Disasters: are you and your horse ready?

When dealing with a disaster, an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure. Learn how to prepare yourself and your horses, come what may.

As a horse “safety specialist” and instructor, the most common question I hear from horse owners is: “What’s the best thing I can do for my horse in a disaster?” Unfortunately, there is no one right answer, since disaster situations are as individual as the spots on an Appy. But taking steps to prepare you and your horse before disaster strikes can help ensure that you both stay safe.

Mitigation is the key

Mitigation is vital to surviving disasters. But what does that mean, exactly? Mitigation is defined by FEMA as “the effort to reduce loss of life and property by lessening the impact of disasters.”

Future or imminent disaster?

It’s a good idea to develop a plan that works for more than one type of disaster. Divide typical disasters into imminent and future: an “imminent” disaster, such as a tornado, earthquake or derailed train, requires action “as you stand”, with no time to gather belongings or supplies. These are often “shelter in place” incidents.

A “future disaster”, such as an ice storm or hurricane, is an event that could be approaching but is not yet actually on your doorstep, thereby giving you time to evacuate. Flooding can be either imminent (a flash flood) or future (a rising river). Barn fires also can be either imminent (an electrical short) or future (a wildfire starting miles away).

Taking the first step

My favorite first step is to take a chair and notebook into my stable yard and visualize a disaster striking. I picture the earthquake shaking the earth; the black/green sky of an approaching tornado; the distant hills on fire. Then I run scenarios through my head, step by step. What is the first thing I need to do? What are the subsequent actions I’ll have to take? Can I stay home or will I have to leave? Where will I go?

If you think through your actions to their logical conclusions, you’ll find that not all of them will work or are practical, so be prepared to back up a step or two, then go down another path. When you hit roadblocks, list these as areas that need work, then find ways to make them disappear. Typical roadblocks include horses that won’t load in all circumstances; debris in pastures that can become projectiles in high winds; missing medical records for both humans and horses; a barn that isn’t sturdy; lack of agreement with evacuation sites for your horses; hay stored in your stable; long grass and combustible material around your barn; and using electric fencing as your principal containment.

Evacuation kit or “go bag”

Every person and critter should have a “go bag” – with ID, medication, a change of clothes (for people) and a snack – kept in a central location. Kids should also have a bag at school, since they may have to spend unexpected time in lockdown.

A horse’s “go bag” should contain ID, medication, some feed, an extra halter and lead, a hoof pick, etc. If you are taking your horse to an official gathering spot or boarding stable, as opposed to your cousin’s field, he may require proof of vaccination and possibly an up-to-date Coggins. Some people will write their contact information on their horses with a livestock crayon, but this is a temporary fix. I prefer Equestrisafe’s collars and fetlock bands (equestrisafe.com). Put your information on them ahead of time, then attach them to your horse when needed. The information doesn’t wash off like a crayon.

Everyone’s ID should have at least one picture with yourself in it. You and your dog, you and your horse, you and your child, you and your parent. You should also have a good first aid kit.

Make sure everyone has more than one way to reach each other, including cellphones and landlines, as well as texting, message boards and walkie-talkies. Young children should have contact information in their “go bags” at school; older children will probably have an iPod or cellphone. When networks are overloaded, text messages are more likely to get through than phone calls. Your “go bags” should also include a solar charger, since power could be compromised.

Planning an evacuation

  • Plan more than one route off your property. Figure out how you will evacuate if your main exit is closed off. If you live in the wilderness, figure out how long it will take to open all pasture gates so your horses can run to safety. That pathway should never open onto a road where they could be injured or killed, or cause a fatal accident. Build these factors into your evacuation plan in case you can’t get out.
  • If you don’t have a trailer, make arrangements for someone to pick up your horses. This person will need the best conditions at your property for getting the horses out expeditiously. This means your dog must be contained, and your horses ready to go and willing to load obediently. You need to have made out a document stating that the individual with the trailer has your permission to travel with your horses. Most importantly, be sure to arrange all this ahead of time. At the moment of evacuation is not the time to call around for help.
  • Evacuate early – at the first hint of trouble. If you’re hauling a trailer, be off the roads when the general evacuation order is given. You can always go back to your evacuation destination and get your horses if the disaster doesn’t hit you. At the very least, it’s good practice of your evacuation drill. Part of a good evacuation plan is to make sure your vehicles are full of fuel. Rule of thumb is if the gauge says half full, it’s time to fill up.
  • Be sure you have done your research well in advance so you know where horses from your area can go in the event of an evacuation. There may already be a community plan in place, which means your destination could be a fairground or a farmer’s field. Have two evacuation destinations – one near and one far, and in opposite directions.
  • Horses must load under any conditions, and that takes practice. Practice at night; practice when a friend’s horse is already in the trailer; practice in the rain. Practice, practice, practice! There’s no excuse for a horse being left behind because he won’t load. Before you load, or if you can’t get out, attach his ID. If you do paint your phone number on your horse, make sure it’s your cell number, not your house landline.
  • If the disaster is a wildfire and you have to drive through smoke, close everything up and don’t dawdle. Then open everything up once you’re past the danger. You can put a rag over your own face, but horses are obligate nose breathers, and you can suffocate them by covering their noses.
  • Don’t drive in high winds. A horse trailer is a tall blank wall and the wind will batter it. Even a 35mph wind broadsiding your trailer can push it into the next lane or off the road. As the sun rises and warms the earth, winds pick up. After sunset, the earth cools and winds die down. So if you are planning on hauling your horses somewhere, head out in the morning or evening.

What to take?

Sit down with your family and decide what needs to go with you should you have to evacuate.

All horses should have a paper trail: bills of sale, Coggins, rabies certificate and record of vaccinations, medical records, and pictures that clearly show the animal’s markings and include you in them.

These documents can be stored on a USB key along with other valuables such as your “life history” items – photos, wills, birth certificates, mortgages, medical records, your insurance inventory with pictures, tax returns, bills of sale. Whatever paper record you’ll need to rebuild your life can go on a USB key.

Once made, give a copy to an out-of-area contact, and keep one in your evacuation kit. Also print out each horse’s information and put it in his “go bag”.


Michelle Staples has been involved in animal and human safety since 2001. Her book, Save Your Horse! A Horse Owner’s Guide to Large Animal Rescue (amazon.com/Horse-Owners-Guide-Animal-Rescue-ebook/dp/B00OSWTUZW/) was the first written on the subject. Along with its Australian counterpart, Equine Emergency Rescue (with MaryAnne Leighton, equineer.com), this classic is still the only non-textbook on LAR. Some of Michelle’s accomplishments include EMT, CERT (Community Emergency Response Team with FEMA) instructor, CPR/first aid instructor, university instructor (University of Guelph and Breyer State), NDART (National Disaster Animal Response Team with the HSUS), rehoming and retraining horses, especially Standardbreds, and Special Olympics riding coach.  redjeansink.com