Drones + “Pones” 101
You’ve finally reached the point that your horse can pass a pedestrian without snorting. He doesn’t spook at umbrellas, stays calm around strollers and dogs, and doesn’t even flinch when a kite zooms past.
Just as you dare to believe you have a bombproof horse, a new challenge appears—the drone. For a horse that’s never seen, or heard, a drone before, seeing what looks like a cross between a dragonfly and a mechanical bird heading towards them can trigger a range of responses, from curiosity and wariness to outright panic.
Although there are rules restricting the use of drones, they are becoming increasingly common in public spaces, which increases the likelihood of you and your horse encountering one. How do you teach your horse to cope with this new technology, and respond to it calmly?
Note: This article is not an endorsement to mix horses and drones. Always be careful when desensitizing your horse to anything new. Wear proper safety gear, work with an experienced trainer, and closely monitor your animal’s stress responses. When in doubt, better safe than sorry!
A Deep Dive into Drones
Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones don’t have a pilot on board, as they can be operated remotely or programmed to fly autonomously.
Originally developed for military use, drones are gaining popularity amongst amateur photographers and hobbyists.
They are also being used to deliver packages, to perform building safety assessments, for agricultural purposes, and in search and rescue operations.
For equestrians like me, we simply dream of capturing footage like this…
Drones: A Relatively New Technology
Originating as tools of warfare in the early 20th century, drones have evolved from radio-controlled aircraft in World War I to sophisticated UAVs used for reconnaissance and surveillance during World War II.
The Vietnam War marked a pivotal moment as drones were utilized for intelligence gathering. By the 1980s and 1990s, drones were integral to military operations, particularly during the Gulf War.
The development of the Predator drone in the mid-1990s represented a groundbreaking leap, featuring advanced sensors, cameras, and the capability to launch missiles.
As drone technology progressed and civilian uses and interest increased, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began issuing permits for non-military drone use in the early 2000s.
Drone Purpose & Capabilities
Today, drones are integral to agriculture for crop monitoring and pesticide application, filmmaking for aerial footage, journalism for unique event perspectives, and disaster relief for damage assessment and aid delivery in challenging terrains.
The advent of consumer drones has also fueled recreational use, with enthusiasts globally enjoying drone flying for leisure and participating in the emerging sport of drone racing.
Although there are several different types of drones available, the one you’re most likely to come into contact with is a multi-rotor drone, like the DJI Mavic 2 Pro Drone.
These small drones are easy to operate and maneuver, making them ideal for aerial photography.
Drones at Equine Events
Almost every country in the world has placed restrictions on the use of drones in certain areas. In the UK, the British Horseracing Authority banned the use of drones on racetracks after the appearance of one allegedly spooked a horse back in 2016.
The US has yet to introduce such restrictions despite potential safety concerns.
No criteria exist for determining safe drone operations around horses.
There are a few rules that help to protect horses and their riders, including one that states that drones “cannot be operated over persons who are not directly involved in flight operations, unless those persons are under a covered structure.”
Rules can vary drastically even within the same state. For example, in Colorado, drones have been banned from ski-joring events after a horse spooked in 2017, trampling three spectators. Regardless, drones are quite common at pack burro racing events during summer months.
Drone Rules & Regulations
In the US, each state has its own rules and regulations regarding recreational drones, but a few common rules apply to everyone.
For instance, no drone should be flown at heights higher than 400 feet, nor should they weigh more than 55 kg.
Operators are required to register their drones and comply with airspace restrictions. These are particularly crucial around airports, although some states also have No Drone Zones over prisons, concert halls, stadiums, and wildlife reserves.
Certain areas, such as national parks and wilderness areas, do not allow drone use.
As technology improves, drones get smaller and less expensive, opening up the market to a broader demographic. Each time DJI comes out with a new model, Horse Rookie content manager Susanna’s husband sells his older model and snatches up the latest-and-greatest.
The last drone he sold was to a woman on Facebook Marketplace. She asked him if she could use it while she was driving.
For the record, no. No, you should definitely not ever try to operate a drone while driving a vehicle!
Unfortunately, there are no “pilot” requirements for operating a drone.
Anyone can buy one and attempt to fly it. While it takes some time and practice to become skilled, this should serve as a warning. Regulation is limited and not everyone will take the time to learn about drone restrictions and good drone-flying etiquette.
