New Year's Eve fireworks don't delight horse owners

Explosions can startle a horse and lead to death, so owners are bracing for the holiday and lobbying for tougher laws.

By ANDREW MEACHAM, Times Staff Writer
Published December 29, 2007

WIMAUMA - Randy Arlington stood where his horse had collapsed after running through a fence on the night of July 4. He remembered what he said to his neighbor, whose fireworks shell had spooked a 30-year-old horse named Conan, who lay dead in a pasture.

"You killed my horse."

As he told the story, Arlington, 47, leaned his elbow on one of three new fence posts. He rested his mouth on his fist.

Linda Arlington, standing beside her husband, turned her head away. For a moment, neither could speak.

Now, the Arlingtons and other horse owners are bracing themselves for New Year's Eve fireworks. Some are pushing authorities to outlaw fireworks in rural areas.

The controversy has heated up in recent years as opposing sides complain about fireworks laws being too permissive or too restrictive.

In Hillsborough County, fireworks can be bought anywhere except Plant City just by signing a form. The form promises that the buyer will use fireworks only for agricultural purposes, such as frightening away birds.

When the first mortar shells explode on New Year's Eve, Corky Findley hopes she will be ready.

Findley and her husband, Duane, a retired military man, moved to Plant City 27 years ago to escape the city. In 1992, Findley was running hair clippers around the ears of her mare, Be a Sweet Lark, when firecrackers went off on an adjacent property.

To this day, Be a Sweet Lark resists the clippers.

Another horse of hers, one that is older and doesn't hear well, is far less bothered by noise. To calm her horses Monday night, she plans to have both of them in their stalls, with the lights on and the radio playing full blast.

The problem with loud noises and startling explosions, experts say, lies in a horse's genetic wiring. Horses' hearing is more than twice as sensitive as humans', said Jill McEwan, head of the Expert Equine Research Center in Illinois. They can hear the ultrasonic squeak of a bat. Their eyes can detect slight motions almost all the way around them.

When faced with a crisis, they run.

"Horses are children," McEwan said. "When they have a panic attack, there is no telling where they might go or what might happen to them.

"They will run right through fences."

Conan and a mare, Dunnie, were best pals, Linda Arlington said. At 9:30 p.m. on July 4, the two were standing with two other horses when the rocket streaked overhead from a neighbor's yard and exploded into streams of colored sparks.

The horses bolted in opposite directions. As Arlington watched, Conan ran into a wire mesh fence. The horse fell down, got back up, and ran at the fence a second time. This time he tore it down, snapping three 4-inch posts. He suffered a heart attack and died.

The neighbor, whom the Arlingtons declined to name, apologized and promised not to set off any more fireworks, the couple said.

Recently, horse owners have taken their case to Tallahassee, where a state task force is studying fireworks, a growth industry nationwide.

Despite a welter of regulations since the Sept. 11 attacks and a decline in public displays, revenue from fireworks sales has more than doubled since 2000 to $900-million, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association, a trade group.

The reason? Backyard fireworks displays, said association spokeswoman Julie Heckman.

Among the points the task force is expected to address: uneven regulations between state and local governments and among counties. When Pinellas toughened requirements to buy fireworks, requiring a permit from the Sheriff's Office, roadside vendors merely moved across the border to Hillsborough.

At State Road 674 and West Lake Road, a stand operated by contractor David "Taco" Sanchez didn't even offer the form for a fireworks sale to a reporter. Shaun Campbell, 23, who handles sales at the stand for Sanchez, said he had not heard of any such requirement.

"We are the people who keep you up all night celebrating Christmas and New Year's Eve," said Campbell, a seasonal carnival worker from Pennsylvania. "There's nothing about agricultural purposes."

A version of this story appears in some regional editions of the Times. Andrew Meacham can be reached at 661-2431 or ameacham@sptimes.com.