No horse owner wants to face the impossible decision of leaving their animal behind in an emergency. While natural disasters can be unpredictable, an emergency preparedness checklist can help horse owners keep their animals safe when disaster strikes.

Not having a plan may harm both horse and human safety. One poll found that 44% of people who did not evacuate during Hurricane Katrina kept themselves in harm’s way because of their companion animals. [1]

The 2006 PETS Act passed after Katrina requires emergency agencies to include pets in their planning. However, the law only protects certain companion species, excluding horses and other large animals. [2]

When first responders are available to help, surveys suggest less than 5% of emergency personnel know anything about handling horses. Even fewer have the technical skills required for large animal emergency rescues. [3]

As a result, horse owners bear complete responsibility for their horses in emergencies. Unfortunately, disaster situations provide little time for planning the best course of action and preparing in advance is essential to keeping your horse safe.

This article will review everything horse owners should know about emergency action plans and managing horses during natural disasters. Keep reading to learn more about creating a disaster kit, developing a plan, evacuating horses, and what to expect during the unexpected.

Equine Emergency Preparedness

Emergency preparations and plans will vary depending on your location and situation. Different natural disasters have unique challenges that horse owners should consider when developing an emergency action plan.

Horse owners in disaster-prone areas should pay close attention to weather forecasts and news reports. Hurricanes, flooding, and blizzards often have advanced notice, while other disasters, such as tornadoes and wildfires, can develop rapidly.

Even if you don’t live in an area with a high risk of natural disasters, other emergencies can require immediate action or evacuation. Emergency preparation ensures you have the supplies, resources and logistical planning necessary to protect or move your horses quickly.

Animal Identification

Animals are often separated from their owners during emergencies. Owners may have to drop their horses off at an evacuation facility or even leave them behind.

Visible identification with emergency tags can provide contact information for the owner and notes about the individual horse. These tags can be braided into the horse’s mane, or owners can write the information on the horse in waterproof paint.

However, these temporary forms of identification are not enough to ensure recovery. Permanent identification helps prevent theft so owners can reunite with their animals. Fortunately, many horses already have microchips, tattoos, or brands for registration purposes.

If your horse doesn’t already have permanent identification, consider asking your veterinarian to chip them as part of your preparedness strategy. Multiple studies show microchips are a safe and effective method of equine identification. [4]

Microchips cannot be altered or separated from your horse and provide a mobile link to online contact information and medical records.

Medical Records

Horses evacuating from emergencies are still required to follow to animal health regulations and biosecurity measures. Large facilities serving as evacuation centers often require proof of vaccination and a negative Coggins test. Current Coggins papers are also required for interstate travel.

All horses should be maintained on a regular vaccination program with yearly Coggins testing, even if you don’t plan to travel or show. That way, you’ll always be prepared to leave on short notice.

Keep a binder with waterproof copies of all medical records, registration papers, and physical descriptions that can travel with your horses. This binder should include health, temperament, feeding and management information for caretakers.

You should also keep copies of photo identification and microchip information on your person to identify your horse when you reunite. Necessary paperwork should be stored securely to ensure you will remember it when it’s time to load.

Loading and Transportation

All horses must be comfortable loading and unloading from a trailer, even if they don’t regularly travel. No horse owner wants to face the nightmare of leaving a horse behind because it won’t load in time for an evacuation.

Seek expert assistance if you need help training your horses to load and unload. If your horse doesn’t regularly travel, practice evacuation drills at least three times per year.

Emergencies may require horses to load in stressful situations or unfamiliar environments. While regular practice helps minimize stress, sedation can help keep horses calm. Talk to your veterinarian about sedative options to keep on hand for emergencies. [5]

If you own a horse trailer, keep it in good working order by performing regular maintenance and ensuring your rig is always ready to go on short notice.

Owners that don’t have their own trailer or don’t have enough trailer spots for all their horses should make arrangements with several reliable transportation options as part of their emergency action plan.

