Handling Barn Collapses

In early February, a 15-year-old barn in Connecticut collapsed under the weight of snow and ice from a severe winter storm that blasted much of the eastern half of the nation, trapping 14 horses inside. Thanks to rescue crews' hard work, all of the horses were rescued from the rubble and did not sustain any serious injuries.

Just a few days prior, a Massachusetts indoor riding arena--which also housed several stalls--collapsed, trapping 15 horses. Again, all of the horses were rescued from the wreckage with no injuries reported.

No horse owner or barn manager wants to deal with a barn collapse, but should one occur, it's important to know how to deal with the situation to give the horses and other animals that might be trapped the best chance of survival.

Prepare for Anything

There are a few steps owners can take to "prepare" their horses for a scary situation such as a barn collapse. Rebecca Gimenez, PhD, president of and primary instructor for Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue encourages owners to handle their horses as much as possible and desensitize them to new or scary things. Preparation such as this will likely help keep the horse quiet when faced with an emergency situation.

"Anything you can do to have that horse calm, cool, and collected will help them to not struggle (in an emergency)," Gimenez said. "If they've been well handled, when they hear a human voice they might think, 'oh, my mom's coming for me' rather than panicking."

Gimenez also recommends leaving horses haltered in a leather or breakaway halter (that will give way if the horse gets stuck on something in the stall) when they are stabled. She explained that most emergency responders do not know how to halter a horse in the event of an emergency, and having an appropriate halter already on will save valuable time should the horse need to be rescued.

After the Collapse

If a barn collapse does happen and horses are trapped within, Gimenez suggests several steps to give the horses--and the humans--the best chance for survival:

  • First and foremost, call 911. Gimenez explained that emergency responders are trained to handle difficult and dangerous situations, and their experience will help the rescue mission go smoothly.
  • Account for all humans that might have been in the barn at the time of collapse.
  • Should you find yourself trapped inside a barn collapse, "do not try to get out on your own in case you compromise the structure and it falls further," Gimenez said.
  • Call a veterinarian. Emergency responders know how to handle structural collapses, Gimenez said, but they likely won't know how to handle horses or treat them for injuries.
  • Call in reinforcement. Once removed from the barn, the horses will need feed and blankets (which might be stuck in the collapsed structure for several days), and they'll need a place to go. Getting in touch with equine oriented friends and acquaintances early will allow more time for them to take action and assist with the situation.

After calling all the necessary authorities and assuring there are no humans inside the rubble, survey the horses that might be trapped inside. Gimenez cautions that some horses might be scared enough to try to save themselves, even if it means injuring the owner in the process.

"(The horse) is scared; he will attempt to get out of any hole that appears large enough," she explained, adding that tarps should be used to cover any large holes to discourage the horse from trying to escape.

Until emergency responders arrive, do not try to remove any horses from the barn, as this could cause the structure to collapse further, possible injuring or killing other horses inside.

"The worst thing that could happen is that you get hurt or killed trying to save your horses," Gimenez added.

Instead, tend to the horses that are already outside of the barn and catch any horses that have gotten loose.

Once help has arrived, work with emergency responders to determine a plan of action. Gimenez said that emergency responders probably won't allow owners in or near the barn until they reach a horse. At that point, she said, they might enlist the help of the owner in removing the horse from the rubble.

"Be part of the solution" rather than being part of the problem, Gimenez stressed. Allow responders to do what they're trained to do, but be ready to help when--and if--a horse is removed from the structure.

Once a horse has been removed from the collapsed barn he will need a thorough medical examination, Gimenez stressed.

"Just because he comes out and eats some hay doesn't mean he is okay," she said. "He needs to be evaluated by a vet and possibly prophylactically (to guard against damage rather than treat a problem) treated for dehydration and stress injuries as well as the bruises and bangs that are internal to these situations."

The veterinarian might administer intravenous (IV) fluids to combat dehydration once the horse is stable. Gimenez added that, especially in cold weather, hypothermia could be a serious issue. She suggests providing the horse with a warm, slushy food (such as a bran mash) and water to drink. She also suggests blanketing the horses if the weather is cold or wet.

Even if the horse receives a clean bill of health from a veterinarian, keep a close eye on him for a few days following the collapse, as health problems could arise.

About the Author

Erica Larson, News Editor

Erica Larson, News Editor, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in three-day eventing with her OTTB, Dorado, and enjoys photography in her spare time.

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