Fighting Fire with Knowledge

Members of the equestrian community across the country are joining forces to provide training in horse-handling during emergencies.
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In October 2016, a wildfire about five miles south of hunter/jumper trainer Julie Winkel’s Nevada-based Maplewood Stables destroyed approximately 30 homes and some barns, where a few of the horses died. Winkel's son, Kevin, and assistant trainer Andrew Jayne from her Reno facility had gone over to help evacuate the horses, but they were turned away by the county sheriff’s office.

At one family farm, a young woman was there alone, trying to deal with about 20 horses. “She was the only one who knew anything about horses when the first responders showed up. They didn’t know how to put a halter on them or lead them or anything that could help her,” Winkel recalled. That situation pointed out a huge problem.

“After the fire, someone said, ‘These first responders need some kind of training,’” she continued. So Winkel stepped up. “I said I’d love to do a free first responder’s clinic and invite anyone, not just first responders, but neighbors, firefighters, search-and-rescue people—anyone interested in knowing more about horses so they could understand how to help us in an emergency.” That category includes floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and a variety of other disasters.

“Horses are so big, and in a panic situation people can get hurt. If they understand where not to be and how to keep horses calm, that will save human lives as well,” Winkel said. “Because horses are flight animals, their first reaction is to flee the situation. And that means possibly running over anyone who is in their way.”

Hitting Home

Winkel is no stranger to fire and the damage it can do. “Living in the West, fire is part of our existence. Fires can be started by lightning and also arcing power lines,” she said.

Over the past 30 years, she’s had seven or eight significant fires close to her property, a 165-acre breeding, sales and training operation. One blaze started when someone nearby used a chainsaw that threw out sparks, another after a meth lab blew up and a third stemmed from boys riding an ATV that sparked into dry brush. But in 2012, one person’s decision to empty fireplace ashes while they were still hot, in 60 mph wind and after months of no precipitation, hit home.

During one afternoon in January 2012, Winkel was in her house when she saw smoke coming over the hill. Realizing the wind was blowing in her direction, she called down to her head groom to hook up the horse trailers. She grabbed a few valuables before heading for the golf cart with her dogs.

By the time she came down from her house, the groom already had evacuated her stallions, taking them to the property of a fellow professional across the street.

Meanwhile, other neighbors and horse people headed over with trailers to assist. “I didn’t even know a lot of them,” said Winkel, who was grateful for their help. “We evacuated close to 50 horses in 40 minutes,” she recalled.

The main road was in flames, so rescuers had to use the back road to get many of the horses out. When the fire swept onto the back road, however, there was no way to get out at all. Fifty of the 80 horses on the property had been moved, but another 30 were still in the fields. As one field burst into flames, the horses were herded into another field with the help of seven young professionals who were in the Horse Industry Training Program at Maplewood. Then Winkel turned and watched her 6,000-square-foot house burn to the ground. Although the house was a complete loss, along with 50 years of memorabilia, no horses, dogs or humans were lost or injured.

How Horses Think

Winkel, a U.S. Equestrian Federation R-rated hunter, jumper and equitation judge who is certified by the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, drew on her experience when she held the initial first responder’s clinic in November 2016, the month following the Washoe Fire that destroyed her friend’s stable. Sixty people—including first responders, neighbors and fellow horsemen who wanted to feel more comfortable handling horses—showed up the Sunday after Thanksgiving, despite a snowstorm.

Julie Winkel demonstrates putting a halter on a horse during  a session for first responders.

Julie Winkel demonstrates putting a halter on a horse during a session for first responders.

She shared her knowledge in a three-hour clinic, with the first hour devoted to explaining how horses think and act. As Winkel noted, a lot of people are afraid of horses simply because they’re big. So the second hour was spent showing them how to put on a halter, catch a horse in his stall and help experienced horse people load a horse into a trailer. Even some people who had a good knowledge of horses participated because emergency situations are so different.

While she originally planned to run the clinic once a year, “demand called for doing it twice a year so those participating wouldn’t feel rusty dealing with horses in an emergency. We keep updating the game,” said Winkel, who held a little competition at the end, sort of like team penning. Teams of three with two halters among them herded four horses into a pen and were timed to see which team could do it the fastest.

