Ear plugs, most commonly seen in the hunter ring, are an often brought up topic at shows. If they can be used is regulated by the rules of the discipline at the level of competition, however when they should be used is another question entirely.
Ear plugs for horses are usually soft, squishy (and sometimes fluffy) balls that can be placed just inside the ear to muffle sounds. They come in a variety of sizes and materials to fit everything from ponies to large breeds. While some horses have no problem with their rider inserting ear plugs, others may not be so amicable and will need to be slowly desentized for their use.
Ear plugs are often used for horses who are more reactive and sensitive to sound. Many trainers use them to help keep noise distraction at a minimum and to reduce the risk of a horse acting out under saddle in response to a noise. There are many benefits of using ear plugs when training at home to work through an issue with the end goal of not needing the ear plugs once the issue has been resolved. Training to reduce reactivity to sound, encourage relaxation under saddle, and establish focus on the ridden work should be a priority for all riders, rather than leaning on ear plugs as a crutch.
At competitions, ear plugs may be used (in some disciplines) for horses who are distracted or nervous in a big atmosphere where the roar of an audience or the sound from overhead speakers might cause a negative reaction.
Per the United States Equestrian Federation Dressage Attire and Equipment Rulebook, Part 2 DR121, #9: Ear plugs and ear muffs are, under penalty of elimination, prohibited at federation licensed competition. Exception: Ear plugs are permitted at prize-giving ceremonies for horses competing at any level, including High Performance classes.
Per the United States Equestrian Federation Eventing Rulebook, EV115 Saddlery, Part 2i: Ear hoods are permitted for all Tests and may also provide noise reduction. However, ear hoods must allow for ears to move freely and must not cover the horse’s eyes and ear plugs are not permitted (exception for prize giving ceremonies). The ear hoods should be discreet in color and design. Ear hoods may not be attached to the noseband.
While ear plugs cannot be used in all disciplines or all levels of competition currently, several proposals have been made to establish the use of ear plugs as an allowed form of tack for the comfort of the competitive horse. It’s important to check with your discipline’s governing body before you show to understand all of the current rules and requirements.
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