Dealing with drones and horses

Q: I was at a 4-H clinic with my kid, and toward the end some campers on the fairgrounds were buzzing a large drone within 20 feet of the horses and following some around. I went and talked to the guys, who had no clue as to how their actions might affect the kids and horses—they had no idea their fun might have serious consequences if a horse spooked.

With time and patience, it’s possible to habituate horse to drones.

While I’m not anti-drone, I’d like some advice on how horse owners should respond to the use of drones in our parks and along our trails. Also, the technology is new enough that many people don’t own a drone they could use to drone-proof their horses. Most of us make sure our horses are used to dogs and vehicles, but what can we do to help them get used to a large, noisy object flying near their heads?

My post about this topic to a horse group on Facebook elicited a range of responses, ranging from “deal with it”—all burdens are on the rider and drone operators have a right to do whatever they please—to “knock the drone out of the sky.” Some people said every horse participating in public activities better be “experienced and bombproof,” which leaves me wondering how they expect to get novice horses the experiences they need to become bombproof. I’d love some more suggestions.

A: It’s a basic fact of life today that equestrians share our public spaces with many people who know very little about horses. Compounding the problem is that every horse has his own individual needs. I often hear complaints from bicyclists that every rider tells them to do something different to avoid spooking horses. So even people who try to educate themselves are frustrated.

You have to consider which is more practical: teaching every person who comes to the park or showgrounds how to avoid spooking every horse they might encounter or teaching your own horse how to cope with whatever scary things he might face. Clearly, teaching your horse makes more sense. Fortunately, horses can be taught to tolerate drones. After all, history shows that horses can been trained to cope with far more: Cannons have been in use since the 13th century, and for hundreds of years thereafter, cavalry troops had to desensitize their horses to cannon balls flying over their heads.

For the short term, you can simply habituate your horse to drones. You say you have already trained your horse to accept vehicles and dogs, so I won’t go through the specific training procedures step by step—I assume you already know how to habituate him to scary things. The basic goal, of course, is to desensitize a horse to a scary object with gradual exposure—letting him see the new object from a comfortable distance, then slowly bringing it closer over a number of training sessions until he accepts it flying quite close.

Because drones are likely to become more common in our public spaces, I would suggest buying or borrowing one and treating it as just another thing to teach your horse to accept. I checked online, and you can buy a simple drone for as little as $30. Since you only want it for training your horse, you don’t need a big, expensive model. An additional advantage to doing this is that you will have trained your horse to accept other things flying close to it, like a startled bird that flies up as you pass.

Habituation does have limitations, however. You can’t prepare your horse for every possible scary thing he might encounter on public trails. For a long-term solution, it’s much better to build up your horse’s confidence, which will help him deal with whatever he encounters in his environment.

Horses can have two types of confidence. Those that are self-confident are also known as “bombproof.” These horses have learned to stay calm no matter what, and they are good choices for novices or riders who don’t have enough confidence of their own.

Not all horses achieve that level of self-confidence. Those that can’t, however, can be taught the second kind of confidence: trust in the rider. A horse with this kind of confidence will look to his rider for leadership when faced with a scary thing. I teach all my horses, “You don’t have to worry about that; you’re with me.” Even so, horses like this need to be matched with riders who have the skills and experience to remain calm during flare-ups of bad behavior.

So how do we help novice horses build confidence? The short answer is, “one step at a time.” To teach any of these three concepts—habituation, self-confidence, or trust in the rider—you must build on what your horse already knows, asking just a little bit more as he becomes comfortable with each step.

Your horse will gain confidence—in himself and in you—as he masters any skills you teach him, as you work with him on your own or with a trainer. The specific training exercises you’re engaging in can be just about anything—basic groundwork as well as work building skills under saddle. It can also be helpful to attend clinics or engage in exercises on your own that are designed to teach “sensory training” or “mounted police training” to bombproof a horse. As your horse learns new skills and is rewarded appropriately at each step along the way, he will gain trust in you and in himself. Confidence is built on many small successes.

Whatever kind of training work you do with your horse, keep two points in mind. For one, the person doing the training must be self-confident; you cannot teach a horse not to be afraid if you are afraid yourself. This is why groundwork exercises can be helpful; working a horse on the ground in a fenced area can reduce your own fears, thus reducing your horse’s fears. If you have difficulty controlling your own nervousness, your best option is to seek help from a professional trainer.

It is also important not to ask a horse for too much at a time. Confronting him with something he is not prepared to face can make him more fearful.

One last point, regarding the belief someone expressed on Facebook about drone operators having “the right to do whatever they please”—no, they do not. The operation of drones, which are technically known as unmanned aircraft systems, is governed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and many local jurisdictions have their own restrictions. One FAA rule states, “Do not fly directly over people.” The operators who flew their drone within 20 feet of your horses were violating this rule—although they may have been unaware of it. However, the fact that they were doing something wrong doesn’t change the fact that we will all be safer if we have prepared our horses for the possibility that we may encounter people who don’t know any better.

If incidents like the one you describe become more frequent, I’d recommend taking the issue to the managers of the park or showgrounds and encouraging them to set and enforce rules for drone operators. Just hoping that a person who knows very little about horses never shows up with a drone while you are riding is not a successful strategy.

Kat Swigart
Bar H Ranch
Ontario, California

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