Should I be using ear plugs for my horse?
Ear plugs, or pom-poms, or no-hear-ums, are an option for some horses that are sound sensitive. These little balls of fluff or foam act to reduce noise, so (in theory) your horse is not distracted by or spooked by sounds. As with most things horse, there’s a fair amount of debate about using ear plugs.
Some disciplines, like the hunters, routinely use ear plugs in and out of the show ring. Other disciplines, like dressage, forbid the use of ear plugs in the show ring. Most people who use them at home and at shows use them as a training supplement and safety prop. My opinion here is that if your horse is going to kill you, you should use training aids to work through issues to stay safe. Ear plugs should not be a crutch, but an aid. Ear plugs shouldn’t replace desensitization training, or really training in general.
But first, the logistics. Ear plugs are usually a soft and fluffy ball, about the size of a pom-pom. They sit inside the ear, and serve to muffle sounds. Some brands of ear plugs claim that hearing is still intact, but the startling, spook inducing noises are diminished. Other riders use foamy balls, like a cat toy. For show situations they might be painted black or brown so the cat toy color isn’t showing through.
Some horses don’t care at all about having them put in. You definitely want to work slowly, reward often, and make it a part of your horse’s life. For the ear shy horses, your mission on day one is NOT to put them in. In fact, your mission might be to get your fingers within one foot of your horse’s ear. Baby step your way to acceptance, only using positive reinforcement and patience. (More on this training topic here).
If you find yourself using force to pop them in, you’re doing it wrong.
Some horses might decide that they are totally fine with you placing the ear plugs in, but keeping them in is another story. Head shaking is a real option for some horses, and they may or may not get over themselves.
Another option. Fly bonnets can come with extra padding to muffle sounds.
You also have the option for the sound sensitive horse to use a fly bonnet with special ear covers that muffle sounds. This is a bonus for many horses - bug control plus scary sound control.
If you plan on showing your horse, you will need to check with your discipline’s governing body to find out if they are legal or not. You might find that pom-pom like ear plugs are not allowed, but the noise reducing ear bonnets are legal. Go figure.
You might use them during a clipping session, to keep ear hairs from falling into the ear and also decrease your horse's reaction to the noise of clipping.
At any rate, decide what’s best for you and your horse. You might find that on days when the neighbors are sawing and mowing and rustling the trees you need some insurance, but on other quiet days you can skip the ear plugs.