Another Independence Day has come and gone. After two years of no neighborhood fireworks of any consequence, last night pretty much made up for the hiatus. The neighbor across the street came up with about two dozen commercial display quality air burst mortar rockets. I mean the kind that sound like a shotgun going off just from the launch! And the actual star burst was akin to a 40mm canon round explosion about 100 feet overhead. I was outside in the paddock almost immediately after the first one went up. Jewel and Al were apoplectic. And Jack? Well, I had to go poke him with a stick to see if he was dead. He was at the separation fence just watching the other two running laps.
When Jewel realized I was in the paddock she hobbled over and stood next to me, watching down the street for the next rocket. Al followed her but stood off about 10 feet. Another series of explosions set them both off again but they quickly circled back to me. I gave each a re-assuring rub and waited. Another rocket and they danced around in a small circle, once again coming back to me and getting a rub. By the time the fifth or sixth mortar went up both Jewel and Al stood their ground and only flinched; Jewel with her shoulder pressed against mine and Al on her far side with his head across her back and near my right ear. Jack was munching hay from his side of the fence, still totally unconcerned.
The rockets stopped for about 5 minutes and I walked about 20 feet away from the horses to see what they would do. Jewel followed about 30 seconds later and Al came along in tow. This time they took up defensive positions, side by side, head to tail. But again right next to me. The rocket barrage started again and for the next 20 minutes or so neither horse stirred a foot. I walked around them giving rubs and re-assuring "good horses!" with each burst. Then, about 10 PM, the BIG fireworks ran out, so I went back to Jack's side of the fence. Jewel and Al meandered to the round bale and went back to what they do best. Eating.
Standing with the horses when they become disturbed or frightened is something I do whenever the opportunity presents itself. Especially on holidays when fireworks are common occurrences. I've often posted here about the importance of having respect from your horses. And I always try to make sure everyone understands the difference between respect, leadership and trust because they are very different things.
Respect can be instilled by a number of various lessons and exercises. And I could've controlled the horses through sheer respect by engaging them in an activity that would force them to focus upon me and not the distraction. But I chose to use the fearful distraction and the respect they already have for me to demonstrate my leadership. I did that by being with them in a fearful situation and showing absolutely no reaction to the explosions.
Horses are mostly reactive flight animals. But even in the face of perceived danger if the herd leader does not show concern and join the flight, fleeing horses will re-think their reaction and return to emulate the leader's reaction, or lack of it. And they do that by making their own decision to control their reactions. Anytime a horse makes its own decision to follow and trust it's more likely to become a permanent change in behavior faster than desensitization by mechanical means. And when no ill befalls the horse as a consequence of emulating the leader, it scores big points in the developing trust department.
Anyone can make a horse respect them. And you need that respect to get the horse to watch and pay attention to you so it starts to see the leadership it's always looking for. Repeated demonstrations of good leadership that provide positive outcomes for the horse is the way trust is achieved. And once you have a horse's trust you pretty much have everything you need to make the relationship anything you want it to be. So take advantage of every opportunity you can to prove you're a leader to your horse. And that can be as simple as just standing still and doing nothing.
To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling:
"If you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs...
... yours is the Earth and everything that's in it... "
And to also give equal time to Anonymous:
"If you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs,
you obviously have no clue about how bad the situation REALLY is!"