Prepare for the Worst

Fires, floods, and hurricanes are just a few of the natural disasters that strike fear in every horse owner’s heart. Develop your evacuation plan to put your mind at ease.
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“Frantic Evacuation in California Left Animals to Face Wildfire Alone.”

The 2015 New York Times article headline that caught my eye described horses wandering down state highways, dazed and injured. One wandering horse was struck by a vehicle and killed, and at least three died in a pasture due to smoke or fire they couldn’t escape. One horse owner reported having a trailer big enough to haul all but two of his horses; he had to pick which two to leave behind. A devastating choice. Some had no choice but to leave their horses when they had to flee their homes. Would they have had a better chance if they’d had a prearranged evacuation plan? Possibly.

When it comes to disaster planning, there are three important questions you must answer: Where will your horses go? How will you get them there? And how will you find them when it’s safe to recover them? I’ll help you answer those three questions. First, I’ll explain the types of natural disasters you’re likely to encounter to help you better prepare so you can understand when and why you might be forced to make the decision to evacuate. Then, I’ll outline a 10-step farm-evacuation plan so you’ll be ready to move.

Know Your Enemy

Natural disasters take many forms, with hurricanes, floods, and fires topping the list. Each of these different types of emergencies comes with its own set of challenges and disaster-prep particluars.

You likely know the type of disaster common to your particular area. For example, if you live in Southern California, you’re aware that wildfires frequently require mass evacuations. If you’re from South Carolina, you know the hurricane risks. If you live in a flood plain, you understand what part of your property is likely to end up under water. But do you know which nearby roadways are apt to become impassable so you can identify the best possible escape routes?

Deciding whether to evacuate or stay put during a natural disaster can be one of the hardest choices you’ll face. With such events as a severe winter snowstorm or freezing rain, staying home may be your only option. If a hunker-down-at-home type of emergency is predicted, prepare by making sure you have plenty of feed and available water—and by taking whatever steps you can to reinforce barns and sheds to provide your horse protection. For hurricanes, floods, and fires, where evacuation is possible, it’s generally the safest choice to get out as early as you can. And if evacuation is mandatory, get out fast. That’s when having a carefully thought-out evacuation plan in place becomes important.

Your Evacuation Plan

Step 1: Trailer-Train Your Horses

Imagine being faced with rising floodwaters and an evacuation order from your local officials. Pretty stressful? Now imagine how you’ll feel when you remember that your 2-year-old has never been loaded in a trailer. Or that Old Dobbin is as stubborn as they come, and hasn’t been trailered in years. Spending time to train your horses to load and haul with ease is one of the most important things you can do ahead of time to prepare for an emergency. Evacuation may require that your horses be loaded in unfamiliar rigs by strangers—and often in a hurry. If the members of your herd are well-trained and easy to handle, they’ll have a much better chance of making it out alive and uninjured.

Step 2: Identify Your Horses

If a disaster strikes, you’ll move your horses out in a hurry, and may leave them with people you don’t know. It’s possible that one or more will be left behind. Reliable identification is the key to being successfully reunited with your herd after the emergency concludes. It’s best if your horses each have two forms of identification—one permanent and one visible. Consider microchipping all your horses as a form of permanent identification. Your vet can implant a microchip—not much bigger than a grain of rice—in the ligament on the top of your horse’s neck. It’s a simple procedure, and typically costs less than $100. The microchip emits a signal with a permanent identification number that can be identified using a scanning device. You can record this number with both the microchip company and your breed registry—meaning that if your horse is “misplaced” during a disaster and evacuation, a microchip can help whoever finds him learn who he is, and how to find you.

A less permanent but more visible form of identification is also important during an emergency. Make a set of waterproof luggage tags with each of your horses’ names and your name and contact number. You could even include notes about each horse’s temperament that might help whoever ends up having to transport, treat, and house the different members of your herd. Plan to attach these tags to your horses’ halters as a first step during any evacuation. Or if you haven’t prepared tags and find yourself in an emergency, use a large, permanent-ink pen or waterproof paint to write or paint your phone number on your horse’s side or on one hoof.

