When Disaster Strikes

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When floods, earthquakes or fire appear on the news, many of us think, “oh, those poor folks,” and then get on with our business. If you’re one of the thousands of horsemen who’ve been affected by such events though, you’re well aware of how deeply personal these disasters can be and how incredibly difficult it can be to handle the situation when there are horses and other animals in the picture.

Emergency preparedness is something we all generally keep in mind of course, from checking that there’s a fire extinguisher in the barn to reminding new boarders where the phone is for a 911 call. But beyond the most basic steps, are we really ready for a disaster? If flames roar down the canyon and five fire trucks block the driveway, can you get all your horses to safety? If the river rises and the barn’s got two feet of contaminated water and mud up the walls, can you still handle it?

The problem with the general concept of “disaster planning” for horse folks is that we have to think on several levels: individual, barnwide and regional. Beyond that, the components of various emergencies can be quite different, although there are common areas such as evacuation sites and transportation.

A good barn manager thinks across all those boundaries and makes plans that can accommodate whatever nature can throw their way, typically floods, fire, earthquake, hurricane or tornado and ice storm.

If you really work on it, you can come up with all sorts of nasty scenarios, and that’s the key to good planning. And in your brainstorming, don’t leave out one of the contributors who could most clearly define threats and responses: your county emergency coordinator. You may never have heard of him or her, but check with your local police department or county government offices and they’ll have a name for you. The coordinator’s whole raison d’etre is to plan out the potential local disasters in all their detail and work out the timing and order of the responses.

First think of every combination of bad things that could occur, from the individual level (a fall, a colic, a heart attack in the aisle) to the regional (multi-state hurricane damage, wildfire that causes National Guard roadblocks across your county). Then chart them out in some detail, from immediate occurrence to complete resolution, and finally begin Plan A, Plan B and even Plan C responses for each situation. Plan A for evacuation, for example, might list where each horse goes in an evacuation, and how he gets there, and with what. Plan B would offer alternatives, if Fred can’t bring his extra trailer, Sue’s truck won’t start, Magic Beans won’t get in the trailer, etc.

Tools that help in this planning include actual lists of resources in and around your area:

  • trailering helpers (with names, number of horses to be carried and phone numbers);
  • farms and fairgrounds with extra stalls and pastures (include contact names and directions);
  • sources of extra feed and hay if you can’t return home right away;
  • traveling medical care.

Building a Rescue Network

Once you’ve nailed down these resources and plans to use them, be sure they’re written down and accessible to all the people and are in all the places they could be needed. A poster in the barn by the phone is handy, but not good enough if you’re navigating an emergency from a distance, such as via cell phone from a Red Cross evacuation center.

Consider making several binders, one of which goes to each key person in your barn network. Responsible owners, farm staff, neighboring barn owners, heads of local residential organizations; any one of them could turn out to be the person to make things happen for you. Consider that flooding may place you on the wrong side of a washed out bridge, and only Joe PleasureRider has access to your barn through the National Guard checkpoint. It sure would help if Joe has the same list of plans and resources that you do.

By the same token, work with your neighboring barns to see what their plans are and coordinate. As anyone who’s handled a regional horse evacuation can attest, you make quick friends in strange places when it comes to getting every last horse out of an area. And if you hightail it out of the area with just your crew and a few empty trailer spaces, you’ve missed the opportunity to help others.

During the Los Alamos fires, a local horseowner and longtime resident, Margo Kowalczyk, became a keystone to the equine evacuation when she put together her records as secretary for a neighborhood association with a radio announcement that she would find temporary stabling for anyone needing a space. Across the 2- to 5-acre farmettes of Pajarito Acres and La Senda, just 10 miles from Los Alamos, she got out the word that every spare paddock and old barn or run-in shed would be needed. Then the calls poured in both from frantic owners seeking stable space and from generous residents with a stall or two that may not have seen an equine resident in 20 years. Matches were made and horses by the score poured into the neighborhood. Four-stall facilities magically expanded to host 15 and 20 horses, thanks to creative herd management, stall and paddock compartmentalization and a bit of extra hot wire.

Keep in mind as you prepare lists and plans, you have a tremendous resource in organizations you may not have thought of. General animal welfare, educational and emergency groups exist and you’ll find out how valuable they are when they become the ones hosting your horses, coordinating regional lost-animal rescue efforts and maintaining contact Web pages for disaster-struck regions.

In the fires that raged across the Southwest during the spring of 2000, for example, the area Sheriff’s Posse groups, plus the Santa Fe Animal Shelter, in partnership with the Humane Society of the United States, served to coordinate an extraordinary effort of animal transport and care. Not only did the shelter team find volunteers with trailers to repeatedly go back for horses and other animals, but they then developed a Web page with photos of every animal rescued (more than 600 creatures, from guinea pigs to horses), so frantic owners could log on and see whether their animals were there. In some cases, the animals rescued were the tough cases, the ones that absolutely could not be loaded and that had then been turned out in arenas with food and water to wait things out. For people who had had to depart hurriedly, the relief of seeing their animals on the Web listing was tremendous.

