It’s fire season and you may need to evacuate! Are you ready? Learn about preparation, training, and equipment needed for a safe and effective evacuation of horses.
Living in California, I have experienced a seemingly endless stream of fires and other disasters. Between drought, fire, flood, and landslide, every year it seems we are having to evacuate in many areas.
In 2017 there were 9,000 wildfires that burned 1.2 million acres of land, destroyed more than 10,000 structures, and killed at least 46 people.
In 2018 there were 8,500 fires that burned 1.2 million acres, destroyed more than 24,00 structures, and killed over 100 people.
In 2019 7,800 wildfires that burned 260,000 acres and killed 3 people.
2020 7,606 wildfires that burned 2.3 million acres and killed 19 people.
That’s a total of 33,000 wildfires burning 5 million acres of land and killing nearly 200 people in just 4 years! And this is just California. Turn on the news any time to see disasters in your state. Last year there were wildfires in Colorado, Arizona, even Oregon and Washington.
Id like to give a shout out to fire fighters and all first responders who work very hard and risk their lives for all of us during these disasters. One of the ways we can honor them is to keep ourselves safe and follow evacuation orders immediately. When we delay or refuse to evacuate, we put ourselves, our animals, and first responders at risk.
Everyone knows they should prepare for the future, but too often we put it off until it’s too late. Here are some important steps to take NOW before you’re in the middle of a disaster needing to take action.
Did you know you can microchip horses? Microchipping is inexpensive, lifetime insurance should your horse (or other companion animal) go missing. It is easy for horses to get displaced during a disaster, so having permanent ID is very important. Learn more in How do pet microchips work?
Implanting a chip in a horse is more complicated than in a cat or dog, so you will need to call your vet to have it done. Technically you can register the chip with any registry, but there is one specifically for horses that I recommend.
Microchip ID Equine provides several services with registration including LifeTrac™, a permanent connection between you and your horse. If s/he is ever in need, even years later with another owner, you will be contacted. I spoke with a representative from Microchip ID and he told me this service has facilitated a number of rescues of horses lost in disasters or unclaimed by current owners. Even if the former owner was unable to take the horse back, they were at least made aware of the situation and had the opportunity to make some calls and arrange for the horse’s safe placement.
Sadly, many horses die in disasters because they can’t be caught, led, or trailered. Desperate owners are forced to leave these horses behind when evacuating, often turning them loose and hoping for the best.
It goes without saying that you should train your horses to halter, lead, tie, and trailer. Seems obvious, but many horses are lacking in this area. Years ago I trimmed hooves for a lady with a small herd of Andalusians. Her stallion and mares were mellow enough, but the youngsters were never handled so were as skittish and wild as mountain goats. Year after year I implored her to get someone to work with them, but she never did.
Your horse may be a bad loader because of an adverse experience, or lack of experience. Now is the time to get help and resolve the issue. If you can’t for whatever reason, at least have access to a stock trailer and panels so s/he can be herded in in an emergency.
Have halters and leads at hand. If you ride often, you probably do. Not only that, you probably have blingy cute halters you bought on Etsy. If your horse is elderly or just a pet, you may not have these things at hand. They may be worn out at the bottom of a bin somewhere in the barn. This equipment is as critical as having leashes and collars for dogs and carriers for cats. You don’t want to be looking for it the day of the disaster.
We all know that horses are like potato chips … you can’t have just one. As the years go by, we acquire more equine friends from a variety of sources, and before we know it, there are more horses than trailer space. If you have 5 horses and an old 2-horse trailer, you may not be able to evacuate all in time. With plenty of notice and multiple trips, you may be okay, but if you wait till the last minute you could be forced to leave some of the horses behind.
If you have a trailer, hook it up and use it from time to time to make sure everything is working. Elements, rodents, and insects can cause damage to a trailer sitting idle. Watch out for hornets! Make sure the lights and brakes work, there is air in the tires, and the spare tire is in good shape. As we speak, mine has been parked for a couple months due to winter weather and my busy schedule. I’ll be sure to take it in to the shop for a safety check soon!
When the evacuation orders came out for last year’s fires in my area (Northern Sonoma County), everyone panicked and lined up around the block at every gas station. Folks were filling their tanks as well as extra gas cans. Keeping your truck tank full can prevent you from having to wait hours before evacuating. I’ve never understood the concept of letting the tank get completely empty, or of just putting in $10 or $20 at the gas station. Why not fill it up? Yes, I know how much it costs. I have a Tundra. If you’re broke, use a credit card. Keep that tank full because you never know when you may need it.
If you are getting a ride from someone else, make sure they are prepared to help you if needed. A friend or barn buddy may have agreed to help you in the past, but as fire season approaches make sure they are still in agreement and that you have the same expectations.
Where to go
Have a plan for where you will go. Don’t start looking the day of the evacuation order. Reach out to friends and riding buddies in different areas to see what your options are. Depending on the situation, you may not have to go very far to get out of the danger zone. This may be a friend’s property, a boarding facility, or the fairgrounds. Large boarding facilities, especially in transport hub areas, have daily rates. The Woodland Stallion Station is an example. When I imported Maggie from Canada, the transporter dropped her off at this location and I picked her up. Be sure to call as soon as possible, as facilities like this will quickly book up during a disaster.
I’m a minimalist when it comes to vaccines and deworming, but I will do what is needed to keep my horses healthy and to comply with boarding policies. If your horse is a pet and never leaves your property, you may not be up to date on vaccines. If you ride by yourself and never show or join group events, you may not do the strangles vaccine.
