How to Habituate Horses to Drones

Dragon with Shadow

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 

  • An experienced UAV pilot who will manage the drone and be able to move quickly away from the horse if required.
  • An experienced rider who will not be anxious if the horse gets a fright.
  • A horse person to act as coordinator to ensure pilot and rider understand each other.   The coordinator will make the decisions when the drone should move towards or away from the horses and will respond immediately if a rider wants the drone to move away.   This could be replaced by headsets for a rider and pilot who have experience of working together.
  • An outside space with plenty of room away from other people and animals.  The drone needs to start flying out of sight of the horse, ideally 100m away.
  • A distraction exercise for the horse, trotting poles for example.
If the horse is likely to be unsettled in this environment, plan for enough time to get them working calmly before introducing the drone.

Maryville from Drone

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.

Before you Start

  • Get written permission to use the airspace from the property owner.
  • The Pilot will need to check the area for local hazards and include the distance from the nearest airfield.
  • Notify anyone in the area that you intend flying a drone and ask them to stay out of the area and remove any animals. Any persons remaining will be deemed to be under the control of the pilot.
  • Brief the pilot what to expect from horse and stress how reactive they can be.  Some suggested notes below.
  • Review the plan with everyone.  The coordinator is in charge and will keep both pilot and rider informed of what is happening.   Agree a signal for the drone operator to immediately and quickly move the drone away from the horse, maintaining height, land it  and turn off the motor.  

Habituating the Horse to the Drone


1. Start working the horse in trot in the arena as if this was a normal schooling session.

Pattern 1 : Noise

2. On the riders signal, the drone takes off from an area where the horse cannot see it and flies to a height of 30-50m
3. If the horse is not stressed, slow hover the drone close to the horse, maintaining height.  The horse will probably not notice the drone, provided it does not make sudden movements, and should habituate to the strange noise.  Keep giving the horse tasks to think about, use the trotting poles, but keep moving.
4. Once the drone can hover overhead, take the drone slowly back to land keeping the same height.


Pattern 2: Noise and Movement

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.

Pattern 3: Seeing the Drone

6. Repeat pattern 2, but this time drop the drone to 15m, the horse is more likely to see it this time.  If the horse becomes worried, keep the drone circling in the same area until the horse relaxes.  Aim to circle overhead.

Pattern 4: Closer

7. If the horse has found patterns 1 to 3 easy, then the drone can become more erratic with changes of direction and hovering.  If the horse is relaxed, try walking and halting to let the horse watch the drone.

Pattern 5: Tracking

8. Follow the horse from directly above,  get the horse to follow the drone, track from the side.  Avoid following from directly behind as the horse cannot see the drone and this is the most likely to create a fear response.


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.


Notes for Drone Pilot on Horse Behaviour

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.  

Drone Used

yuneek typhoon hIn 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.


Risks

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.

Summary

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 - phoebe@horsetech.ie or Ian Kiely - droneexpoireland@gmail.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/



Gallery


How not to do it!

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.

Peg Unconcerned, for now