When disaster strikes – coping with equine emergencies

Floodwaters can not only inundate paddocks, they can close roads and contaminate water supplies, posing real problems for horse owners who are not prepared.
Floodwaters can not only inundate paddocks, they can close roads and contaminate water supplies, posing real problems for horse owners who are not prepared.

Your horses will be counting on you when a natural disaster occurs. Are you prepared for everything nature can throw at your equine friends? Neil Clarkson reports.

It begins as a cold southerly breeze. As the day progresses the wind grows to storm force, bringing with it driving rain.

The wind chill is close to zero all day and, as dusk approaches, it begins snowing heavily. By morning, you have 30cm of snow, no electricity and no telephone services. With no power, your water supply is out of action.

The planet has no shortage of curve balls it can throw at horses and their owners. If it’s not snow, it’s flooding, scrub fires, hurricanes, windstorms or – if you prefer slower-moving crises – drought.

If weather-related calamities aren’t your thing, consider exotic diseases. You only have to train your binoculars on the equine influenza outbreak in Australia in 2007 to see the consequences of a new disease in a population never before exposed to it.

infologoA few questions

1. Do you know where to turn off the water, electricity, and gas in your house and any farming buildings?
2. Do you have fire extinguishers and are they due for a check?
3. Would you be able to get into your garage or open your electric garage door during a power cut? 
4. Do you have emergency phone numbers written down and easily accessible?
5. Are your equine and human first-aid kits fully stocked and up-to-date?
6. Do you have fresh batteries to use in a radio or torch? 


When disaster strikes, emergency services are likely to be stretched and the continued welfare of your equine friends will rest squarely with you.

Snow may look pretty, but horses and their owners will quickly tire of it.
Snow may look pretty, but horses and their owners will quickly tire of it.

Horses are little different to people in their requirements: they need food, water and shelter.

The problem during a disaster is being able to deliver all three in adequate quantities to see your horses safely through the crisis. There is also the issue of trying to minimise the effects of the disaster on your own property, and circumstances.

It’s all about being prepared. That means assessing the kinds of disasters most likely to befall your property and having a management plan in place to cope with as many contingencies as possible.

Your equine disaster management plan should have three parts:

  • Strategies for minimising the risk.
  • Strategies for coping as a disaster unfolds.
  • Strategies for coping in the aftermath.

Document your emergency management plan and ensure everyone involved with your horses, or who lives at your property, has read it and understands it.

Advertisements exhort us to be ready for natural disasters, with adequate stores of food, water, candles, first-aid supplies and the like. We’ll concentrate only on the specific areas as they affect horses.

Identify your “safe haven”

Your plans must include a safe haven for your horses. It could be your stables, or a paddock you have nominated for the purpose. In some circumstances, you might identify different paddocks, depending on whether it is wind, rain, or fire that threatens.

For example, one paddock might provide excellent shelter from wind, but is too low-lying to be useful in a flood.

Some compromises may be necessary. You need shelter for your horses but you don’t want them standing under trees when there is a risk of lightning strikes or gales that could bring the whole tree, or part of it, down. There must be no overhead power lines which likewise run the risk of coming down.

Select a paddock that is unlikely to flood and where you can easily monitor the horses, preferably one close to your stocks of hay and other feed. Remember that if your water supply fails, you might be reduced to bucketing it to paddocks.

Sodden or snow-covered paddocks can be dangerous and difficult to cross. You don’t want to be travelling any further than you have to.

Cover your animals early to help conserve their energy if cold, rain or snow features in the equation.

If your safe haven is a stable, be aware that heavy snow and severe gales could cause collapse, particularly if the building is past its prime. Stables and yards are not suitable safe havens when fire threatens.

Don't take water for granted in an emergency: It may not be flowing so freely in a disaster.
Don’t take water for granted in an emergency: It may not be flowing so freely in a disaster.

What about water?

