preparing for natural disasters with horses

What would you do if a Category 5 hurricane were heading straight toward your farm? What’s your plan if a wildfire were to threaten? How would you react in the event of a surprise hail storm if the 45 horses on your property were out in pastures? If you can’t immediately answer any of these questions, one large animal rescue expert says you’re not adequately prepared.

Disaster planning is key to keeping horses—and, if you’re a clinic or farm owner, staff and patrons—safe if the unthinkable happens. At the 2018 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Dec. 1-5 in San Francisco, California, Rebecca Husted, PhD, shared tips on how veterinarians can prepare their practices to respond to natural disasters. She said horse owners can benefit from many of these preparations, as well.

“No matter the size of your facility—whether treating backyard horses in a pole barn or managing a … treatment clinic featuring high-dollar show horses—(veterinary) facility owners are expected by their clients to have evacuation or shelter-in-place plans for every conceivable type of disaster,” said Husted, president and primary instructor of Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue Inc., in Macon, Georgia.

Here’s a look at some of her top disaster preparation do’s and don’ts.

Do develop an all-hazards disaster plan.

“In the past, emergency management planned for separate incident types—blizzard plans separate from flooding, high-wind events, or electricity loss plans,” Husted said. “The ‘all-hazards’ approach means that, in general, one basic, solid plan can be applied to many scenarios.”

Base your plan on the disasters you’re most likely to face and, from there, develop other guidelines for less likely issues, she said. For example, a clinic in Florida might develop a hurricane-focused plan. The clinic owners can adapt that plan to face other disasters.

Don’t make your plan, then forget about it.

“Making a plan once and putting it into a drawer is not sufficient,” Husted said. “It should be part of a regular planning process that changes based on new information, new personnel, and reviews of what works and what doesn’t. Lastly, perform a practice to test the plan.”

She recommended practicing the plan at least every six months and using different scenarios. At your first rehearsal you might mimic preparing for a hailstorm by having staff get all horses under cover. The next, have staff catch, apply identification to, and load horses with at least three days’ worth of feed and any necessary medications for an evacuation, even if you just drive around the block and return.

Do ensure all horses load into trailers quickly and easily.

You can’t evacuate a horse that won’t load. Training all horses that you’re responsible for (recipient mares or equine blood donors, for example) to load quietly will help keep your staff safe and the plan in motion.

Also, “encourage your clients to teach horses to load into a trailer at any time, under all conditions—at night; alone; and when it’s raining, windy, dark, and generally miserable,” Husted said. “It may save their life.”

Don’t neglect routine veterinary care.

Keeping horses up to date on vaccinations and Coggins testing is important, she said, “and reduces stress about animals commingled with others at treatment clinics and public events, as well as at emergency shelters and during evacuations.”

Even if you don’t evacuate your horses, vaccines against tetanus, rabies, and mosquito-borne disease will likely help protect them in the aftermath of a disaster if they encounter sharp debris or displaced wild animals in pastures, or if flooding boosts mosquito populations.

Do, in most cases, leave horses turned out if you’re sheltering them in place.

“In general, unless the disaster is electrical (i.e., power lines down in pastures) or chemical in nature, leave them out in the largest, best-fenced pasture available,” Husted said. “Horses will find cover in trees or natural shelter and normally will stand with their hindquarters to the wind.”

Of course, being outside does come with risks, she said. Horses could be electrocuted by fallen power lines, struck by lightning, lacerated by debris, or crushed by falling or airborne structures or vehicles (as might occur in a tornado). However, those risks often outweigh the ones they might face if they’re stalled.

“Horses trapped in barns are subject to flying debris all around and the high possibility of a building fire or collapse,” among other risks, she said.

For instance, when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005, responders couldn’t access some farms for more than two weeks, she said. When they finally could, if barns hadn’t collapsed or been destroyed inside and out, they found horses drowned in stalls and covered with debris.

Do identify an evacuation site before you need it.

Emergency shelters will likely pop up as disasters approach, but consider contacting other potential evacuation sites, such as private farms or public fairgrounds, ahead of time.

“An example of a functional evacuation plan is a Florida veterinarian who includes an evacuation plan for all interested clients,” Husted said. “A horse van is secured for prestorm evacuation ahead of the hurricane-force winds reaching the coast. Horses are moved to a large harness facility in Hawkinsville, Georgia. The owners share the cost of the large van, and then they are free to pack their families and follow their animals north out of harm’s way.”

The Bottom Line

Identifying risks and reducing and mitigating a disaster’s effects starts with a well-written, all-hazards plan for sheltering in place and/or evacuating, Husted summed up. “By setting the example, practitioners will gain personal experience and be better able to advise their clients,” she said.