Our modern world is a very noisy place. Everything from car traffic to fireworks bombardes our senses on a daily basis. If you find noises disturbing then it seems reasonable that horses do too.
But you may wonder, are horses actually scared of loud noises?
Most horses not accustomed to loud noises will experience some level of fear and stress in response to excessive and sudden noise. This reaction is a natural “fight or flight” instinct. However, many horses can be trained and conditioned to tolerate loud nosies but for some it is a lifelong issue.
Knowing how your horse responds to loud noises is vital for both you and your horse’s safety. You can anticipate their moves and react faster, hopefully preventing them from spooking and hurting themselves or you.
Let’s take a look and see if your horse reacts to loud noises and how you can help them cope if they do.
How do I know my horse is afraid of loud noises
The easiest way to tell if your horse spooks at loud noises is to watch their response when they hear one. This can either be a naturally occurring noise or you can create a sudden loud sound. Make sure your horse is in a safe pasture or area so that if he reacts unexpectedly neither he nor you will get hurt.
Horses will exhibit the following behaviors when they are afraid or startled by loud noises. Horses reacts differently so it’s important to learn the exact reactions your horse has so you can understand what’s causing his anxiety and help him calm down.
- Physical jumping or stepping sideways
- Bolting or running away
- Flared nostrils
- Wide eyes
- Ears that move rapidly, from alert to laid back
- Trembling or shivers
- Tense muscles
- Hiding in a corner or as far away from noise as possible
- Focused on hearing another noise and not listening to you
What sounds are horses afraid of
Horses can be afraid of literally anything but in general, most horses are startled by sudden, loud noises or loud sounds that continue for a long time.
For example, my horse Maverick was scared of the frogs croaking in the bushes the first few nights I had him. He was so focused on the frogs that I had to hand feed him his hay to get him to eat.
The following list shows 10 common situations that produce loud noises that you should be aware of around your horse.
- Gun shots
- Trains – whistle or train itself
- Vehicles honking
- Vehicles backfiring
- Large vehicle drives by
- Sudden crash – something falls down like wood or metal
- Thunder and lightning
- Dog barking
- Kids yelling
Knowing these scenarios have a potential for startling horses can help you anticipate their reaction, purposefully avoid the situation or help you with training.
How do you calm a spooked horse
Calming a horse that has just been spooked by a loud noise is not always easy. If a thunder storm is rumbling overhead, providing hay and grain can give them some comfort. However, some horses are so nervous that they won’t eat until the storm is over. You can also try grooming your horse and talking to them. They will most likely still startle every time the thunder booms but you might keep them from a full panic.
Make sure you never position yourself between your horse and a fence or stall wall. Your horse may be the sweetest thing normally but when she is scared her “flight or fight” instincts take over and she may accidentally hurt you.
If you are riding when it happens the first goal is to not fall off if they sidestep or start running. Get your horse to stand still facing the direction of the noise. Seeing what caused the sound can help them decide if it’s something they actually need to be scared of. Determine if it is safer for you to remain on his back or if you need to dismount.
If you feel it is safe to stay seated on his back, reach forward and pat/rub his neck and talk to him. This pulls his attention away from the scary noise and helps him refocus. Stand there talking and petting as long as he needs to calm down. Allowing your horse to walk away skittishly from any scary encounter only encourages his fear.
Sometimes it is safer to dismount and stand near their head. Again, you should be actively touching and talking to him loud enough so that he starts to focus on you more than whatever scared him. When you begin to walk away, he may start trotting in small steps. This is a nervous reaction and shows that he wants to get away from the area quickly. Keep talking and patting his neck. You can even stop walking again after a little ways and stand still again until he’s calm.
How do I get my horse used to loud noises
Don’t give up if your horse is scared of loud noises. Chances are with lots of training you can desensitize him. This is called “bomb proofing.” The idea is that a horse can be trained in enough situations so that they are calm and trusting even if a loud “bomb” went off.
It’s best to start with quieter noises and work up to louder ones. Exposing them to as many sounds and situations as possible will help them develop confidence that nothing is going to hurt them. New sounds and encounters will not be as scary since they’ve learned how to react in similar situations.
Follow these general steps to desensitize your horse to loud noises. These steps can be combined into a single session or worked several days or even weeks before moving on to the next step. Watch for his reaction and only move on to the next step when the noise no longer elicits a response.
Produce the noise in the yard away from your horse. He should be loose in his pasture.
Halter and tie your horse inside the pasture to a fence post or hitching rail. Repeat the noise away from your horse in the yard.
Next, you should hold his lead while someone else makes the noise. You can slowly work the noise closer to your horse as well. Just remember that the noise will sound louder the closer it gets to your horse.
Start leading your horse while the noise is going off.
Move to sitting on your horse stationary with the noise.
Finally, ride your horse around with the noise.
Each progressive step is asking your horse to focus more on you and another task other than the noise. They are also learning that the noise isn’t hurting them nor requires an extreme response.
You can also accustom your horse to using earplugs if they are just too sensitive to loud noises. Cowboy sharp shooters use these to protect their horse’s ears from the loud gun fire. And consequently, the earplugs muffle the loud shots and therefore cause less startle reactions. They are like big pom poms or soft ping pong balls that tuck just inside the ear.
Your own reaction to loud noises is important as well. Horses can feel your tension and fears and will respond accordingly. You want them to trust that the situation is ok and you are not afraid. Pats on the neck and talking to them redirect their focus onto you and away from the noise source. Rewarding with treats also helps during training to reinforce a good reaction.
How long does it take to desensitize a horse
Depending on the personality of your horse desensitizing could be a relatively quick process or it could take a long time with constant reminders. You may need to dedicate weeks or even months working every day with your horse. Once they stop reacting, you can increase the time in between to work on their long term memory. The more you work with your horse, the better trained they will be.
Horses are naturally scared of loud noises but you can definitely teach them to cope and not react so strongly by providing safe and calm exposures to loud sounds. “Bomb proofing” your horse is not only beneficial and safer for you, it also teaches them how to remain calm and be less stressed when unpredictable things happen.