Another Web-related emergency tool that can be useful is your barn’s Website, or the emergency contact site set up by local groups during a crisis. These can be great, providing information to clients, family and friends about where everyone has gone, how to reach them and what became of various animals that may have caught rides away from danger in unexpected ways.

Perhaps the hardest thing about emergency preparedness is taking the time to take it seriously. But when lives are on the line and animals are there waiting to be helped out of harm’s way, your plans will make all the difference. Time taken for planning is time well spent.

Nancy Ambrosiano lived through the fires in New Mexico and was part of the evacuation effort of many horses, including her own.

Disaster Preparedness List

Here are some supplies that you should keep in a mobile disaster kit for your barn’s horses.

1. Food: As much as possible, try to maintain a consistent diet for your horses through the disaster period, although ramping them down to a diet of primarily hay may be helpful if they are not able to exercise during the emergency. Keep enough extra grain and hay stored, rotated for freshness to provide a week’s supply, if possible. Even if you’re not going anywhere, you may not be able to get new supplies into the barn. If you can’t carry much with you, leave the grain and bring the hay.

2. Water: Store enough drinking water to last at least one week for each horse, knowing that each horse drinks 5 to 15 gallons of water a day. Store water in a cool, dark location and be sure to rotate it so it remains fresh. Watch water intake for each horse very closely, as stressed horses may not drink.

3. Equine Identification: If the fences are down, horses are loose or just relocated across the county to various barns, some positive ID on each is essential. You can’t count on a halter tag to do this, as halters get lost, swapped or can be an entanglement hazard. Some ID can be established well ahead of time at a barn-wide clinic, such as microchips, tattoos or freeze branding. Such permanent marks don’t help get your horse back to you or provide a phone call to you from a rescuer, they just prove ownership when you come to reclaim them, should such questions arise. Even with such measures, if you know a hurricane, fire or flood is headed your way, get out there ahead of time and try one of the following:

  • Paint your name or emergency phone number onto the horses’ hooves in bright nail polish.
  • Mark your name, emergency phone number and address on the horse in livestock crayon, such as you might find at an agricultural supply center for cattle.
  • Use clippers to trim your name and an emergency phone number in a horse’s coat.
  • Make waterproof, luggage-type identification tags and braid them into each horse’s main or tail.

Keep in mind that your home information may not necessarily be helpful. You may wish to define a contact phone number of someone outside the area of impact—someone whose phone is working and who you can reach from whatever temporary shelter you’ve found.

Another clever tip from the United Animal Nations Animal Rescue Service Web page: “In with your disaster supplies keep some current photographs of your horse, including in some of the pictures the person(s) who own the animal, so that they can be used to prove ownership should your horse get lost and you have to reclaim it. In with your disaster supplies include a copy of the Bill of Sale for your horse or other documentation that can be used to prove ownership.”

5. First Aid Kit: Pack a pretty extensive first aid kit—more than you would normally have on hand for a small show or trail outing, since stressed animals do not behave as steadily as they normally would. You’re dealing with animals that pick up on your state of mind, and are therefore more likely to break loose, kick you and each other, hit fencelines and generally overreact to minor annoyances. At the very least, your kit should include bandages, pads, cotton and sheet cotton rolls, disposable surgical gloves, vet wrap or Elastoplast, duct tape, wound pads of various sizes, Betadine or other iodine soap, instant cold packs, an Easy boot, disposable diapers (great wound packs), triple antibiotic, a syringe of tranquilizer for each horse (acepromazine, etc.) if your vet is agreeable to the concept, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories plus scissors and tweezers.

If you have animals on specialized medications, be sure to have at least a two-week supply on hand.

Keep copies of each horse’s medical records, including records of vaccinations, with the disaster supplies. Have each animal’s Coggins test on hand (copies are OK if they’re legible) since many facilities would really rather not have your animals in their driveway without evidence of negative testing for equine infectious anemia. Be sure all vaccinations are up to date, especially tetanus since the upheaval increases the chance of injury and you’re possibly in strange facilities with unknown levels of cleanliness. Consider also packing a spray bottle of bleach mixture for speedy disinfection of doubtful areas.

6. Extra supplies: Not knowing where you’ll end up if you have to haul everyone out quickly, don’t assume that the new facility will have replacement lead ropes, water buckets and pitchforks. You may be borrowing the back 20 acres of someone’s fenced field, and buckets, etc. are up to you. Try to have a collection of buckets sufficient to rotate amongst all your horses to provide water and/or feed no matter where you find shelter. (That’s the perfect future for that tower of daily wormer buckets building up in your feedroom corner.) Stockpile a few extra halters and lead ropes as well. Tuck away a spare pitchfork and perhaps even a folding wheelbarrow.

Sources for more information

If you have access to the Internet, you have an amazing collection of data on hand merely by typing “horse emergency” into your favorite search engine. There, you will find organizations that provide overall planning guidance, and sometimes first-person narratives of recent events and steps taken to manage them:

Plus your local extension service, humane society or county emergency planning sites. —NA