You’re better off proactively desensitizing your horse to drones instead of hoping you’ll never encounter one.
Drones are here to stay, which means our horses will have to get used to them. That might sound a bit harsh, but if you’ve already taught your horse to react calmly to moving vehicles, barking dogs, umbrellas, and bicycles, this will be just another feather in his cap.
Here’s one trainer who tried replacing a mechanical cow with a drone. (In case it doesn’t go without saying… do not try this at home!)
The easiest way to desensitize your horse to any new object is a little at a time, so borrowing or buying a drone will be critical to your training. Fortunately, if you only need the drone for training your horse, you don’t need to invest in a higher-end model.
As the technology’s improved, the cost of drones has plummeted, and you can pick up a basic model for less than the price of a new saddle pad. Higher-end models will generally be more durable and easier to fly, but could run as high as $10,000 or more.
Building Trust with Your Horse
Before you can embark on any training session with your horse, you need a foundation of trust. Establish yourself as the herd leader by projecting the type of quiet confidence you want to see in your horse.
We offer some insightful tips on this subject in our article 8 Transformative Ways to Build Trust With Your Horse.
How to Desensitize Your Horse to a Drone
Break your desensitization training into manageable chunks, and reward your horse with some of the best treats for training horses.
Start with the drone high in the sky and a long distance from your horse, keeping in mind that he’ll most probably hear it long before he sees it.
If your horse remains calm with the drone at a distance, gradually fly it closer. If he shows any reaction to the drone, increase the distance and give your horse some time to relax.
Repeat this over several training sessions, gradually reducing the distance between the drone and the horse. Reward your horse each time he allows the drone to approach without attempting to move away.
Over time, your horse should come to recognize that the drone poses no danger and allow it to come closer to him. In an ideal world, he should even be able to accept the drone landing and taking off nearby. That could take some practice, as depending on the surface, the drone can kick up quite a bit of dust.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Do drones bother horses?
Some horses react to drones, especially when they can hear them but not see them. Some might merely flick an ear in the drone’s direction, but others might spook or bolt away from the noise.
A study of the use of drones for equine management and observation found that “None of the horses displayed avoidance behavior,” even when the drone was flown at an altitude of 30m. These results are encouraging and indicate that horses *may* get used to the presence of drones, especially if they maintain a higher altitude.
Q: Can birds destroy a drone?
If a bird collides with or attacks a drone, it can render it inoperable. Even a small amount of damage to one of the propellers will cause the drone to drop from the sky like a rock.
Q: What do you do if a drone follows you?
If you suspect a drone is following you or recording you without your consent, you should either report it to the police or call your local FAA flight standards district office.
Q: Are horses sensitive to electricity?
Horses are particularly sensitive to electricity, but just how much it affects them requires further research. A recent study conducted in the UK found that horses detect the low-level noises made by electric cars long before their riders do, suggesting they’ll have a similar sensitivity to the noise of a drone.
Q: Can you fly a drone over livestock?
It is currently legal for an operator to fly a drone over livestock as long as the drone remains within their line of sight. Farmers and livestock owners concerned about drones disturbing their animals can report the incident to the police, sheriff’s department, or the FAA.
Q: Do drones scare animals?
Studies show that drones do scare many animals, but they may become habituated to them. One report revealed that black bears “exhibit a stress response” to flying drones.
Although their behavior doesn’t change, their heart rates increase by up to 400%!
Despite that frightening statistic, Gustavo Lozada, technology manager for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado, believes it is possible to use drones without scaring its subjects.
Lozada follows a set of protocols when flying drones around animals. His drone will approach from up to six miles away and always at a 45° angle so the animal can see it poses no threat.
According to him, “drones sound like bees,” which is why animals flee from them, but if the animal is introduced to the sound slowly, they acclimatize to it, and continue to exhibit normal behaviors.
Drones aren’t going to simply drop out of the sky and disappear one day—they are here to stay. Hopefully, regulations will catch up with technology. If you trail ride, show, or participate in parades, however, you’ll be a step ahead by desensitizing your horse.
Drones can offer some great advantages for horse riders. Who wouldn’t want to see their cross-country round captured on video or be able to relive the thrill of a beach canter through video footage?
It is possible to teach your horse to relax around a drone and even ignore it, especially if you use gradual desensitization techniques to acclimatize your horse to its presence. But *always* put safety first—for you and your horse!
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