust and training.
That feeling you had as a child of needing to race across the dark bedroom and leap into bed (as if something under the bed might grab you) is the exact way a horse can feel when he sees an unfamiliar object or hears a flapping plastic bag. Familiarization (as opposed to desensitization) can help a horse become less reactive. We will start popping bubble wrap in our stable yard soon. Slowly at first, then in succession (like firecrackers), it will help the horses be less startled on the 4th of July.
Knowing this instinctive response is possible with horses, it becomes simple common sense to do things like wear a helmet when riding, tie horses with quick release knots, wear sturdy shoes or boots around them and never allow lead ropes or lines to wrap around body parts.
If you build trust into your schooling of a horse, he will look to you for direction when he gets worried. If he fears you, he will want to get away from both you and the scary situation.
There is a saying, “green on green makes black and blue” and it refers to inexperienced riders on untrained horses. Many people will get a young horse for a child to “grow up with” as they might do with a puppy or kitten (and I have reservations about that as well). The small animal ends up at risk in that partnership – with a horse, the child becomes endangered. Common sense dictates that in all equine/human relationships, one of the pair needs to have some proper experience.
So, this 4th of July we will turn on all the lights in the stable yard. We will use lavender essential oil and frankincense oil to help the horses cope. I will even have tranquilizer available because we cannot predict what all will go on in the neighborhood. We will do our best to protect our precious horses from the fireworks that can be so terrifying to them. They cannot help but feel threatened. Their instincts for survival dictate their feelings (if you have neighbors with animals, please consider them this holiday).
And, I will only drive sweet Andy in day time parades!! And I will always wear my helmet.