This is the safest approach we have found so far in getting horses used to drones flying above and around them. The amount of time it takes to go through the program varies depending on the horse from 45 minutes upwards. It may well take several sessions before the drone can be flown within 10m of the horse.
The basic approach is to first get the horse acclimatised to the noise before letting them actually see the drone and to then fly smoothly in the manner of a bird.
What you Need
Maryville Stables in Carrigaline, Co Cork. An great location with plenty of space to keep horse and drone safely apart. However because of it's proximity to Cork Airport, only licensed pilots can fly from here.
1. Start working the horse in trot in the arena as if this was a normal schooling session.
5. Repeat the exercise, but this time keep the drone circling in a lazy pattern. This will give a different noise for the horse to listen to. Again, keep the horse working.
How long it takes to work through these 5 patterns will depend on the horse and the skill of pilot and rider.
Of the three horses, taken through this process, one was close to a drone when it suddenly took off and she got a fright. She remained unsettled so we never even reached Pattern 1. This was clearly how NOT to do it! The second horse got half way through pattern 3 in an hour. We could circle nearby but she was still wary so we did not try to circle directly above at a lower level. The third horse was not upset by the noise at all and we got through patterns 1 to 4 in less than an hour. As it was getting cold and dark we had to stop there.
The first thing to know about horses is that they are prey animals, generally they don't do 'fight or flight' they do 'gone already'. A horse has the fastest reaction time of any domestic animal, much faster than humans and they are designed to run fast. Given a choice a horse will run to a safe distance then assess the danger of whatever triggered their flight. We try to avoid the flight response when training, apart from the dangers involved, it takes time to calm the horses to a point where they can start learning again and repetition of flight in response to a trigger will quickly build a habit that is very hard to break. So when we anticipate a horse will react in fear to a new experience, we use a number of desensitisation techniques to habituate them to the new experience.
Habituation is recognised when animals stop responding to events and stimuli as they become accustomed to them. Horses are innately fearful of the new/unfamiliar (i.e., neophobic) and often find the characteristics of various stimuli aversive (e.g., size/magnitude; novelty; proximity; and sudden appearance or occurrence). Movement, especially if erratic or is advancing towards them, may be hard for them to identify, even when familiar. Habituation can be used to defuse reactions to aversive stimuli in a process called desensitisation. Systematic desensitisation, approach conditioning, overshadowing and counter-conditioning are some methods of desensitisation. - Andrew McLean
The aim will be to apply a manageable amount of pressure to the horse, one that does not produce a fear response, but may put them into a wary and alert state. Once they show signs of relaxing with this level of pressure, the pressure is removed for 1 minute, then the same level of pressure is applied. If the horse is still calm the pressure can be increased and the cycle is repeated. It is important that riders keep calmly working their horses as though nothing unusual were going on and do not allow them to give their full attention to the drone as this will increase the time it takes to habituate them to it.
In this test, we used the Yuneec Typhoon H, a six-rotor drone with collision avoidance and a 360-degree gimbal with camera that can take stunning 4K videos and 12-megapixel stills. It costs from €1150. Contact Ian Kiely on 087 9824031 for more information. We would recommend a drone with at least 6 rotors, this allows for a rotor malfunction with the pilot maintaining control. If you lose a rotor on a quadcopter the drone cannot maintain flight and will crash.
Drones are autonomous vehicles and are capable of making independent decisions. The more advanced the drone, the more they are able to do, this is generally a good thing. A drone low on battery will return directly to a designated home space , regardless of what is in the way, rather than crashing. A drone may be fitted with a collision avoidance system and how it reacts to a perceived collision may vary based on the system used.
Even the cheap drones that many kids (old and young) got from Christmas are very fast and can quickly reach 30mph+. These cheap drones, can have a very low range from the controller, some only 30m, so it's easy to lose control of these drones and then they just keep flying until they run out of battery.
While a drone flown in a controlled environment is relatively safe, the addition of a powerful, fast and unpredictable animal does create risk. If the drone is flown in such a way that the horse perceives a threat, it is very easy to panic a horse and this will trigger any other horses to also panic.
Once you have a horse habituated to drones, this horse can give confidence to a horse new to drones, reducing risk.
As drones become smaller and quieter and easier to fly and horses are exposed to more drones, they will become less of an issue. We found that flying the drone above 40 feet and well to the side did not alarm the horse, however it required skill, patience and time before the horses became comfortable with them closer.
Many thanks to Alan Molan from Maryville for the use of the facilities, Jacqui Walsh for keeping us organised, Mike Harlick for the ground shots, Ian Kiely for piloting the drone and Peg, Dragon and Pixie for being the test subjects.
If you want some drone footage of your horse or have ideas on how to use drones with horses, do contact me, Phoebe Bright - firstname.lastname@example.org or Ian Kiely - email@example.com.
If you want to find out more about drones there is a three day exhibition at the RDS from March 10th-12th. Fine out more at http://droneconsultantsireland.ie/the-event/
Peg is unconcerned at the drone running on the ground, but a minute later it lifted off and this startled her so much she did not settle down again.