This isn’t a big deal under normal circumstances, but if you suddenly need to house your horse at a fairgrounds with 100 others under a lot of stress, the chances of getting sick are very high. For that reason I recommend keeping all vaccines up to date and keeping the records where you can easily access them.
The easiest way to store documents is to scan or take a picture of them and save on a cloud service like Dropbox or Google Drive. That way you can view them from any device with an internet connection. You can also just save the docs on your phone, but if it breaks or gets lost in the confusion of an emergency, you won’t have any other way of accessing them.
I am not the person you want in charge of inventory, as I tend to buy things after I run out. I hate Costco and most other stores. Thank god for Amazon and their next-day delivery. DON’T BE LIKE ME.
Keeping a stash of supplies is always a good idea, and will serve you well in a disaster situation. Hay, grain, supplements, and medication should be stocked up for at least a month. You can’t have enough buckets of different sizes for feed and water. A complete grooming kit with any hoof care products and fly spray is a necessity.
If you are on a private property or at a fairground, you may be doing self-care. Manure forks, brooms, and other barn items may be be available there, but it can’t hurt to pack your own. Bring shavings if the horse will be in a stall. Bring your own wheelbarrow or manure bucket/hand truck set if you have one. Most barns will have these items, but you don’t want to be fighting with 30 other people over the one wheelbarrow.
For yourself, keep bottled water and snacks like granola bars on hand. I usually keep a flat of water from the dollar store at the barn so I don’t have to remember to bring drinks, especially in the summer. It’s always a good idea to have extra clothing in your truck in case you get wet or dirty. Sweat pants, sweat shirt, and socks will go a long way when you need them.
In a disaster you will likely lose power, so flashlights are very important. Yes, your phone has one, but it’s a pain to hold it up and you will kill the battery. I prefer the headlamp kind as it leaves my hands free. There are also some little lanterns that you can set around the barn for light. Keep your portable chargers charged so you can keep your phone and other devices going during a power outage.
As with the gas, in a time of emergency everyone will flood the stores, so be sure to keep these items on hand well ahead of time!
The 2017 fires in Santa Rosa raged so quickly through the area that first night that it killed people in their beds. Those lucky enough to be awake fled for their lives with the fire at their heels. Since then, improvements have been made in detection and warning of wildfire danger. Today, evacuation orders are issued early and in a wide area to give people the time and space to get out and to safety.
Two words for evacuation day: DON’T WAIT! Fire moves quickly and unpredictably and traps people and animals in deadly situations. Roads clog up quickly during evacuations, especially in the country where many properties are accessed by narrow roads, sometimes with only one way in an out.
When the day comes, get ready to enact your plan. Have a companion with you if possible. A second person can speed things along, help handle the horses, and keep you safe. If you fall or have any other problems, you could run into trouble if alone.
I don’t have to tell horse folks that horses pick up on your energy. This is why it is critical to remain calm. If you panic, shout, and rush, the horses may become frightened and difficult to handle. If you find yourself panicking, take a deep breath. Take the time you need to get the job done. Handling upset, confused horses in a hurry is a good way to get hurt.
If your horses normally live in a big pasture or are difficult to catch, it’s a good idea to feed them in stalls or a catch pen if evacuation is a possibility. You don’t want to be chasng horses around in an emergency.
After loading, double check all trailer connections before heading out, and make sure the brakes and lights are working.
Going to the new location
I hate it when I’m about to head out and someone tells me, “Drive safely!” because I always drive safely, but I’m going to say it here. Speeding and cutting corners will endanger you, others, and the horses. Take another deep breath and take the time you need to get to the destination.
When you arrive, don’t be in a hurry to unload the horses. You may have been driving for a long time and they may be whinnying like mad, with every other horse responding. They are safer in the trailer while you assess the situation, and you don’t want to offload then have to reload or lead them a long distance when you find out you’re in the wrong area.
Find out which area is yours and check fencing, footing, water, etc. Make sure the area is safely and properly set up. Cohousing is best for many horses and keeps them more comfortable, but the wrong combination can cause stress or injury. Some horses will bully others, chasing them for no reason or guarding food and even water troughs. For this reason you should cohouse horses who already get along well, and you may still want to separate them for feeding.
Once they are offloaded in their area, give them some hay to distract and calm them. Lowering the head and eating are naturally calming to the horse.
If you are not providing the care for your horses, make sure that whoever is has instructions and your phone number.
If your horses are at a fairground or other temporary shelter, ID is a good idea. Unfortuntely horses don’t wear neck collars like dogs. I’ve seen such things on Mustangs and other horses at sales, but this isn’t a safe option for unsupervised animals. I never leave halters on, even while turning out or working loose horses, and don’t recommend that you do.
I have heard of some owners braiding an ID tag into the horse’s mane. This seems like a good idea and a safe one. I have also heard of writing your phone number on the horse’s hoof, athough when I did this for purposes of this article the writing was barely visible within days. Maybe it would be easier to see on a horse with white hooves.
You can use a livestock crayon to write on the body, or stick a piece of duct tape to the hindquarter and write on it. These methods are more useful if your horses are housed in a large group or in a large area. If you have a stall or paddock you can just put your info on the door as you normally would at a boarding stable.
As mentioned earlier, microchipping is a great way to provide permanent ID for your horses. If your horse is chipped, make sure you know what the number is and that it is currently and correctly registered.
Check your horses daily or ask a friend to do so until they can be moved back home.
- Be prepared, especially if you are in a fire zone
- Act quickly but don’t panic
- Have a plan and follow it
- Make sure the shelter location is safe
- Check on your horses until they can return home