Planning to Save Horses

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Planning to Save Horses

If a disaster damages or destroys your daily care resources, your next contingency could be evacuation.

Photo: Photos.com

Titanic-sized calamity, or annoyance that mushrooms into a catastrophe? Either can endanger your horse. Realize that your horses are vulnerable to all manners of natural disasters, and there is no perfectly safe place. A disaster can occur anywhere, and everyone lives under some type of threat.

In a disaster, you can lose the resources that keep your horse alive--shelter, water, and feed. You can even lose track of your horse--he could be stranded in a flood, escape if enclosures are damaged, or even be chased out of a burning barn. And, worst of all, horses can die in emergency situations.

You can do a lot to "disaster-proof" your environment, and your contingencies can mitigate disaster threats. Be aware of dangers common to your area, and take steps to prepare for them. Planning ahead can make the difference between minor inconvenience and tragedy.

What Can Happen

Natural disasters can impact an entire region, with horses becoming victims along with people and other animals. The risk of different disasters varies by region--your town might be prone to hurricanes, heavy rain or snow, tornadoes, fires, or severe storms. You should find out which disasters are most likely to occur where you live.

Worldwide, storms are on the rise due to global warming, because as the Earth's hydrology (water balance and movement patterns) changes, so do weather patterns. With an increase in rainfall events, atmospheric hazards also increase.

Some examples of natural disasters:

  • Wildfire is a major threat that can happen in any urban wildland interface when lightning strikes and vegetation burns. Most horses live in such at-risk rural areas, whether near cities or smaller towns. Firestorms in the West tend to occur seasonally.

  • Floods are caused by storms or broken dams and can threaten farmlands and livestock. Horses can be trapped in a barn, pen, or field by rising water.

  • Ice storms can mean ice-burdened trees or wires falling onto buildings, fences, electric lines, and/or animals.

  • Earthquakes can destroy buildings and roadways. An earthquake can terrify animals, causing horses to become uncontrollable. One of the major problems is that roads often are blocked, preventing access to horses or limiting movement of horses out of the disaster area.

A disaster can also be caused by humans, either intentionally or accidentally. A power outage can cause temporary or long-term damage. If power is out for a long period, the annoyance can escalate into a serious problem. For example, an out-of-service electrical pump won't supply water to your barn full of horses. A less likely threat is a nearby explosion or hazardous material accident.

On-site disasters also endanger horses; barn fire is the most common threat. A barn can also injure or kill horses through structural failure, trees can crush the roof in a storm, or ice or snow can build up and collapse a roof.

Who Helps Horses?

Think about what you have done to look after your horses during an emergency, then look at your community for evidence of emergency management preparedness. Horse owners should consider forming a group and developing an emergency plan. Remember, saving human lives is the first priority for officials in a disaster.

Federal, state, and local government agencies develop crisis management procedures with emergency responders including local firefighters and law enforcement agencies. A major disaster can overwhelm local government response. That's when other agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can step in.

More than 60% of American homes have animals (including horses), but in a disaster, agencies might forbid owners from returning home to save their animals. This is because rescuing pets and horses can be hazardous even for trained emergency personnel.

Dee Beaugez, an advocate of equine emergency management, says, "What has happened across the country is that people won't leave their homes without their animals. It has to be incorporated within our government. It used to be you couldn't take your animal to a shelter--now shelters are set up to include animals. In recent Nevada wildfires, many animal and horse owners were not allowed back in to rescue their animals."

FEMA signed a partnership agreement with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in November 2000 to encourage communities to include animals in emergency management plans (see the "Useful Resources" at left).

Project Impact was established in 250 cities to aid in disaster preparedness, with plans to expand to 1,000 more. Beaugez coordinated Project Impact for Sparks, Nevada, from 1999 to 2004. Through her efforts, the Nevada Humane Society has conducted classes and linked with local law enforcement to certify individuals to participate in animal rescues. "It's got to be a community-wide effort if it's going to work," says Beaugez.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has set up Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams for veterinary health professionals to assist in disasters. The AVMA is coordinating relief efforts with the Red Cross.

Beaugez sees an increase in equestrian participation. "Horse owners are starting to work together, as well as participate in city, county, and state rescue groups," she says. However, she stresses that the survival of your horses depends on you, the owner.

You are your own insurance against threats--you mitigate through disaster preparedness. Terri Crisp, formerly of the Emergency Animal Rescue Service (now called RedRover Responders), cautions, "Can you live with losing your horses because you didn't do what you needed to do?"