This exercise helped the participants work as a team and think like a horse, putting the skills they learned in the lecture and demonstration to use.

Heather Shrive, who works for Washoe County Animal Control in Nevada, took the course in the spring. Everyone employed by the organization is on call in the case of fires and emergency evacuations, so what she learned was useful. 

Although Shrive has owned horses in the past, she said she picked up a lot from the clinic, “in particular, trying to react to the way horses think, especially since they are prey animals, not predators—and using techniques to make them as comfortable as possible.”

Those in the clinic even got inventive. Shrive mentioned that one person backed up to a horse until she was next to him and could put on a halter, instead of trying to chase him down. “Being calm and collected is possibly your biggest asset you can gain from the classes,” Shrive said.

Winkel is hoping to get funding that could expand the reach of the clinics. She envisions a laminated card to be carried in fire trucks and other vehicles that give the basics on how to rescue horses and eventually a video that could be distributed nationwide to educate people about what to do in case of a barn fire.

In developing a prototype system of trained volunteers for Nevada, Winkel would like to see background checks on those who learn about horse rescue, noting that during the Los Angeles fires in 2017, some of those who “rescued horses” sold them for slaughter.

“We have to know who they are and where horses should be taken,” she said, adding volunteers also would have to show they know how to drive a trailer and maneuver it as necessary.

“The main thing would be an emblem on their windshield, so if they come upon a closed road, the sheriff’s department will know they are certified to help with the evacuation,” said Winkel, who envisions a central command post to dispatch volunteers. Also needed is a way to communicate to first responders as to whether a place has been evacuated or if help is still needed.

Eventually, she would like to see clinicians go throughout the country to distribute materials, such as a pamphlet for barn owners with information about safety and wiring inspections, as well as how to produce an evacuation plan.

In June 2018, Winkel created Goodtoknow Horses (GoodtoknowHorses.org), a 501(c)3 non-profit to educate people about horses. One of the organization’s first goals is to continue to promote and educate first responders so they have the knowledge necessary to help evacuate horses.

Prevention

Winkel’s program is not the only one that recognizes the need to educate those responding to emergencies at stables. Margie Margentino, manager of the Somerset County Park Commission’s Lord Stirling Stable in New Jersey, was 6 years old when her Welsh pony, Midnight, died in a fire that started with a cigarette dropped by someone who ignored a no-smoking rule.

Zoe Bills leads Toby out of the barn at Lord Stirling Stable as theatrical smoke streams out of the door during a fire simulation.  

Zoe Bills leads Toby out of the barn at Lord Stirling Stable as theatrical smoke streams out of the door during a fire simulation.  

Hoping to help others avoid that kind of loss, she got involved with barn fire safety and prevention programs. “Our purpose is to educate horse owners and first responders about how serious a barn fire is, how quickly a barn will become fully engulfed and how difficult it is to rescue animals or equipment in the building. We also give them ideas on how they can prevent the likelihood of a fire and help them in development of a plan, in case a fire should happen,” Margentino said.

She noted that by the time a barn fire gets going, it usually is too late to rescue the animals, so prevention is the key (see sidebar, page 94). “Unless you’re there when the fire starts, the sad reality is that you’re probably not going to get your horses out,” she said, explaining that once first responders arrive, it’s their scene. “That means it’s their call as to what’s saved and what’s not saved. Their first obligation is to rescue human life.” So if someone ignores their orders and goes into the barn, it slows down efforts to fight the fire, Margentino noted.

One of the features of the program at the county Emergency Services Training Academy presented with the Somerset County Animal Response Team in cooperation with the Somerset County Park Commission, Margentino’s employer, involved setting fire to a stall built for demonstration purposes. This brings home the message of how quick and deadly a barn blaze can be in a structure full of flammable material.

Participants also went into a “smoke house” to learn what it’s like to be in a building that is so full of smoke it’s impossible to see anything. It’s theatrical smoke, so it isn’t dangerous and there are no acrid fumes. But Margentino mentioned it makes the point about problems dense smoke poses to first responders and others who may be contemplating what they see as attempting a heroic rescue.