This can prove a real problem in the aftermath of a weather disaster. Your electricity and water pump could potentially be off for days. You may be forced by damage to turn off the supply yourself. Your water scheme may be knocked out, or seriously contaminated. Your pipes may be frozen.

It’s essential you organise a supply to keep your horses watered for at least three days, preferably up to seven.

Every horse owner’s circumstances will be different, depending on your water’s source, whether you’re reliant on electricity or a gravity feed, and whether you have large storage tanks that could potentially hold weeks of water.

In some circumstances, your only option will be to fill anything that’s clean and will hold water if you’re starting to have fears about the security of your supply. Allow for 50 litres of water a day for each horse: use baths, basins, sinks, old troughs, drums that you may normally keep grain in, rubbish containers, even empty spa pools.

Never assume you can simply drive off to get water. There’s no guarantee the roads will be open – or safe.

Big, clean drums are probably your best bet if you have several horses. They’re cheap and, with a snug lid, will keep the water in the dark, which will keep it fresh longer.

If you’re getting drums specifically for the purpose, ensure they have no residues that could contaminate the water. They won’t be going anywhere once full, so fill them somewhere where you can bucket the water into your horses’ safe paddock.

Aim for seven days worth of water in reserve – three at a minimum.


Are you storing rainwater?

Many rural dwellers pay plenty for their water, with most water schemes imposing daily limits. Often, it’s only just enough to keep your livestock watered and the household running, especially in warmer weather when stock are drinking more.

Do you have a house or farm building where the rainwater simply runs off or is piped into a soak pit? 

Collecting rainwater means those on restricted supplies will have water for their garden – which in itself will reduce fire risk – and a handy reservoir of up to 30,000 litres in the event of problems with your main supply.

Expect to pay $4000 or more for a large tank and the associated spouting and pipework work needed to collect the water. You needn’t invest in an electric pump to move the water, either. Gravity will do fine if you position the tank properly – and it never fails in a power cut!

Feed supplies

While every horse owner would wish for a shed brimming with top quality hay, not everyone has the budget – or the shed – to manage it.

Whatever your circumstances, you need enough feed on hand to see you through any potential disaster – preferably at least a week’s worth, but three days at a minimum. If you live in a remote location, you might consider it wise to have several weeks of feed in store.

Every owner has a feeding regime they will be keen to stick to. For most horse owners, that diet will consist of forage (grass, lucerne or meadow hay, or baleage) and, depending on the work the horse is doing, some higher-energy supplementation such as grain or prepared feeds.

What you don’t want to be doing is buying your feed one bag or bale at a time, and finding yourself with only a day’s supply when disaster strikes.

If you’re giving your horses a sweetfeed which dates quicker, squirrel away a few bags of a pelletised preparation, which will normally have a much longer shelf life. But don’t introduce a sudden feed change when you’re forced to feed it, thereby risking colic. Gradually introduce it by mixing it with your normal feed.

Watch the expiry date and feed it out in good time, replacing your stores.

Emergency services will have their hands full in a crisis and may not be in a position to help you with your problems. Aim to be as self-reliant as possible in a crisis.
Emergency services will have their hands full in a crisis and may not be in a position to help you with your problems. Aim to be as self-reliant as possible in a crisis.

The perils of fire

Fire is an ever-present threat in dry conditions and options can prove limited when a blaze gets to crisis proportions.

Your float should be kept roadworthy and your towing vehicle should never be left hovering around empty. Keep the fuel tank at least a quarter-full at all times, preferably more.

Teach your horses to load as soon as possible. You don’t want to be giving lessons as an orange glow is growing ever-stronger along your ridgeline.

You may not have enough capacity to remove all your horses at once. If you have friends or neighbours with a double float and only one horse, chat to them about options in an emergency.

Evacuate sooner rather than later. Your options become more limited as time pressures increase. Bear in mind that flames are not the only risk. Smoke inhalation can be fatal, and overseas research indicates thick smoke can cause serious damage to a horse’s wind in just four minutes.