Plan Your Efforts

Only a small percentage of horse owners have prepared for potential disasters. Crisp estimated that out of 50 people, maybe two or three have made plans.

Past disasters inspire people to prepare for the next likely event. Tomas Gimenez, DMV, a recently retired primary instructor of Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue, notes that horse owners in coastal areas of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida are prepared. He estimated that 20-30% of South Carolina horse owners are prepared for disasters, with the higher percentage living on the coast.

Anticipate threats by conducting your own risk analysis. Study your landscape and property improvements to determine vulnerabilities and assets. Also evaluate your property's geography and the local history of catastrophic events. 

Once you have identified potential threats, see what you can do to minimize risks and think about what parts of your property are safest in certain disasters. For example, if flood is a risk, look at the high ground where livestock could escape water. Reduce fire danger by clearing brush growing near structures to at least 30 feet away. Eliminate barb wire fencing, even if your horses are used to it. Violent storms, floods, or fire can result in downed barb wire that can ensnarl animals during or after a disaster.

"No matter what agreements are made, I believe that every horse owner must be prepared to take care of his or her own horses for at least the first 72 hours (following a disaster) without help," Beaugez says.

Willing To Evacuate?

People and animals might run in a disaster, or they might stand their ground and refuse to leave home. You might envision the bomb shelter approach, where you build a safe room of concrete and steel for your family, pets, and livestock. Yes, it could protect you, if you are all there at once and take shelter quickly. Without such ultimate protection, you might be required to evacuate. Pay attention to forecasts of an impending storm, fire, or flood so you can take advantage of any lead time. For that, have a working weather radio.

Tomas Gimenez, DVM, says, "The horse owner should enact his plan before the state calls for evacuation. When the state announces, it's too late to evacuate the horses." In a mass evacuation, weather conditions and traffic will impede horse trailers.

The Texas Agricultural Extension Service handbook states, "It's easier to recover a live animal than replace a dead one."

Realize that whatever the risk, your goal is to maintain your horse's well-being with shelter, food, and water. Set priorities for your horse--first comes a safe place, then water and food. An on-site power supply, water tank, and feed storage can supply your animal's needs if a disaster traps you at home. If a disaster damages or destroys your daily care resources, your next contingency could be evacuation.

To transport horses to a safer site, you'll need a trailer stocked with halters, lead ropes, water buckets, and a first-aid kit. Crisp sees the lack of transportation as a major problem, since many one-horse owners don't have trailers. Whether you have a horse trailer or not, "Horses need to be trained (to load in a trailer). If there's a wall of fire, or water rising quickly, you don't have all day to get the horse in the trailer."

Jennifer Williams, PhD, says, "When a hurricane is coming, fire is drawing near, or a flood is threatening, naturally people are going to be on edge. Animals will be on edge, too--either they can sense what's coming or they pick up on cues from those who are handling them."

Before a disaster, investigate options for temporary shelter by talking to local horse organizations or stables, and your local extension agent. "Call your city, county, and state offices of emergency management and find out how they will deal with animal evacuations," advises Beaugez.

A mock evacuation lets you practice how efficiently you can load animals. Crisp says, "Don't practice on a nice day. Do it when you come home from work, or it's pouring rain and you're wearing your rain gear."

Beaugez also recommends practicing under stressful circumstances and at night with a flashlight. "People think they are prepared, and they are really not," she says. "You have to make an effort. You make disaster planning part of your lifestyle."

You should also decide who will take care of your animals if you're not available. Meet with neighbors and agree to cooperate in a disaster situation--you might be able to pool your resources.

Identification Is Essential

Prepare a disaster identification kit with any registration papers, copies of bills of sale, and/or photos of you with your horses. The most important thing is to document your horses' features and your legal ownership of them in case others rescue them.

Also include copies of your horses' medical records. "Make sure your horses have current, negative Coggins," advises Williams. "Many stables and individuals will open their home to animals in need, but they don't want to put their animals at risk of infectious diseases." You should make sure your horse is up-to-date on all vaccinations, especially tetanus.

Store all documents in a plastic bag that can accompany your horse during a rescue. Duplicate everything, and store one copy in a safe deposit box and a second at a relative's house. Be ready to apply an identification tag on the horse's neck, mane, or tail with your name, address, and phone number.

Several years ago during fires in Los Alamos, New Mexico, the Northern New Mexico Horsemen's Association (NNMHA) in Santa Fe housed 180 horses for five days. Shortly after, then-NNMHA President Eldon Reyer recalled, "Whenever we brought a horse in, with 70% we didn't know the owners. As we began to identify horses, we put a card on the stall door."

