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Pinellas County horse owners brace for the stress of July 4 fireworks

The loud bangs of fireworks cause stress in animals like horses. Owners say they don’t think local ordinances will keep neighbors from celebrating.
Mollie Sipos, in charge of equine care at Saddle Up Riding Club, poses with her horse, Opie, a 15-year-old gelding, at Saddle Up Riding Club, Friday, July 2, 2021 in Pinellas Park.
Mollie Sipos, in charge of equine care at Saddle Up Riding Club, poses with her horse, Opie, a 15-year-old gelding, at Saddle Up Riding Club, Friday, July 2, 2021 in Pinellas Park. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jul. 3

Mollie and Kellie Sipos are busy around the farm in the days leading up to the Fourth of July.

The mother-daughter duo who run Saddle Up Riding Club in Pinellas Park are securing loose boards in the barn and checking for stray nails in the horse stalls. They’re wrapping the horses’ legs in bandages - anything they can do to prevent injury to their 15 horses on the six-acre property before fireworks start popping off all night, startling the flighty large animals.

“They will run themselves into the walls if they feel trapped,” said Mollie Sipos, 20, who manages the farm.

The staccato-like booms of fireworks easily frighten prey animals like horses. That stress can cause colic - a painful gastrointestinal condition that can sometimes require surgery to cure and can otherwise be fatal. After losing three horses to the condition since launching the equestrian nonprofit 18 years ago, the Sipos are hoping to avoid it at all costs this long holiday weekend.

“It amazes me,” said Mollie Sipos. “There are significant regulations put in place that are just ignored.”

Mollie Sipos, in charge of equine care at Saddle Up Riding Club, prepares to bring our Opie, a 15-year-old gelding, at Saddle Up Riding Club, Friday, July 2, 2021 in Pinellas Park.
Mollie Sipos, in charge of equine care at Saddle Up Riding Club, prepares to bring our Opie, a 15-year-old gelding, at Saddle Up Riding Club, Friday, July 2, 2021 in Pinellas Park. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Pinellas County issued a warning Tuesday that setting off fireworks is illegal without “proper permits,” despite a state law lifting the ban on the Fourth of July, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. But the owners who care for Pinellas Park’s 750 resident horses don’t expect that to stop the sporadic bangs that come from their neighbors’ backyards.

“It truly is like Gettsyburg, our barn fills with smoke,” said Shelly Mizrahi, who owns Cavallino Farms, an equine boarding facility less than a mile from Saddle Up. “That’s how loud it is out here.”

Mollie Sipos said she plans to stay in the barn overnight to watch the horses on July 4, while Kellie Sipos, 58, will be at her Redington Shores home with the TV volume up. She suffers from PTSD, and the noise of fireworks can sometimes set off panic attacks, she said.

It’s not so much the public displays that can trigger her reactions, Kellie Sipos said — she knows when and where they’ll happen. Sometimes, she looks out from her window to watch them. It’s when a bang comes out of nowhere - “when you don’t know where it’s coming from” - that can trigger the attacks.

On July 4, she said she’ll practice breathing exercises in front of the TV. She’ll take a rubber band and twist it over and over. Her husband will be around to call for help if needed.

“You don’t know how it’s gonna affect you,” she said. “The same as with each one of my horses. I don’t know how it’s going to affect them until that night.”

Renee Frank, 16, a junior riding instructor at Saddle Up Riding Club, is pictured with Einstein, a 7-year-old Thoroughbred who is known to be skittish with loud noises, as they mimic the noise at the racing track, Friday, July 2, 2021 in Pinellas Park.
Renee Frank, 16, a junior riding instructor at Saddle Up Riding Club, is pictured with Einstein, a 7-year-old Thoroughbred who is known to be skittish with loud noises, as they mimic the noise at the racing track, Friday, July 2, 2021 in Pinellas Park. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

“Planned events are typically orchestrated, organized, and predictable,” said Christina Dillahunt-Aspillaga, an associate professor of child and family studies at the University of South Florida. “It’s very unpredictable when people have their own fireworks in the streets.”

At Saddle Up, the Sipos used to work with military veterans with PTSD through a tailored equine therapy program. They also offer programs for able-bodied and disabled children. Some people come to them for healing, others just like to ride.

The riding club will close early every day this weekend in preparation for the loud festivities of their neighbors. Meanwhile the Sipos are armed to help their horses stay calm anyway they can. They have prescribed sedatives from their veterinarian on hand just in case. They have earplugs for the younger horses and an extra employee will stay on site overnight.

“I put my lawn chair in the middle of the barn, and make sure everything’s wrapped and tucked away,” she said.