TAILS FROM THE TRAILS
The Fourth of July — a holiday most Americans celebrate with great enthusiasm, but one that many local horse owners dread.
“Unless you’re a horse person, you don’t understand how fireworks can literally scare a horse to death,“ said Anne Morgan of Lake Worth. “We boarded our pony at a barn in rural Lake Worth. Unfortunately, about three years ago on July 4, people in the area set off a lot of fireworks. The pony got stress colic and tragically had to be put down the next day.”
It’s not that horse people are anti-party, anti-barbecue or anti-fun. Rather, equestrians understand the down side of fireworks all too well.
“We’re not unpatriotic. We’re not alarmist killjoys who want to take all the fun out of the holiday,” Morgan said. “We just care about our horses. A lot of people understand when dogs are frightened by fireworks or loud noises. Now take that animal and multiply its size by 10 and its weight by 100, and you’ll start to have some idea of the magnitude of a panicked horse.”
A panicked horse is a danger to itself and others.
“You can’t go in a stall with them or you might end up crushed against a wall,” Morgan explained. “If they’re turned out in a pasture, they can get to running so hard they can go through or over a fence. They feel trapped, with nowhere to turn, no escape.”
Fireworks can also start fires.
“Many barns are highly combustible. They may be wood frame, and contain wood shavings and hay. It doesn’t take too much for a shower of sparks to land and smolder and start a fire,” Morgan said. “I wish a TV crew would come out and film someone’s horses when the firecrackers are going off, sounding like a rapid-fire machine gun. I’d like the public to see lathered horses running in fear for their lives, so they’d understand what we go through each year. We don’t want to ruin anyone’s fun. We just want to save our animals’ lives.”
And the problem is not only once a year.
“The Fourth of July is always the worst, but New Year’s Eve will be bad as well,” Morgan said. “One good idea I heard is to hire an off-duty PBSO officer to stay at the barn on those nights. That way, if he observed someone breaking the law by setting off illegal fireworks, he could make a report and hopefully stop it.”
Hiring an off-duty officer sounded like a good idea. I spoke with Teri Barbera, public information officer with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
“Fireworks in equestrian areas has been a hot topic this year,” she said. “We had a lot of complaints from the Jupiter Farms area of scared dogs and horses. Animals are very sensitive to loud noises.”
Much of the issue comes down confusion with the law. After all, fireworks are so readily available.
“Every year, we urge the public to celebrate safely and distribute dispatches which explain the law,” Barbera said. “Basically, if it launches or explodes, it’s illegal to use without a permit. There is a loophole which allows buyers to sign a waiver stating they’re using these fireworks for agricultural purposes, such as scaring off birds. But signing a waiver won’t help you if you’re cited. The waver protects the seller, not the buyer.”
In Florida, possession or use of illegal fireworks is classified as a misdemeanor.
“If you violate this law, you can be arrested,” Barbera said. “If found guilty, you can be fined up to $1,000 and sentenced to up to a year in prison. Legal fireworks include sparklers and fountains. Roman candles and mortar-type explosives are not legal.”
And hiring an off-duty officer?
“That’s actually a good idea,” Barbera said. “Anyone can go to www.pbso.org and fill out the extra-duty application at least 24 hours in advance. There’s a three-hour minimum, and the cost ranges from $42 to $70 per hour. In order for an officer to investigate, he has to witness the event himself. If he’s right there on your property and observes illegal fireworks being set off next door, that’s probable cause.”
Barbera said people should use common sense and respect their neighbors. Unfortunately, that’s not always what happens.
One anonymous horse owner in The Acreage told me that although she has owned horses for many years and kept them in various barns in various states, she has never before witnessed fireworks like what she experienced in The Acreage.
“I’m lucky that my horse is pretty much desensitized to things like that now,” she said. “At first she’d go into a frenzy, but she finally got used to it. But we had one mare some years ago in New York, my daughter’s mare. We’d just gotten her, and someone set off fireworks. She collicked, but luckily, she survived. Horses can spook at simple, silly things. Fireworks are much scarier.”
Often, explaining the problem to your neighbors will held.
“It’s a big problem when neighbors ignore your request,” she said. “I think the police should be a lot stricter in enforcing the law, but I know they can’t be everywhere at once. Still, especially in equestrian areas, something should be done. It’s really not fair.”
And, sometimes you don’t know exactly who’s setting off those rockets. This year, on the evening of the Fourth of July, unseen people all around my pasture set off all sorts of bright and noisy fireworks. It sounded as if we were in the midst of a war zone.
I spent two hours outside, smacking mosquitoes and trying to calm my herd every time they galloped past. One of the new mares clearly thought her life was about to end, and the rest of the horses caught her panic and ran with her.
By 10 p.m., things quieted, the herd settled, and I finally went back inside. Thankfully, all of my horses survived unharmed.
Next week’s column includes the story of one woman whose horse didn’t.