Connecting First Responders and Barn Owners

In New England, the Connecticut Emergency Animal Response Service (EARS) held programs for barn owners, managers and volunteers, and another specifically for first responders. In an interview prior to his death this year, operations director Jon Nowinski said, “Most of them, even though they live in towns with horses, have never actually had interaction with them. We try to get them hands-on.”

Over a six-month period, EARS presented about a dozen programs. Each had gotten progressively larger, with one drawing 70 participants from different departments. “We had several barn fires in Connecticut since October 2017. That always sparks people to pay attention,” Nowinski said. Four of the programs were for emergency responders and the others were for a mix of people.

“Part of the goal is trying to get first responders connected with barn owners. People don’t think about having the fire department come in and do a walk-through of their stables. Trying to bridge that gap is a big help,” he said, noting every barn is built differently and all the latches are different, so teaching fire fighters the layout and how to operate latches and doors is good preparation.

EARS was founded in 2011. Prompted by hurricanes, the original goal was to work on disaster-response scenarios. “Very quickly the focus became more on a rapid-response team needing to get a team to a disaster faster for situations ranging from house fires, where pets were involved, to barn fires and collapses,” Nowinski said. “The response was generally needed within an hour. That’s how we started getting integrated with the first response team because they knew we had animal experience.

“We try to do a lot of work with owners so their horses at least have some exposure to moving quickly,” Nowinski said, noting that in a fire, if a horse won’t lead, a first responder will have to decide whether to go on to the next horse, since both their time and their sight in the smoke is limited.

“Many of them haven’t been exposed to animals that large,” he pointed out. “It’s different than a house fire, where you are dealing with a dog or cat and can basically pick them up. Learning the behavioral interaction and safe zones around horses can help [responders] get the process going without making [the horses] stressed out.”

Emergency Checklist

Fire isn’t the only danger that requires trained first responders. Here is a checklist that also can help in preparing for floods, natural disasters or other emergencies:

• Devise a plan to handle a variety of situations, including which members of family or staff will do what. Rehearse it with them periodically (and with boarders, if you have them) and keep a written copy.

• Hold regular fire drills so everyone is up to speed if there is a
real emergency.

• Be in touch with fire departments, police and first responders in your area to familiarize them with the layout of your farm and livestock.

• Identify water sources, such as a pool or pond, that can be used by
fire fighters.

• Have working fire extinguishers in the barn, and make sure
everyone—employees and boarders—knows where they are and
how to use them.

• Take an inventory of equipment and tack. Make sure every horse is microchipped and that each has a leather halter (nylon halters can burn into their faces) with nametags and contact info.

• Hang the halters on every stall or at every pasture gate.

• Never padlock a stall when a horse is inside.

• Train horses so they can be caught and loaded in a trailer.

• Once horses are evacuated, close and lock stall doors—and the main doors if the barn has them—so horses can’t run back in as it burns.

Have a destination for horses who need to be evacuated.

Prevention measures

• Prohibit smoking on the property. Have signs to that effect and enforce the rule.

• Don’t store hay, straw or shavings in the barn or next to it if possible.

• Have a rodent-control program. Rodents can gnaw electrical wires.

• Clear out cobwebs.

• Ask the local fire inspector to come to your stable to check and see if you’ve missed anything in terms of prevention.

• Manure piles should not be next to a barn because they can smolder in certain conditions and because shavings and hay are very flammable.

• Clear any brush that is next to the barn or outbuildings.

• Put away pitchforks, brooms and other equipment. And, if possible, keep tack trunks out of the aisles. In a dark, smoke-filled barn, rescuers and firefighters could trip or run into them.

• Have paddocks with secure gates available as a refuge for horses removed from the burning barn.

 Make sure you know which horses can be turned out together,
and advise first responders where to put each horse as they bring them out.

• Clear snow from paths promptly, so horses can quickly be led out
to paddocks.

• The driveway also must be clear and open so fire trucks have access; park other vehicles elsewhere.

• Have the address of the barn marked clearly in large numbers so it is visible both during the day and at night for those coming to help.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Practical Horseman.

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