Horses and Planes

Horse killed when frightened by helicopters.
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Horse killed when frightened by helicopters.

This morning, I saw a story about a horse who was killed because of helicopters flying overhead. Apparently, some helicopters flew abnormally low over a field and the horses in that field began running, with one of them crashing over a fence and onto the road. She ultimately broke her leg and was humanely destroyed. I can feel the family's pain, and I know that I would be inconsolable if that happened to one of our horses.

In herds, when one horse runs, they all run.

In herds, when one horse runs, they all run.

But was this the fault of the helicopter pilots?

Our farm is on a main flight path to a nearby international airport. So many planes fly overhead every day that I don't even notice them anymore, unless someone with me says something about it. And they fly low, with their landing gear down. Fighter jets are frequently seen overhead (and heard!), but are largely ignored. We have helicopters that fly low over the farm, too - so low that my husband says they can see right into our living room - but our horses rarely look up, unless a helicopter flies really low - then they notice and run. 

We did have an incident when the Blue Angels were practicing in the area. The horses definitely spooked then - I know because I was leading them into the barn at the time, and the horse I had a hold of went bonkers. How I hung onto her I'll never know, but I was quite a bit younger then. The other horses charged off to the barn. If I could have gotten the rope off her halter safely, I would have done so, but I didn't want her running with a dangling lead rope.

That same mare would also turn inside out in fear when a hot air balloon passed overhead, which happened with some frequency when we lived in Middleburg, Va. She apparently had her limits to tolerable flying objects. If you were riding, the best thing to do was focus her attention on work, especially lateral work because she found that difficult to do. If she was loose, she would run. 

Horses are flight animals and herd animals. One horse gets spooked and the whole herd takes off. It's their flight instinct, and we cannot get rid of that. It's part of the reason seasoned horsemen and women giggle at the term "bombproof" horse - every horse has its limit. (If you want to increase your horse's courage, you might enjoy this clinic.) 

But, for most horses, airplanes are part of life. We found this link on NoiseQuest that discussed animal reactions to aircraft and, mostly, they found little problem. We also found a discussion about aircraft and horses (click to see this forum ). Overall, they, too, don't haven't experienced a huge problem. Mostly. There's always that exception.

The family of the dead horse has understandably objected to the flight path, and it appears that changes will be made in the area to help. I'm very happy to hear that government officials are taking this problem seriously, as stated in the story:

George Spanos, the director of the Chautauqua County Department of Public Facilities, sent us this statement: "We are communicating with the FAA, local law enforcement, and airport personnel. We will be taking appropriate steps to notify regular helicopter users of the Dunkirk airport to adjust their flight paths to avoid these types of incidents."

It's wise to keep an eye on zoning changes in your area, so you can object prior to a transformation that might impact your property and your animals negatively, such as the addition of an airport runway. It might not have been possible in this incident, but it's worth watching (yes, I know, something else to do!). Otherwise, we all simply need to be aware that, despite all the preparations we might make to prevent them, accidents do happen and, when it comes to horses, accidents can result in tragedy.