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Horses and Disasters: Planning for the Unthinkable

Barrett Slenning

Barrett Slenning, an associate professor in the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Population Health and Pathobiology, is an expert in epidemiology and animal biosecurity risk management.

My last blog introduced the idea that pets need to be included in planning for disasters, particularly severe weather events.  This contribution will discuss some unique aspects of dealing with horses during disasters. The next blog entry will discuss when a horse owner should shelter in place and when to evacuate.

Being animals that live outside, weather is a large component of equine disasters, from severe ice storms through hurricanes. It’s not just storms that are the problem, however. Probably the most common disasters involving horses are barn fires, whether caused by electrical problems, gas heaters, dropped cigarettes, or lightning strikes.

To a large degree, these problems are preventable or they can be mitigated by appropriate planning. While different events require different preparedness, they do have a number of commonalities.

Preparing for Weather Disasters.

Keeping your horse healthy and in shape will allow the animal to be more resilient during the high stress and changes in diet and routine that occur in disasters. Keep vaccinations, worming, and hoof care up-to-date. If your horse is fat, he needs to lose weight. If she is skinny, bring her up to a healthy weight.

If you need to relocate your horse to another stable, you will usually need proof of a current negative Coggins’ test (typically within the past six to 12 months). Your veterinarian will very busy taking care of sick and injured animals during and immediately after a major event so your desire for a blood test may be a low priority. If you have the test done annually you are always prepared.

Many horses run off during or after a disaster. This makes equine identification important. Take photographs of your horse from all angles and ensure a few include you to help prove you are the owner. Many horses have tattoos on their upper lip or freeze brands under their mane. Photograph these and write them down. You can also microchip horses. Ask your veterinarian.

There are other means of identification. You can keep neck collars or ankle bands on your horse with identifying information. Looping luggage tags through rings in halters, leads, and bridals also works. In an emergency, people have found painting a name and phone number on the side of a horse provides short term identification.

Nearly all disasters will require you to catch, restrain, and relocate your horse. Practice leading your horse and learn the appropriate manners you can enforce. In addition to being beneficial in an emergency, this activity is a good way to bond with your horse. You should have fully functional halters, bridals, long and short lead lines, and any other tack in good shape available and easily accessible during any emergency.

Avoiding Barn fires.

The most common injury to horses following a barn fire is smoke inhalation pneumonia, and it can be fatal. There are horrible stories of horses being trapped in burning barns, as well as of frightened horses running back into burning barns.  Lastly, after the fire is out horses (and others) can be exposed to dangerous chemicals or damaged materials around the burned barn.

Barns are typically built out of combustible materials and often have electrical wiring that is below code or very old. In winter many barns use gas or electrical heaters, and in summer many are filled with dust-covered fans and light fixtures. A dropped cigarette and match is a year-around concern. Some barns feature gas or diesel-fueled generators that can catch fire. Few beyond the newest barns have smoke detectors or sprinkler systems. Most barns I’ve been do not have fire extinguishers.

The list of horse barn problems is also the “to do” list to ensure your barn can be a resource in a disaster, not a source of problems. Local fire departments will often check your barn and make recommendations and it helps the fire fighters to get to know you, your location, and your local situation. Take advantage of that opportunity.

10 considerations for barn fire

  • Get the wiring and fuses checked and updated.
  • Check the barn’s structural integrity, and put up lightning rods for safety.
  • Clean out old dust, hay, cobwebs, trash, and other potential fuels.  Move grasses, hay, building materials away from the outside of the barn.
  • Avoid gas heaters; modern electrical heaters are efficient and less dangerous.
  • Put up “no smoking” signs and enforce the ban.  No exceptions, ever.
  • Be sure you have water access from all sides.
  • Place ABC rated fire extinguishers at all entrances and other highly visible areas of the barn, and have the extinguishers checked at least annually.
  • Be sure to have halters and leads readily available for each horse in a barn – these are not for daily use, but only for emergencies.
  • Investigate retrofitting sprinklers and whether smoke detectors would work in your barn.
  • If you are building a horse barn, consider its relation to roads and how it can be accessed.  Many barns are well off the road, and often have narrow driveways.  Determine if a fire truck can get to the barn site, even if someone gets a car or truck/trailer stuck along that driveway.  If not, you will be on your own in case of a fire, which means you will more than likely lose the barn in its entirety.

Being prepared means you care for your horse enough to spend the time and money to do things right. Retrofitting an old barn can be expensive, but losing a barn and the horses inside is horrendous. Many important preparations, however, cost only time. It is time well spent.

For more information on including horses in disaster planning

NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (866-506-6222)

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