Create a Horse Disaster Plan

Flood, fire, windstorm—what would happen to your horse? Take steps now to ensure his safety with a horse disaster plan.
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Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast In August 2005 with winds exceeding 135 miles an hour, driving a huge storm surge that raised sea levels by as much as 29 feet. The monster storm vented the worst of its fury on Eastern Louisiana and Western Mississippi, where some coastal communities were completely destroyed. Among the victims were thousands of animals, including an unknown number of horses. Will future storms match this one in fury? No one is complacent. And there's no reason to feel smug if you don't live in hurricane country. Wildfire, flood, tornado, earthquake, chemical spill, terrorist attack—the stars have something in store wherever you are, it seems. You can't prevent these events. And if past disasters have taught one lesson, it's this: You can't wait for officials to bail you out. You need to create a horse disaster plan.

The inside of a barn in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, after the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina receded. | Courtesy, Lanier Cordell

The inside of a barn in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, after the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina receded. | Courtesy, Lanier Cordell

"People need to prepare on their own," says San Diego, California, veterinarian Terry Paik, who's a member of the American Association of Equine Practitioners Equine Emergency Task Force and who's helped rescue horses from several disasters, including Katrina. By creating a horse disaster plan, you increase the odds that you and your horses will come through safely. In this article you'll find tips gathered from veterinarians and others who have helped horses through major disasters. Follow their advice to create your horse disaster plan, and you'll be ready.

Wake-Up Call
For Ann Laux of Poway, California, the wake-up call came early one Sunday morning in October 2003, when a friend phoned to warn of a wildfire near the stable where her six horses were boarded. "I stepped outside and saw a third of the circumference of the horizon on fire," she recalls. This was the Cedar Fire, the worst wildfire in California history. Fanned by hot Santa Ana winds and fueled by dense brush, it had raced overnight from the backcountry to the San Diego suburbs, burning 5,000 acres per hour.

Ann and her partner jumped into their tow vehicle and sped toward the stable, one of three facilities on a country road that together housed more than five hundred horses. Flames were leaping downhill toward the property and evacuation was under way when they arrived. Several of Ann's horses had already been taken out—a good thing, as she had only a two-horse trailer for her six. "We would not have gotten all our horses out on our own," she says. But, acting individually or responding to calls put out by the San Diego Humane Society, volunteers had come from as far as 40 miles away with trucks and trailers. "A racehorse trainer and some polo players turned up with big rigs. People just pulled in and took the first horses they could load. Incredibly, despite massive disorganization and confusion, all the horses survived."

That wasn't the case throughout the area. Farther into the backcountry, some horses were lost. One woman was killed while trying to haul her horses out on narrow mountain roads: Smoke made visibility poor, and she went off the road into a ditch.

As the fire continued to advance, Ann's horses were moved repeatedly, first to a neighboring stable; then to showgrounds farther west, in Poway; and at the end of the day to Del Mar, where the racetrack and fairgrounds took in about a thousand equine refugees. Local businesses donated feed and equipment, and volunteers cared for the horses and helped reunite them with their owners. "People rose to the emergency and showed incredible guts," Ann says.

Dr. Paik, who was involved in the Cedar Fire rescues, says San Diego was fortunate in having an active group of volunteers trained in animal rescue. "A lot of areas don't have this," he says.

To safeguard your horses:

You Need a Plan
Begin by assessing your risks. "Every region has unique challenges," notes Dr. Paik. You can't anticipate everything, but you can be ready for the events that are most likely in your area. Local emergency services and flood-control agencies can help you identify those dangers, and they may be able to help you figure out how to minimize risks particular to your property.

For example, in wildfire-prone areas, you're wise to clear trees and brush in a 75-foot strip around your barn—fire can't burn without fuel. In hurricane country, you might retrofit your barn with hurricane strapping, which consists of metal strips screwed into roof/wall junctions and other key points. Several resources listed in the box on page 96 offer detailed recommendations for reducing the impact of disasters on your property.

These steps won't eliminate danger, though. You'll need to decide ahead of time how you'll respond when nature starts playing hardball. Then put your plan in writing, and give copies to neighbors, barn helpers, and family members. If you're not home when a wildfire threatens or a tornado watch goes into effect, they'll know what to do.

Your plan should cover two options: to evacuate or to ride out the disaster at home. Whether you stay or go depends on the nature of the threat, how much warning you have, and your individual situation, says Laura Bevan of HSUS. Some events don't give you time to get out of the way; tornadoes strike randomly, and earthquakes are completely unpredictable. For other disasters, stay or go is a harder call. Hurricanes pose risks from wind as well as flooding. In coastal areas that could be flooded by storm surge, the safest place to be is clearly someplace else. But your horses may be able to weather the storm if there's no flood risk.