Step 3: Organize Paperwork

If you’re evacuating your horses, you’ll need to take them somewhere to stay during the emergency. Large facilities are often generous about housing displaced horses, but they might have stringent health requirements, such a proof of vaccination and a negative Coggin’s test. A negative Coggin’s test will also be required should you have to travel across state lines. Put together a binder with copies (waterproof) of all these records, along with either copies of registration papers or physical descriptions of all horses. (Be sure to include microchip information.) If you have horses with temperament quirks, special feeding requirements, or medication needs, note these, as well. Not only will this documentation ensure that your horses will be welcome at most facilities, if you have to hand them off to a stranger in a hurry, your rescuer will have vital information about their care.

Step 4: Arrange Transport

How will you remove your horses from the vicinity of the danger? Do you have enough trailer space for all of them? For example, if you have a four-horse trailer but seven horses on your property, will you plan to make two trips? Or enlist the help of a neighbor or friend? (Keep in mind that in a natural disaster, such as a wildfire or a hurricane, your friends might be tied up with their own horses’ needs). If you’ll make two trips, what horses will you take first? And which ones can be hauled together? Establish a written plan for which horses you’ll load up first and where you’ll put them in the trailer. Once again, include notes about temperament or any personality quirks that might provide useful information for anyone who might show up to help.

Step 5: Assemble a Disaster Kit

Begin with your luggage tags for all of your horses, your binder full of information, and your written plan for transport. Consider including a set of inexpensive leather halters and lead ropes, one for each horse. Leather halters are preferable to nylon because they’ll break more easily if they hang up on something (such as storm debris or downed fences). If you’re in an area with high fire risk, leather is even more important as nylon can actually melt under high temperatures, which can cause severe skin damage on your horse’s head. Include basic first-aid supplies and a small amount of medication for any of your horses that are administered something every day that they really shouldn’t do without (such as pergolide to treat a horse with Cushing’s disease). Sedation medication would also be a great thing to include in case you find yourself with a terrified horse that you need help to control. Talk to your vet about the best options for sedation based on your experience and the horses in your herd.

Step 6: Arrange Stabling

When an evacuation order (or even a suggestion) comes, chances are your horses won’t be the only ones looking for a place to go. Talk to barn owners in your area who might have extra stalls, or managers of large horse facilities such as racetracks or fairgrounds. Make arrangements ahead of time and list these facilities on your “emergency plan.” Prearranging for an emergency makes your horses a first priority on their ever-growing list of animals in need. It’s wise to have close-by options in the event your evacuation is due to a small-scale disaster, such as a barn fire or local flooding. Remember, though, in large-scale natural disasters there’s a good chance local barns will be in trouble, too, and all of the horses in your area will be seeking refuge. Be sure to identify options far enough away from home that the facilities are less likely to be impacted by the same disaster, and will be willing and able to take your horses in.

Step 7: Plan Your Route

Imagine an evacuation. Your horses are loaded up and everything you need is in your emergency kit. How will you “get outta town?” Again, being familiar with the most likely disasters to impact you is important, and reviewing different roadway options will help you plan a route. Have several different options planned, taking into account what roads might be closed or blocked. Keep in mind that if you’re leaving town, so is everybody else, and heavy traffic will be an issue—especially on major highways. Take a look at back roads that might be less heavily travelled to avoid getting stuck. Include maps and directions outlining your possible escape routes (including possible destinations) in your disaster kit.

Step 8: Hold Practice Drills

It sounds like a lot of work, but practicing an “evacuation drill” is a great idea—especially if you live in an area where even small-scale natural disasters happen frequently. Remember: When evacuation is really necessary, it’s likely to be a pretty stressful time. Working out the kinks in your plan ahead of time can help things go smoothly when it counts. At minimum, make a time to review your plan with barn staff or family members. Make sure they can locate your disaster kit, and know what their roles would be during an evacuation.

Step 9: Monitor the News

Weather apps and social media make it hard to miss reports of impending disaster. If a storm is predicted, pay close attention to its path or to reports of flood potential. If a wildfire is detected, know where it’s burning and whether it is contained. Find out ahead of time where you can tune in to the most reliable and up-to-date predictions and recommendations.

Step 10: Evacuate Early

Finally, if disaster strikes and evacuations are recommended, “Get outta town.” Don’t be that person who refuses to leave the area, even when mandatory evacuations are called for. In fact, it’s safest to be the first to leave the area, especially when horses are involved. You’ll be less likely to be trapped in terrible traffic situations, will be the first to reach a safe haven, and may even be able to help others once your horses are safe and sound.

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