Ear plugs are inexpensive but can be invaluable pieces of equipment in many situations. The horse’s hearing acuity covers a far wider range of both high- and low-frequency sound waves than we are capable of hearing. This level of hearing is a survival advantage in the wild, but it can lead to rider-horse misunderstandings when it is assumed that a horse is spooking or acting up ”for no reason.”
Ear plugs decrease, to nearly remove, the horse’s perception of sound. They can often eliminate the need for heavy restraint or tranquilization in situations where the horse’s nervousness, spooking or resistance may be at least partially related to noise. This usually will include:
• Nervous shippers
• Spooking when being worked
• Horses that are nervous in new surroundings
• Anxiety in high-traffic barns
• Protecting the horse’s ears from rider gunfire or whip cracking (e.g., huntsman, police, game hunting)
• Riding in a parade or other noisy environment.
Learning to put in ear plugs takes practice, but it isn’t difficult (see sidebar). The most difficult part is often getting the horse’s cooperation, basically training the horse to accept ear plugs.
Unless the ear is inflamed, most horses don’t object or even pay attention to the ear plugs once they are in place. Getting them to cooperate for the insertion is the difficult part. The better manners the horse has with regard to having his ears handled in general, the less trouble you will have (obviously).
A well-trained horse that accepts ear handling well will come to accept the process quickly. If the horse isn’t accustomed to having his ears regularly handled, or if this is something you generally try to minimize because the horse may have acted a little funny about it in the past (i.e., the horse has YOU trained!), don’t attempt to insert ear plugs until you have trained the horse to accept having his ears handled without a fuss. The last thing you want to happen is have the horse panic with the ear plug inserted and be unable to safely remove it.
Start with basic ear handling during grooming, lingering on the ears just a little longer than usual when putting on the halter or bridle, and eventually graduating to soft toweling of both the inside and outside of the ear. When the horse takes this in stride, it’s time to move on to ear plugs. With all horses, it’s a good idea to have a handler at the horse’s head the first few times you use them, until you are comfortable that the horse will accept the procedure calmly.
Never put plain gauze or cotton in the ear. Gauze can be too rough and cotton may leave fibers behind which will irritate the ear canal. Let the horse wear these for a while to get used to the feel of them, then test his reaction to the situation that normally makes him nervous or spooky. Be absolutely certain that you do not jam any ear plug deep into the horse’s ear.
Ear plugs are available in a variety of materials and shapes. In general, the soft, fuzzy ear plugs are easiest to insert and the most well-accepted, but they block less noise than other types.
The more solid ear plugs made of rubber or closed-cell foam block the most noise. However, they are the most difficult to insert and most likely to cause resistance on the horse’s part. If you think you need a solid plug, look for rounded end plugs in a corks shape, such as the ones from Cashel Company. They don’t extend as far down the ear and the rounded contour makes them easier to insert.