Late evacuations are fraught with danger. Visibility and air quality will get worse as the fire gets closer. Smoke – and even the sirens of emergency vehicles – can panic horses. Trees and power lines may be down; emergency or other vehicles may be blocking roads.

If in doubt, get out. If you evacuate, leave a note indicating where you intend going. If possible, take enough food and water to keep you and your horses going for a while. Three days would be ideal, but even enough for a day will provide some breathing space.

When fire threatens, you’re much safer wearing natural fibres such as cotton and wool, preferably long-sleeved, along with leather gloves and sturdy footwear – also leather. Synthetic fibres melt and can cause serious burns. The same goes for your horses. Don’t leave synthetic covers on in a fire emergency. Either let your horses go without, or throw on canvas covers.

Synthetic halters and ropes run the same risk, so if you have them, opt for leather halters and lead ropes made from natural fibres.

Stay calm. Your horses will probably be agitated. Having you running around yelling and in a state of panic will only increase their concern.

Turn off power to your buildings if it’s not essential, and switch off electric fences.

If you are forced to take a horse close to fire, hose it down first, which research suggests can provide another 30 seconds of protection; some horse owners blindfold them, believing it keeps them calmer.

If evacuation is no longer an option and fire is bearing down on your property, you have to give your horses every chance you can. The worst thing you can do is confine them in a small area, which limits their options. Never use yards or stables when fire threatens.

Overseas experience indicates that horses given plenty of space are surprisingly adept at escaping serious burns. Bear in mind that grass fires can be fast-moving and, while burning on a broad front, may not have much “depth”.

A fleet-footed horse may be able to run around the fire if its advance is on an uneven front. If forced to run through flames – and they will do this if cornered – horses stand a good chance of coming out the other side pretty much unharmed, and see out the rest of the blaze in a blackened area where the fire has already passed.

It is hard to imagine circumstances so dire in New Zealand that an owner is forced to turn their horses loose. The dangers are obvious – to both horses and motorists – and owners may be liable if their horses are involved in an accident.

If smoke or driving rain are reducing visibility, the risks are even greater.

In California’s wildfires in 2007, desperate owners did release horses.

If you feel that is your only option, be sure their halters carry tags that allow them to be traced back to you, or mark each animal with a crayon or spray-can of stock marker.

But be sure you’ve exhausted every other option first, such as letting them loose in a large paddock as a grass fire approaches.

Overseas advice suggests shutting your gates after releasing horses into any new area where you feel they will be safer. Their original paddock or stable may be viewed as a safe haven and they may try to return there, with potentially fatal consequences.

Be sure to have access to a firefighting kit and be aware of the after-effects of smoke inhalation (see below).


Fire emergency kit

The last thing you want to do during a fire is hunt around for a garden hose or a shovel.

Having some gear set aside – or at the very least religiously returned to the same place after use – could save you valuable time, and possibly even a building.

Ensure you know where you can access a ladder long enough to reach the roof of all your buildings. If fire takes hold on a roof you need to be able to access it.

You should have at hand:

  • At least 30m of good garden hose, with all fittings in place, including an adjustable nozzle.
  • A shovel to throw dirt or clear vegetation.
  • A rake for clearing dry vegetation.
  • Water buckets.
  • A torch with good batteries.
  • A radio with good batteries.
  • Wirecutters in case you need to cut a fence.
  • An extra lead rope and head collar.
  • An equine first-aid kit.
  • A greasy crayon or spray can of stock-marker in case you need to mark your horses with your details; or prepared tags your can clip on their halters.Ideally, store the kit in an easily accessible location and don’t use it for anything but emergencies.


Reduce your risk

Treat your stables and outbuildings as you would your house. Don’t store combustible materials up against them and don’t plant anything that’s likely to pose a fire risk during drier months. Don’t allow dry, rank grass to develop around the buildings. Keep the grass short. These safety zones could easily save your buildings in a fire.