In most cases it's best to get horses out of the path of a wildfire. They may be able to survive a fast-moving grass fire if they are turned out in a large open area—a plowed field or a large fenced arena, for example—because the fire will skip that area as it moves through. Their chances aren't so good in areas surrounded by thick woods and brush, though, because the fire will find plenty of fuel and generate intense heat.

Plan A: Stay Put
Roads may be blocked and power out, but your horses can ride out a storm or the aftermath of an earthquake if you're prepared. Here's a basic checklist.

Water: Dehydration is a major cause of death for horses in disasters of all kinds. Storm runoff may contaminate natural water supplies; power failures may knock out your well pump, and even municipal water supplies may be interrupted.

  • Figure on 12 to 20 gallons per horse per day, and have at least a three-day supply (seven is better) on hand.
  • Store water in clean 55-gallon drums, and fill all troughs and other containers on the property. Line garbage cans with plastic trash bags and fill them, too.
  • Have chlorine bleach on hand to purify water if necessary. Add two drops of bleach per quart of water and let stand for 30 minutes.

Feed: Deliveries may be interrupted. Have enough feed and hay on hand for at least three to seven days, stored in a dry, secure area. Put feed and hay on pallets and cover with water-repellent tarps to reduce the chance of water damage.

Power: Have a gasoline-powered generator on hand so that you can power critical equipment (such as your well pump).

Disaster kit: Keep these supplies within easy reach.

  • Flashlight and batteries
  • Battery-operated radio
  • First-aid supplies for both horses and humans
  • Extra halters (leather or breakaway) and lead ropes (with stud chains for extra control)
  • Clean towels
  • Emergency tools—chain saw, hammer and nails, wire cutters, pry bar—and, of course, duct tape
  • Materials for quick temporary fence repairs
  • Fire extinguisher
  • List of emergency contacts, including your veterinarian and state and county animal-welfare and emergency-response teams.

Horses in or out? In many cases, your horses will be safer in a pasture than in a barn that could collapse, flood, or burn. Building collapse was a major cause of horse deaths in Hurricane Andrew, which pummeled Florida in 1992. Outside, horses turned their butts to the wind. Many were wounded by flying debris, says Laura Bevan, but they survived. However, she adds, if you don't have suitable turnout and your barn is built to code and well maintained, horses may be safer from wind indoors.

  • Be sure that the pasture is free of debris and far from power lines, and that fences and gates are secure. (Do not rely on electric fencing, which could easily be knocked out.)
  • If there is a danger of flooding in your area, be sure to choose a pasture with high ground.
  • If you'll be leaving the property for your own safety, make sure the horses have access to clean water and forage. It may be days before you can get back to them.

Halters on or off? You'll hear different views, but most people interviewed for this article favor keeping halters on so that horses will be easy to catch if they escape during a storm or other event.

  • Use leather or breakaway styles, as all-nylon halters could snag on debris and trap the horses.
  • Be sure each horse has some form of ID.

Close up: Shut barn doors, secure pasture gates, turn off power, and get to safety before your own life is in danger.

Plan B: Get Out
Evacuation plans need to be set well before you smell smoke or hear the wind howling.

Know where to go: Where and how far you travel will depend on the threat. If a rising river floods your property, safety may be just up the hill at your neighbor's barn. If a major hurricane is coming, you'll need to travel farther. Have several options, in different directions, for different scenarios.

Arrange stabling: Network to figure out where you can take your horses, or contact local horse and animal-welfare groups. The Sunshine State Horse Council has a searchable database of Florida facilities that can take in horses in emergencies (online at www.sshc.org/evac). In the Cedar Fire, the San Diego Humane Society helped set up large-animal shelters at Del Mar and other sites.

Plan alternate routes: Regional disaster-planning and emergency services can help you figure out the best travel routes to your safe spots. Be sure to plan several routes, in case certain roads are blocked.

Have transportation: If you don't have a truck and trailer, get one or arrange in advance for someone to ship your horses in an emergency. "It's just responsible ownership to be able to transport your animals," says Dr. Paik.

  • Keep your truck gassed up, and do a weekly safety check on your rig so you'll be ready to go.
  • Stock your rig with a disaster kit like the one described in Plan A (page 94). Extra halters and leads, first-aid supplies, and flashlights are especially important.
  • Plan to take enough water, feed, and hay for at least two days.

Train to load: A panic situation is not the time to teach your horse this skill. In an emergency, horses that load easily will be evacuated first; those that don't may be left behind. One of Ann Laux's horses refused to walk onto a trailer and had to be led several miles to safety.

  • If your horse is a handful, talk to your veterinarian about tranquilizing him in an emergency. If the vet thinks this would be appropriate, have the tranquilizer on hand and know how to administer it.

Have a barn plan: An evacuation plan is critical to prevent chaos, especially at boarding barns where lots of people will be trying to get their horses out at once.

