Are You Ready? Creating a Disaster Plan For Your Horses

When it seems as though we live in a more disaster-prone time than ever, having a plan can make all the difference when it comes to your horse’s safety. We’ve put together some tips and advice.

This article was originally published on September 21, 2015.

Shortly after our coverage of the California wildfires was published, reader Leeane Quillmam-Stephens contacted us: she had been gathering donation items and helping care for displaced animals from the fire, and spent a day riding with an evacuation crew. “How prepared are you for an emergency evacuation? I thought I was, but realized through my experience as a volunteer I sadly don’t have an effective plan. ‘A crisis is the time for performance, not planning’ is something I heard someone say once — it hit home.”

Experiencing a natural disaster is never something we want to go through, especially as horse owners — but it’s also our responsibility for our animals to be prepared in such a situation.

What are you planning for?

Your preparedness plan should be tailored for what kind of natural disaster you’re most likely to experience: coastal residents might plan for hurricanes, while anyone living in the rural forests of the west is on constant lookout for wildfires, as the midwest braces itself all summer for tornadoes. Myself, I’m located in western New York, right in the heart of lake-effect snow country: while our winters are usually just long and full of gradual snow accumulation, there’s always the chance of a major blizzard (and who can forget the “Snowmageddon” of November 2014 in Buffalo?)

My disaster plan is likely to include things like making sure we have plenty of accessible hay, available shelter for my horses who live outside 24/7 and a backup plan for when the pipes undoubtedly freeze — more of a “shelter in place” kind of plan. That’s a stark contrast to a disaster plan for someone living in the drought-stricken forests of California, who will be preparing an evacuation route.

Identification

Regardless of what kind of disaster for which you’re planning, take steps now to make sure your horses can be identified. You may wish to consider microchipping your horse, which includes registering the microchip with the horse’s information. Freeze branding can also be an effective form of identification, though they can sometimes fade over time. Take photographs of your horse from each side as well as photos of any identifying features and a headshot; print those photographs and keep them filed with your horse’s paperwork. If you don’t have a Coggins drawn for your horse or horses, you should consider doing so even if you never plan to leave the farm; the Coggins form will help identify your horse and will also protect you if you are traveling across state lines to evacuate. Make copies of all of your records and store in safe, watertight places.

At the time of an emergency, make sure your horse is marked with your identification: a luggage tag with your name, address and phone number can be attached to the halter. (We’ve had good luck zip-tying a cattle ear tag to the halter; they’re designed for large animal use.) You may also wish to write your ID directly on the horse: some California fire evacuees spray-painted their phone numbers on their horses when they were forced to turn them loose. It sounds like a harsh measure but it may make the difference between rescuers being able to reunite you and your horse or never seeing him again. Again, your specific measures will depend on what kind of disaster you anticipate.

Sheltering at home

If you’re anticipating waiting out a storm at home, don’t wait until it’s already on the radar to start getting ready. Try to keep about a week’s worth of feed stockpiled at any given point, and make sure it’s accessible: if you store your feed in a separate building, you might want to keep a stash closer to the barn. If you have horses living outdoors, you may wish to build temporary stalls in a secure barn. Do you have access to a water source if the power goes out or your pipes freeze?

Some of us board our horses, so check with your barn’s staff to see if they have an emergency sheltering plan.

Dave/Flickr/CC

Dave/Flickr/CC

Evacuating

Evacuation requires transportation: make sure your trailer remains in good working order and that you have a reliable truck to pull it with. While some of us are on the road every weekend for horse shows, others among us may not have pulled that trailer in awhile. You don’t want to wait until you need to leave in a hurry to discover that the lights don’t work or the floor is rotting out.

In the trailer, make sure you have an updated equine first-aid kit (this article outlines what to include) and, ideally, 72 hours worth of feed and water (don’t forget the buckets!) Include extra gas with the truck as well as your motorist emergency kit and a human first-aid kit.

Do you have a reluctant loader? Imagine trying to load that horse when you know that time is of the essence. Consider working on basic trailer loading with all of your horses to make sure that they are ready to step on board in a hectic situation. Good loading is critical if you need to have someone else evacuate your horses, who may not be familiar with their individual nuances. If you don’t have a trailer, make sure you have an available shipper who can haul your horses in an emergency.

Plan your evacuation route ahead of time: show grounds and riding centers may already be designated evacuation centers, but if you’re not sure then do your research now so you know where you’re headed in a disaster. It’s a good idea to have at least two routes to get to that destination, in case a road is blocked or closed. In a wildfire-prone area, you may wish to have multiple evacuation centers lined up in case an entire area is inaccessible due to flames.

If at all possible, evacuate early: leave before it becomes mandatory to do so.

carterse/Flickr/CC

carterse/Flickr/CC

Leaving the horses behind

In some situations, no matter how prepared you might be, you may be forced to leave the horses behind: in the Valley fire of California, the flames traveled so quickly that many residents didn’t have time to do more than leap into the car and try to get out. If you have only a few minutes to spare or it’s not possible for other reasons to bring your horses with you, you will need to decide if they should stay in the barn, be left in the pasture, or turned loose to fend for themselves. Obviously, this is a decision that no horse owner wants to make — but it may be necessary, so take precautions now to be ready.

As though you were sheltering at home, keep a week’s worth of feed available — on some California ranches, firefighters and unaffected neighbors were able to feed left-behind livestock when their owners were forced to flee. As mentioned above, take measure to make sure your horses can be identified. Keep emergency information in your barn so that others can contact the appropriate parties if necessary.

More resources to help you plan:

  • Natural Disaster Preparedness Quiz: Check out this helpful “quiz” from TheHorse.com which will help you build your emergency preparedness plan. It’s also chock-full of links to more specific articles.
  • Emergency Preparedness infographic: From UC Davis, this helpful infographic spells out the basic steps to making sure you are ready to evacuate with your horses.
  • Equine Emergency Evacuation Kit Checklist: Another great resource from TheHorse.com, this guide will help you put together your road kit in case of an evacuation.
  • Firewise Tips For Horse Owners: If you live in a fire-prone area, this is a vital guide towards preventing the spread of wildfires onto your horse property. This can make a big difference towards keeping your animals safe!

These are just a few helpful links: we recommend researching for the type of disaster you’re most likely to face, as well as consulting your veterinarian and your local equine organizations for tips. Some equine groups may have plans already in place that you can adapt to your own horses and situations, and working with your local organizations can help to build an invaluable network of horse owners during emergencies.

The bottom line: don’t wait until a disaster is looming to decide what to do. Prepare your emergency plan and your evacuation routes now so you’re ready for anything.

Have any tips of your own to add, or first-hand experience that could help your fellow readers? Share them in the comments section.

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