Are Horses Scared Of Gunshots & Does The Sound Hurt Their Ears?

If you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at cowboy mounted shooting or like the idea of hunting from your horse then you might be wondering if the sound of the gun will scare them or not? This is something I’ve thought about myself recently so decided to do some research and was surprised with what I found.

Are horses scared of gunshots? As a general rule horses have a natural fear of loud sounds and gunshots are no different. To a horse, any loud sound could be a predator, and the louder the noise the greater the danger which is why horses that aren’t accustomed to gunshots will often bolt or try to escape the sound in some way.

Why are horses scared of gunshots?

You might think that because horses are big creatures they don’t get scared easily but the size of the animal has little to do with their startle reflex (how easily they’re frightened). Yes, horses are big, but they are also prey animals which means that, like most other predated animals, they have very acute hearing and a strong startle reflex. This means that at the first sound of something ‘scary’ a horse’s instincts will kick in and the horse will run rather than investigate what the noise was. 

In the past, this strong startle reflex helped a horse to survive and avoid danger, but the ‘modern’ domesticated horses of today don’t have to worry about predators. That said though they still have the same perception of danger as their wild ancestors (much like we still have our appendix, it’s there but just causes problems). Especially when, in a horse’s mind, the louder the sound the greater the threat and the quicker they need to escape.

Does the sound of gunshots hurt horses’ ears?

There’s a reason why you need to wear some sort of ear protection when you’re firing any gun and that’s because gunshots can be extremely loud (ranging from anywhere between 140 dB and 170 dB*) and while I appreciate that its just numbers it’s worth pointing out that anything below 70 dB (which is equivalent to a vacuum cleaner) is acceptable for us, horses rarely get used to anything over 100 dB (as loud as a jackhammer). *[source]

In order to understand why gunshots can be harmful to horses, it’s helpful to understand how a horse’s ears (and in particular their hearing) differ from ours. For example, while our hearing ranges from 20 Hz to 20 kHz while horses can hear sounds from 14 Hz to 35 kHz which means that they can hear sounds we can’t and that everything sounds much louder to them too. Horses also have the ability to rotate their ears up to 180° and have large open echo chambers that help to magnify sounds and pinpoint where they’re coming from. All of this combines to make gunshots pretty darn loud to horses!

If you don't protect your horse's ears then gunshots can really hurt them

Can gunshots cause a horse to suffer hearing loss?

Any loud noise over a prolonged period of time can cause serious hearing issues to horses and gunshots are no different. In fact, it’s often said that the impact of gunfire on a horse’s unprotected ears will cause more damage than any other sound. This is only exacerbated when the horse is exposed to the sound over a period of time.

Even if a horse is only exposed to the sound of gunfire for a few seconds a day it can still, over time, result in cumulative hearing loss of between 30% and 50%. While this might not seem like a massive amount of hearing loss, to a horse, which often relies on its hearing, this can be extremely distressing and can result in behavioral issues.

How do you protect a horse’s ears from gunshots?

In the past, it was believed that getting a horse used to the sound of a gun was enough but as veterinary medicine has advanced we now realize that horses’ ears are far more sensitive than we first thought. With this in mind, it’s important that you protect your horse’s ears as much as possible if you want to try your hand at cowboy mounted shooting or like the idea of hunting with your horse.

It might sound a strange thing to say but the best way to protect your horse’s ears is to train your horse to wear earplugs (yes you did read that right, you can now buy specialized earplugs for horses). They won’t completely block out all sounds but will muffle the gunfire enough to prevent any damage to your horse’s hearing.

There are two types of earplugs, soft pompom-like ones, and smooth rubber ones. In general, the rubber ones are better and will block out more sound but some horses aren’t so keen on them and prefer the soft earplugs. I’ve never used them myself but have spoken to a number of vets and tack shop owners to find out which ones are the best and ‎Intrepid International Inc was by far the most popular brand. They make both soft and smooth rubber earplugs, both of which are available on Amazon.

If you’re not sure how to use earplugs on your horse this video will show you:

How do you desensitize a horse to gunshots?

Earplugs can be great for protecting your horse’s ears against the sound of a gun being fired close to him but these aren’t practical to use all of the time, especially if you live near a range and have continuous gunfire. In these circumstances, it’s better to desensitize your horse to the sound instead.

This might sound like a daunting task but it’s no different from desensitizing your horse to any other loud sound.

  • Bring your horse as close to the sound of the gunfire as he feels comfortable.
  • When you find that point stop there and raise your horse before walking him back to where he feels safe.
  • Next time bring your horse a little bit closer to the sound before repeating the previous step.
  • If you do this as often as possible (but no more than three times a day) your horse will soon learn that the sound isn’t an indication of danger and will accept it.

How do you train a mounted shooting horse?

Once your horse has excepted the sound of gunfire it’s a good idea to get him used to a gun being fired from the rider. You might think this isn’t necessary if you’re using earplugs but while they’ll protect your horse from the volume of the sound they can’t do anything about how suddenly the occurs.

Before getting on your horse and start firing rounds you should make sure he’s happy standing next to you while you’re firing a gun. Once you’ve done that (following the steps above) you can then start training him from the saddle. 

To do this start out at a canter and fire a gun behind the horse. You might think it’s safer to start with the horse standing still (or at a walk) but at a canter, if the horse is spooked he’ll just pick up the pace to get away. If the horse is standing still he could take off in any direction or even rear.

After your horse has accepted a gun being fired behind him bring it to the side (although still slightly behind him) before firing again. Over time you’ll be able to fire in front of your horse without him batting an eyelid, at this stage you can increase the caliber of the gun but that is down to your personal choice.

If you train your horse properly they won't be bothered by your firing a gun near them

I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.

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