Evacuating Horses in an Emergency 7 Tips from Lessons Learned

In recent years, southern California has had two major fire storms in 2003 and again in 2007, brought on by the Santa Ana winds that typically occur during late summer/early fall.  Suddenly shifting winds often spark fires unexpectedly, with little time left to react.

While my home and horses were not affected during the 2003 fires, I know many people who’s were.  Tragically, I am sad to say I know several people who even lost their lives.  Many animal lives were lost as well, as people were forced to simply turn their animals loose in hopes that they would escape in time.

During October of 2007, I was boarding my horse at a public boarding facility which became threatened by the extraordinary wild fires sweeping the area.  We were forced to evacuate the some 20 horses from the small, close-knit facility.

With horses in panic mode, high winds, choking smoke, unnerved owners, and heavy emergency vehicle traffic, it was a high anxiety situation to say the least.  But as I arrived to evacuate my horse that October day, I was surprised to find out that I was one of only about 3 boarders who had a trailer and was accustomed and able to hauling horses.  I was greeted in angst by others asking me to help them move their horses.  Of course, assessing the situation we were in with limited help and transportation, I eagerly agreed.

The day turned into one of the longest, eeriest, and most stressful days I’ve encountered, as I soon realized that there was no evacuation plan in place, we did not have enough trailers for the amount of horses, and worst, many horses were not accustomed to trailer loading at all!

I set forth, two by two, moving horses with my little two-horse trailer and truck, frantically making phone calls to equestrian friends to try to find safe barns who could take horses.  My father lived locally and has horse and trailering experience as well, so I immediately called him for help.  With his truck and a borrowed two-horse trailer from a boarder at my facility (who didn’t have a truck to tow with), the two of us almost single-handedly moved all the horses to safety.  We were eventually joined by a volunteer wild-life rescue team with a six-horse trailer who helped us move the last bunch of horses, and thanks to quick networking and generous horse people, we found temporary barns for all of the horses.

I can’t begin to truly express through these words the urgency and chaos that encompassed that day as we struggled to load horses, and I wouldn’t wish that anxiety and fear on anyone. I also cannot stress enough how important it is to have an evacuation plan in place for your animals, not just yourself!!  Know where you are going to take them, know how you are going to get them out.

That day, there were owners who did not even come out for the evacuation.  While some could not, do to home evacuations, road closures, and other similar issues, I was shocked at the amount of absent owners.  This is another important reason that your horse should load well; in the event you are not able to be there to transport your own horse in an emergency, you should be sure that others will be able to handle and load your animal safely and easily.

From this chaotic and frightening ordeal, I offer a few of my personal tips and take-home-lessons:

1) Get your horses micro-chipped.  No, it’s not just for dogs, and it’s not that costly.  After the 2003 fires and the stories of loose horses found but unable to be returned to rightful owners, I chipped my horses, and they were well prepared for 2007.  This practice also comes in handy for cases of stolen horses you hear of from time to time.  Ask your regular equine vet for more information on chipping next time you have them out.

2) Consider putting dog tags on your horse’s halters (as I did).  While they can be removed, they at least provide a quick reference for volunteers who may be handling your horse in an emergency situation.  I leave them on all year round, and it’s also nice for locating tack at boarding facilities.

3) Practice loading and unloading with your horse until they are proficient with it, before you are faced with emergency!  It becomes more than just a “vice” if they are uncomfortable with trailering, something you don’t quite grasp until faced with an emergency.  Borrow a friend’s trailer to train on if you don’t have your own.  It could save their life.

4) Establish an emergency plan for your animals.  If you keep horses at home, discuss where they would go in the event of a small house fire – a neighbor’s perhaps, or, maybe a nearby facility.  Have those numbers available, and, if you don’t own a trailer, establish a plan with a friend who’d be willing to help if needed.  If you live in a place like me where the entire county can be threatened at any given time, have a back up location, or three!

5) Boarders: if you don’t have one in place with your barn currently, talk to your owner/manager about establishing a plan.  You better believe that after that scary day in 2007, by barn owner got a plan in place FAST!

6) If you board or are a barn owner, try organizing a clinic/safety day event where you practice loading/unloading with your barn-mates.  It’s great practice/training for the horses – and more so the people – so you know what to expect, how to react, and who to rely on during an emergency.  It’s also great to identify which horses need more work and who could be transported easily to help things run smoothly during the real thing.

7) While hopefully you will never have to face an event like this, YOU NEVER KNOW!  Here in southern California, wild fires are a fact and reality every year.  Don’t think that it can’t happen to you, and don’t think that it can’t happen again, either!

I’d like to take a moment now to remember those lost in both the 2003 and 2007 fires, and thank those who helped keep me, my family, and animals stay safe during those times.

Alexis McCollom Bio:

Alexis McCollom is the owner of Equus Athletics, a San Diego based company dedicated to helping both horse and rider perform their best by bringing them the latest innovations in equestrian sporting technology.  A horse owner for more than 15-years and a San Diego Native, Alexis also enjoys many other outdoor activities, including biking, running, swimming, skiing, and kayaking.

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Alexis McCollom of Equus Athletics

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