  • Make sure everyone knows where horses can be loaded and how traffic should flow.
  • If all horses can't go in one load, decide ahead of time which ones will go first. It makes sense to take the easy loaders first and leave potential problems for later. Keep in mind that fire or other hazards may prevent going back for a second load.
  • Access roads or entrances may be blocked, so figure out other ways to get horses off the property. You may need to lead horses to a collection point that can be reached by trailers.
  • Make evacuation priorities clear. "Job 1 has to be: Get the horses out and don't get killed," says Ann. At one point during the Cedar Fire evacuation, with horses in her trailer and flames creeping up behind her, she found her way blocked by a boarder loading blankets and other equipment into a truck.

Don't forget: your cell phone, emergency phone numbers, and paperwork for each horse. You'll need a current negative Coggins test to take your horse out of state or to most community shelters; you may also need a veterinarian's health certificate to cross state lines.

Leave early: Get on the road as soon as possible before approaching flames or rising floodwaters cut off your escape route. Two or three days before a hurricane is not too soon. If the storm changes course and spares your farm, you can consider your trip a drill. Waiting could mean being caught in traffic jams (as happened outside Houston before Hurricane Rita last year) or in winds strong enough to flip a trailer.

Follow instructions: If fire or other emergency crews are working in your area, follow their directions and stay out of areas they've closed off. If evacuation routes are marked, use those routes. Wait for an official OK before returning to your property. This is especially important in wildfires, which can move unpredictably if the wind shifts.

Aftermath
If your horses were out during a storm or other disaster, round them up. Contact the local animal-control or disaster-response team if a horse is missing.

  • Check each horse carefully for injury. After a fire, watch for nasal discharge and coughing that could result from smoke inhalation. If you see these signs, call your vet.
  • Check barns and other structures for damage. Photograph damage for insurance purposes, and make sure the barn is structurally sound before returning horses to it.
  • Walk paddocks and pastures to be sure that they're free of debris that could harm horses; check that fences are intact.
  • Look for downed electrical lines before turning power back on. If you find damage, call the power company.
  • Keep an eye out for wildlife that may have wandered onto the property. Snakes and fire ants, for example, seek high ground during floods.

After the Cedar Fire, members of the Poway horse community talked about developing better fire plans but, Ann Laux says, they didn't follow through: "There were some meetings, but few people showed up and interest died away."

Ann, however, stayed focused. She put a lot of time into training her non-loader, and he now gets on the trailer promptly. She also bought a second truck and trailer so she'd have the equipment to move all her horses at once because "I never want to feel again that I won't be able to get my horses out of here."

Whose Horse Is This?

How will you find your horse if he escapes from his pasture during a hurricane or is rescued by a stranger during a fire? Two steps will help ensure that you'll get him back.

1. Make sure he carries ID. To be safe, give him both permanent and temporary forms.

  • Tattoos, brands, and microchips can't be lost. They can help you prove ownership if you are separated from your horse.
  • Temporary ID that's easy to spot and includes your phone number will allow anyone who finds your horse to contact you. Options include a dog tag attached to his halter, a neck band with information in permanent ink, a waterproof luggage tag or cattle ear tag braided into his tail, and your phone number spray-painted on his side.

2. Keep his records with you. Carry the following in a waterproof Ziploc® bag:

  • Photos that highlight such identifying marks as scars, whorls, and white patterns. These will help you prove ownership.
  • Copies of breed-registration papers and ownership records. Keep the originals in a safe place.

    Disaster Resources
    When wildfires, floods, and other disasters threaten, horses aren't a priority in most communities. But emergency workers have learned that people will take great risks, and even refuse evacuation, trying to save their animals. As a result, states and counties in high-risk areas are setting up animal response teams to work alongside traditional emergency services, and private groups are working with public agencies to provide other resources.

    To find out what's being done in your area, contact your state veterinarian or Department of Agriculture, state or regional horse council, and state or regional animal welfare groups. Here are some online resources:

    "Disaster Planning for Country Property," online at www.sshc.org/evac/disaster.htm: guidelines prepared by the Sunshine State Horse Council, in Florida.

    "What Do I Do With My Horse in Fire, Flood, or Earthquake?" at etinational.com/dap.html: a guidebook prepared by Equestrian Trails, Inc., a California group.

    The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) website (www.aaep.org) has guidelines and helpful links, including some to local disaster plans. (Go to "Resources" and click on "Emergency & Disaster Preparedness.")

    Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH): guidelines for securing buildings against various disasters (www.blueprintforsafety.org).

    Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), training.fema.gov: free online disaster-training courses, including "Animals in Disasters" and "Livestock in Disasters."

    State Animal Response Teams (SART), sartusa.org: information on training and activities of these teams, currently active or starting up in 23 states. This article originally appeared in the June 2006 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.