Emergency Action Plan

An emergency action plan (EAP) is an organizational document that outlines the steps horse owners plan to take in an emergency. The EAP also provides guidelines for others to follow if the owner is unavailable.

Before creating an EAP, owners should gather information about the farm where their horse is housed, emergency contacts, maps of evacuation routes, available equipment, animal inventories, and strategies to limit property losses.

An effective EAP outlines what to do with the horses in emergencies and details how to move them if necessary. It should also include packing lists, individual responsibilities, and relevant contacts.

When emergencies occur, owners will have a detailed plan to execute immediately. Quick action is critical for an effective response, and preparing disaster kits will help ensure you leave with everything you need. [6]

First Aid Supplies

All horse owners should also have a complete emergency first aid kit from their veterinarian to help manage medical problems when the vet is unavailable or cannot reach their horses. Keep a first aid kit in the barn and one in your trailer to accompany your horses on the road.

An equine first aid kit may include the following:

  • Thermometer and stethoscope
  • Medications and sedatives
  • Various sizes of syringes and needles
  • Wound ointments and salves
  • Vet wrap, gauze, bandages, diapers, and tape
  • Bandage scissors, pliers, and disposable razors
  • Iodine, alcohol, and saline solutions
  • Latex gloves and headlamp

Disaster Kits

Owners should always keep at least two weeks of feed and water available for emergencies. Keeping clean drinking water in large storage containers will ensure horses have a source of hydration if you lose power or the water source becomes contaminated.

Owners can also put together a disaster kit to accompany their horses in an evacuation during a disaster. The go-bag should be easily accessible and stored in waterproof containers.

Your equine disaster kit may include the following:

  • First aid kit
  • Medical records
  • Two-week supply of medications
  • 5-day supply of hay, feed, and water
  • Extra halters and lead ropes
  • Hoof care supplies
  • Blankets, wraps, and towels
  • Work clothes and tools for humans

Property Management

Horse owners should also prepare their properties for emergencies when evacuation isn’t required or possible. Proper management can also limit the risk of other emergencies on horse farms, such as barn fires.

If you live in an area prone to flooding, identify turnout areas with higher ground where horses may be safer from floodwater. Familiarize yourself with road availability during flood conditions to plan potential evacuation routes. [7]

In areas with high fire risk, clear fire breaks around property lines and buildings to slow down the spread as much as possible so you can evacuate. It is encouraged to keep firefighting tools on your property for emergency use. [8]

Frequently evaluate existing structures for barn fire risk and structural integrity. Weak barns and fencing may not withstand storms, while nearby powerlines can be a safety risk if they fall.

Emergency barn supplies include:

  • Generator for power outages
  • Extra fuel for equipment
  • Chainsaw, hammers, nails, and saw
  • Fencing materials and emergency fencing
  • Flashlights, portable radio, and batteries
  • Knives, wire cutters, and shovels
  • Water buckets, barrels, and tarps
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Managing Horses During Emergencies

During a disaster, horse owners should carefully monitor communication channels for emergency alerts and evacuate as soon as possible if necessary.

Implement your emergency action plan, and don’t wait until it’s too late. If you wait until the last minute of a mandatory evacuation, officials may demand you leave your horse behind.

While preparation increases your chances of success, things can still go wrong. Therefore, horse owners should have a backup plan when evacuation isn’t possible and understand the resources available after an emergency.

Equine Evacuation

If you don’t have an emergency action plan, you should still evacuate early, even if you are not sure where you’ll go. Get your horses out of harm’s way first, and then use communication resources to devise a plan for safe relocation.

Once on the road, contact your destination to confirm availability and share your plan with friends and neighbours. Maintain situational awareness and follow alternate evacuation routes based on disaster conditions.

Evacuation routes can quickly become crowded, and trailers can get stuck in traffic or inclement weather. Depending on the scenario, sheltering in place may be the only option.

