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Giving Your Horse the Best Chance During Disasters

Karen Waite, PhD | Michigan State University Scott Cotton | Extension Disaster Education Network

The winter of 2013-14 was one of the worst in decades for many parts of the United States. Snow, extreme cold, ice and subsequent long-term power outages made keeping horses safe and healthy an ongoing challenge. In other areas, drought and wildfires wreaked havoc on both humans and animals. If you own or manage horses, it is critical to have a plan for dealing with disasters in your area to ensure the best chance of survival for yourself and for your animals. When a disaster presents itself, horses will rely on natural instinct and owner readiness. This article will focus on the owner readiness part of the equation.

First, it is important to understand the difference between an emergency and a disaster. The dictionary definition of an emergency is typically on the order of a “serious, unexpected and often dangerous situation often requiring immediate attention.” This might include a barn fire, certain kinds of storm damage or an accident on your farm.

Horses outdoors during a snow storm

Many horse owners would consider anything that threatens their animals to be a disaster. A disaster by definition contains some of the components of an emergency, but it overwhelms the resources available to address the situation. Major storm damage over a widespread area, long-term power outages and large wildfires would all be examples of disasters.

So just what can horse owners do to prepare? First and foremost, it is important for them to have an understanding of the kinds of disasters that could affect their area, a basic plan for where they would or could evacuate to, and an idea of multiple routes to get there in the event that one or more are impassable.

Having an evacuation plan is important, but it is completely useless if your horses won’t load into a trailer to evacuate. Practice loading and unloading horses under both normal circumstances and under varying noise and stimulation levels, and at all hours. Keep in mind that handling a panicked horse is much different -- and more dangerous -- than handling a horse under normal circumstances. Develop your knowledge of horse behavior and your understanding of how horses react when faced with smoke, fire, unusual noises, etc. Practicing ahead of time can help make the process go more smoothly. Stay calm, and remember that your calm yet firm demeanor will increase their odds of survival.

Two horses with their heads out of a trailer

Horse owners should also make certain that they can evacuate all horses within 30 minutes to 3 hours, depending on the disaster, and that all equipment required to evacuate is in good working order. A wildfire moving in your direction is not the time to discover that your truck won’t start or the trailer tires are flat. If you must leave horses behind in or near buildings, shut down power at the pole disconnect. If you leave them outside, open gates between pastures so that they can use their instincts to move to the areas most likely to allow them to survive. For example, horses will typically move away from rising water if they are able.

Finally, keep copies of all ownership and registration documents, as well as breeding records, photos and emergency contacts (including your own) in a waterproof container in your truck or trailer. You may also wish to scan copies of the same documents and save them to a flash drive in another location, such as a business or office, in case originals are destroyed during the incident.

This article highlights only the basics of planning for a disaster with your horses’ best interest in mind. For more information, please watch the and eXtension HorseQuest webinar “Giving Your Horse the Best Chance During Disasters”.

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