Study suggests drones have major impact on grazing horses

Once the drone approached, grazing decreased significantly and was replaced primarily by vigilance, followed by walking.
Image by Thomas Ehrhardt

In recent years the use of drones – also known as small unmanned aerial vehicles (sUAV) – has become increasingly prevalent across various industries, including agriculture.

Their use has been advocated as a means of improving efficiency, productivity, and cost-effectiveness.

But the implementation of drones has sparked concerns among horse owners and ranchers who rely on grazing horses.

To address this issue, researchers at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, conducted a study to investigate the impact of drones on grazing horses. The team’s findings have been published in the journal Rangelands, with lead author Ryan Howell and his colleagues hoping that their research can be used to inform both private livestock managers and public agencies that manage horse populations about the potential uses of drones.

The study involved observing horses owned by private individuals on various properties in Utah, with the horses’ responses to drones approaching at different heights above ground level being assessed. Some drone flights focused on individual horses, while others involved groups of up to 10 horses.

Before the drone flight, the research team used binoculars to observe the horses from a distance. Video footage was also available from the on-board camera. The drone was launched well away from the horses, and the researchers classified their behaviour into categories such as walking, trotting, grazing, laying down, standing, and vigilance.

The researchers monitored the horses’ behaviour before the drone was launched, and then at 5-second intervals as the drone approached at three different heights above ground level: 3m, 15m, and 33m. The recording continued while the drone hovered over the horses before departing.

The study found that before the drone’s launch, grazing was the most common “at ease” behaviour exhibited by the horses. However, once the drone approached, grazing decreased significantly and was replaced primarily by vigilance, followed by walking.

“No animals were observed grazing after 50 seconds and did not return to grazing throughout the duration of the observation period.”

They observed “a downward trend in grazing and subsequent increased tendencies toward evasive movement and vigilance demonstrated by our study horses.”

They add: “This may suggest that horse foraging can be impaired with drone activity, and overall health, stress, and diet could be compromised by fear induced from drone activities and their flight patterns.”

Ryan G. Howell, Kaylee Draughon, Haley Johnston, Melissa Myrick, Val J. Anderson, Dennis L. Eggett, Steven L. Petersen. Evaluating changes in horse behavior as a response to small unmanned aerial vehicles. Rangelands (2022) Vol 44, (2), pp 121-128.

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