Sheltering in Place

Once you’ve decided to shelter in place, move your animals to the safest location on your property based on the advisory and your emergency action plan. For example, horses may be better off in a barn or loose in a field, depending on the type of disaster.

Emergency personnel may deliver food and water for humans during natural disasters if people are cut off from evacuation routes. However, the owner is responsible for ensuring they have enough hay and water for their horses.

Protecting your animals and property may be part of your emergency action plan but remember to prioritize human safety. Surveys show that only 70% of horse owners prioritize their family over their animals. [9]

It is paramount to always follow the instructions of local authorities. Refusing to evacuate endangers not only your life but the lives of first responders. Sometimes, horse owners are forced to leave their horses behind when they are in extreme danger and have limited time.

Leaving Horses Behind

Even if you have to leave your horses behind during an evacuation, you can still take action to increase their chances of survival. Emergency response reports from hurricanes suggest horses have an increased chance of survival when left outdoors instead of indoors. [10]

Horses left outside in a large, open pasture can find higher ground during a flood or move away from the flames of a forest fire. However, confined horses are trapped and unable to help themselves after their owners leave them.

Some owners have no choice but to turn horses completely loose. However, loose horses have a higher risk of being struck by vehicles on major highways than being injured by the disaster. Consider your location and existing threats before letting horses out.

Dehydration is one of the leading causes of death in horses during disasters. While access to hay is also essential, owners should prioritize leaving horses with as much drinking water as possible. [10]

Remove all halters, wraps, boots, and blankets before letting horses out to prevent them from catching fire or getting caught and causing injury.

When you evacuate, leave visible signage about the animals remaining on your property for first responders who may be able to evacuate your horses after you leave. Visible identification and contact information on loose horses also allows responders to reach you.

Emergency Resources

While government authorities may not include horses in disaster planning, animal response teams can help with equine evacuation, rescue, and recovery.

It is beneficial to be familiar with the organizations and resources available in your community so you know who to call if you need additional help. Contact veterinarians, humane societies, local equine facilities, and evacuation shelters if you lose your horse during the disaster.

Equestrian communities rally together when disaster strikes. Coordinate disaster plans with your neighbours to find out how you can help each other in emergencies and ensure no horse gets left behind.

Summary

  • US federal law does not require emergency agencies to include horses in disaster planning.
  • Horse owners are responsible for keeping their horses safe in emergencies.
  • Owners should create an emergency action plan and evacuate early to get their horses out of harm’s way in time.
  • Good property management and well-stocked supplies can ensure you’re ready if you have to shelter with your horses.
  • Leaving your horse outdoors could save their life if you must leave them behind.

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References

  1. Fritz Institute. Hurricane Katrina: Perceptions of the affected. The Institute. 2006.
  2. Mike, M. et al. Katrina’s Animal Legacy: The PETS Act. J Anim Law Ethics. 2011.
  3. Gimenez, R. Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue. Wiley-Blackwell. 2008.
  4. Gerber, M. et al. Health Factors Associated with Microchip Insertion in Horses. J Equine Vet Sci. 2012.
  5. Godoi, T. et al. Pharmacopuncture Versus Acepromazine in Stress Responses of Horses During Road Transport. J Equine Vet Sci. 2014.
  6. Camargo, F. et al. Equine Emergency and Disaster Preparedness. The University of Kentucky. 2008.
  7.  McConnico, R. Flood Injury in Horses.Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 2007.View Summary
  8. Thompson, K. et al. Planned and ultimate actions of horse owners facing a bushfire threat: Implications for natural disaster preparedness and survivability. Int J Disaster Risk Reduc. 2018.
  9. Linnabary, R. et al. Emergency evacuation of horses: a Madison County, Kentucky survey. J Equine Vet Sci. 1993.
  10. McConnico, R. et al. Equine rescue and response activities in Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2007. View Summary