Manage your pasture in dry seasons so that you don’t end up with too much standing hay, which poses a fire risk and would offer significant fuel to a grass fire.

A fire driven by wind could attack your property from any number of directions. Make sure you’re not the one who starts it. Ensure smokers don’t flick ash or drop butts and be careful using chainsaws and other motorised equipment.

Mowers of any description can easily start a fire by creating a spark when they hit a stone. Only mow in dry periods when the grass is damp from a passing shower. Monitor and comply with all district fire restrictions or bans.


Your horses will be counting on you when disaster strikes. Are you prepared?
Your horses will be counting on you when disaster strikes. Are you prepared?

Floods, snow, cold

Many of the strategies that apply to fire apply to floods, snowstorms or gales – in fact, just about any other natural disaster.

Again, be prepared and have an action plan already laid out.

If cold is a factor, ensure horses have covers and shelter. High ground is obviously crucial in a flood, but be sure you don’t have to cross any streams or potentially dangerous floodwaters to reach them.

Your life will be much easier if you can reach them easily from your house. The back paddock is no place for stock if you’re up to your knees in snow or floodwaters.

The same principles apply for evacuation. Ensure your horses are properly identified in case you become separated from them, and make the decision to go sooner rather than later.
Power and other services are likely to be affected and roads impassable. That’s why it’s important to be prepared and have adequate supplies, including feed, on hand.


What problems could you face?

Disasters come in many shapes and forms? What are you most at risk from? Identifying the most likely threats will help you in your disaster preparations:

¤ Earthquake
¤ Fire
¤ Flooding
¤ Extreme heat
¤ Winter storms/snow
¤ Gale-force winds
¤ Hurricanes
¤ Chemical spills
¤ Tsunamis
¤ Landslips
¤ Volcanic activity
¤ Drought
¤ Disease outbreaks


Helping each other

Communities at risk from fire or floods could benefit greatly by nominating an emergency evacuation point for horses – indeed, any animals. It could be sale yards, showgrounds, racecourses, even pony club grounds.

The main advantage is that other horse-minded people could be left with the care of the animals, allowing owners to return to remove other animals, or deal with any other crises – but only if it is safe to do so.

Even a group of horse-owning friends could agree to their properties being evacuation points, with the property under least threat being nominated during any given emergency.

It’s important people know you’re safe. Remember, your telephones may not be working.

Develop a buddy system with like-minded neighbours. It can be dangerous heading out in freezing conditions. What would happen if you slipped in a paddock and were badly injured?

In treacherous conditions, team up to get jobs done. Better safe than sorry.

Never forget that you’ll be unable to help your horses if you don’t look after yourself. Don’t take risks.

Forward planning and clear thinking will be your most powerful allies.



First aid advice

Check your equine first-aid kit regularly to ensure it’s complete and that all dated items have not passed their expiry dates.

Horses are likely to need treatment in the wake of fire, or any other crisis that might lead them to a panic.

Burns are the obvious consequence of fire. They are often about the face, as well as damage to the coronets, and swollen and possibly burnt eyelids.

Problems from smoke inhalation are likely and there may be lacerations or other injuries if the horse has run into fences.

Veterinarians may be a while getting to you, so flush or gently sponge burns with cold water. Your horse may be in shock so provide drinking water and something to eat.

Keep the horse warm and calm.

The vet’s arrival will provide additional options such as painkillers, anti-inflammatory medications and intravenous fluids if the burns are more serious.

Smoke inhalation can be serious. The symptoms may not be apparent immediately, but develop some hours later. Rapid and laboured breathing, wheezing, coughing, a fast pulse and frothing about the nostrils are common symptoms.

Veterinary measures include intravenous fluids and drugs which dilate the tiny airways in the lungs, making breathing easier.

Horses suffering from smoke inhalation are likely to need four to six weeks of complete rest before being able to work again. Early exercise can easily delay recovery.

Monitor your horse’s recovery carefully as lungs damaged by smoke are more likely to suffer secondary bacterial infections.


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