Reyer received donated feed, but volunteers didn't know the horses' normal diets. "I wasn't about to feed alfalfa to every horse. We started out with a low ration of grass hay," he says. "Have paperwork to go with your horse. Tie something on the halter with what the horse is to be fed. If there are any peculiarities about the horse, list them, and also the veterinarian's name."

Recovering From Disaster

The disruption of a disaster isn't always total. You might be able to continue daily procedures at your facility if you can supply water, food, and shelter.

However, a major disaster can have long-lasting impacts on your horse's health. Watch out for hazards after a catastrophic event. For example, dangers in a flood-damaged area include road washouts, collapsed buildings, debris, snakes, and rodents. After a hurricane, you need to watch out for all kinds of debris in pastures, including wood, wire, and broken glass. If you are concerned about debris, especially after a flood, you should go over the land with a metal detector. One of the major problems after disasters is foot puncture.

Ice from winter storms can pose a footing hazard for your horses for days after the storm has stopped.

Rescue operations can result in trauma and injury, including lacerations, fractures, and shock. Treat minor injuries with items in your first aid kit, and consult your veterinarian, if he or she is available. In large-scale disasters with lots of injured animals, you should be prepared to give emergency first aid until a veterinarian can attend your horse.

Can you live with losing your horses because you weren't prepared?

What if your horse is boarded at a major stable, and you worry about his safety in a fire?

Ask the stable manager if the barn has a plan for moving all horses to a safe area on the property if there is a fire. Determine if there are fire extinguishers, a no smoking policy that is strictly enforced, and perhaps even sprinkers. Does the barn have an evacuation plan? Confirm that the manager maintains a list of emergency contact numbers for all owners.

What if there is impassable water?

Before you board your horses on property 10 miles from your home and across the river, determine if there are any floodplains in the area that might cover roads or wash out bridges, thus preventing you from reaching your horses after heavy rainfall. How will you be able to care for your horses if you can't reach them?

Plan for alternate routes. You might have to drive 50 miles out of your way to find a passable bridge! You can find a map of floodplains through your county extension office or even by asking your local realtor who deals with farmland.

What if your horse trailer has a flat tire?

Maintain your trailer and pulling vehicle for ready use at all times. Remember that after a disaster, there is lots of debris and flat tires are common on vehicles and trailers.

What if the fire trucks can't access your barn?

If live at the end of a canyon, or in the last house on a dead-end road, or on the other side of a dry streambed, make sure and get the local fire marshal to visit your farm. He might tell you he won't drive his fire trucks over your bridge, or that there is no access to water to fight a fire.

Widen, replace, or remove the bridge and develop a backup water source before you have a fire.

What if you have to keep pasture gates locked to protect horses from theft?

You might not be home to unlock the gates for evacuating horses when a disaster threatens. Develop a buddy system where two or three people check with each other after any storm. If there is no response, help can be on the way.

If you have to evacuate, keep the horse in its temporary shelter until it's deemed safe to return home. Reyer recalls that some owners have demanded to take their horses home after only a day, and the shock of going back into a smoke-filled environment caused extreme stress, colic, and several deaths. The goal is to keep your horse in a safe and healthy place, wherever that might be.

Before returning to your facility, examine structures for damage and confirm their soundness. Inspect fences for damage. You might have to perform repairs before bringing horses back into an enclosure.

If you were separated from your horse, you might have to prove your ownership when you do find him, and having documents and photos will expedite taking your horse home. In Santa Fe, a brand inspector approved the release of horses rescued after the fire. Reyer said, "We knew that when someone came to take a horse, they had to clear it with him that yes, indeed, it was their horse." The brand inspector asked owners to describe horse's markings and any scars.

Helping Rescue Horses

When a catastrophe occurs, helpful people might offer their services to emergency responders. However, well-meaning volunteers can cause more problems than they solve.

Crisp said that one of the major challenges in an emergency situation is dealing with the mass of people who show up with trailers and want to evacuate horses.

"They are not trained, and they can't be let in," Crisp says. Volunteers must follow the chain of command, and assist only when assigned to a task so that emergency responders can properly coordinate the rescue efforts.

You can set an example for others by your disaster preparedness. By planning for the worst, you lessen the chances of losing your horse in a disaster. Beaugez notes that after a disaster, "There were so many people who said, 'If only I had listened,' or 'If only I had been prepared.' I hope we don't need to learn through the loss of our animals."

About the Author

Charlene Strickland

Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.

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