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Fires and frightened horses

From: Victoria

Hi Jessica, firstly - *thank you* for all of the good, sound advice you provide!

You might have heard about our terrible fires here that happened (and are still going) here in Canberra, Australia. Sadly, many horses have died, and many more have lost homes. Right now we are in the middle of a drought, so feed prices are horrendous - the last thing we needed was a fire! We haven't been directly affected ourselves but having heard terrible stories from the weekend, it made me think what would I do? What would I do if at the last minute I had to evacuate and try and load the horses on the float? What would I do if I couldn't get them on? Would blind folding them help do you think? I've never had to load a panic stricken horse so I'm not sure how I'd handle it. And it would be so hard to remain calm in the face of a roaring fire coming straight at you. Are there any other things about handling horses in a fire situation that I should think about? I realise my own personal safety is the most important thing - but I don't want to endanger the lives of my horses just because I lost the plot! Unfortunately bushfires are a fact of life here, and I would like to be prepared when I have to face one.

I'd be so grateful for your advice! Kindest regards,


Hi Victoria!

Yes, I've been seeing terrifying images on the television news. Fire and horses - NOT a good combination at all, is it? We have wildfires here in the States, too, so a lot of Americans are identifying with you as they watch the evening news.

Fire preparedness is something everyone should know about, but it's especially important for horse-owners to have a plan "just in case". A radio or television or phonecall warning might well be enough to help you save your dog or cat by shoving them into your car and going down the road to a safer place. It's not so easy when your animals weigh a thousand pounds or more, and don't fit into even the largest car.

I suppose the first thing to consider is how safe your facilities can be made. Metal and cinderblock tend to be more fire-resistant than wood, but most people aren't in a position to rebuild their barns during fire season, so that's probably not very useful information just now. However, there are safety precautions you can take to help protect your animals and your property.

Fire is very good at jumping from here to there, and feeds on brush, vegetation, grass, and debris, but is discouraged by cleared areas. If you have many trees, trees in need of pruning, or messy trees (the sort that are always dropping bits of bark and branches), it's a very good policy to keep the ground under and around the trees as clean as possible. A tree with branches hanging over the barn may look romantic, but it's a fire hazard, and those branches should be removed.

If you maintain a manure pile, especially if the manure is mixed with straw or wood shavings, keep it well away from the barn. Hay and bedding should similarly be stored well away from the barn. It's less convenient to fetch hay and bedding from a distance, yes... but if there IS a fire, and if the hay-and-bedding storage building burns to the ground without endangering your horses, you'll suddenly find that inconvenience much more acceptable.

In fire season, even the wood-chip mulch around your trees and buildings can put you at risk. Mulch is attractive and practical, but especially for areas near the barn, gravel or stone chips would be a better choice than wood chips or bedding. Ideally, you'd have a thirty-foot noncombustible perimeter ("fire break") around your buildings - and that's for areas without many trees! If you live in a forested area, especially if the trees are resinous and highly combustible pines (in the States) or gums in Oz, possibly other trees as well) the perimeter should be 75 or 80 feet wide. Keep the grass short - and clear of leaves, twigs, tree branches, old hay, etc.

Since the subject of your letter is bushfires and wildfires, I won't discuss electrical wiring issues at any length, but everyone SHOULD be aware that it's essential to keep the barn's wiring system in good nick, and to keep all light and other electrical fixtures CLEAN and far from combustible mterials. If your barn is full of cobwebs, loose hay, dust, and filthy electrical fixtures, it's an open invitation to a fire.

One of the best ways to protect your barn against fire is to keep your fire extinguishers charged and readily available, and to be sure that everyone on the property knows exactly how to use them. But again, these won't do much for you in the event of a bushfire or wildfire sweeping through your property, so I'll say no more about fire extinguishers here.

If something dire happened and a fire were headed your way, what would you do and where would you go? Think about this. Fires move very quickly, and when you get the "Fire coming" news, you need to be able to act very quickly. This is actually possible, if you're prepared and have a good plan.


It's always useful to have a designated "in case of fire" paddock into which you can put horses when evacuation is impossible, as it sometimes is for a variety of reasons. "Safe" doesn't mean that the fire can't reach it, but it should be in an area where (given the direction of the prevailing winds) it will provide the best protection from SMOKE. It should also be large enough - several acres at least - to permit the horses to RUN from the flames and then circle around to enter the safest place of all - the already-burned area. It should not have dangerous trees (pines or gums); ideally, it would have NO trees. The grass should be kept very short, either through mowing or through grazing, and there should be a perimeter "fire break" or strip of ploughed or disked land (at east 30' wide) all the way around.

Turned out in such a paddock, horses will actually have a decent chance of coming through a fire. Horses are fast, remember. It's the ones IN the barns, unable to use their speed to escape, that are generally doomed to die from fire or smoke or both. If you are lucky enough to have a big cinderblock/metal barn with a working sprinkler system and a good firebreak all around it, then your horses might be fine IN the barn. I've seen some large cinderblock horse-barns at state fairgrounds, surrounded by sand arenas, dirt tracks, and enormous paved parking areas, with no grass or trees or other vegetation anywhere nearby. That sort of facility might very well withstand a fire... Very few people have access to such facilities, but in case YOU do, it's something to bear in mind.

If there is no possibility of evacuating the horses, and the best you can do for them is to turn them out into a large dirt field and hope they can outrun or survive the fire, be sure to remove anything they might be wearing. Horses can often outrun fires, or run through them and live, but they cannot escape from rugs, sheets, or halters that are burning and melting on their bodies. Before you release your horses to take their chances in the wide open spaces, take a moment to soak them from head to tail with the hose. Wet coats, and especially soaking wet manes and tails, will take up to half a minute longer to catch fire, and that little bit of extra time may give the horses a chance to get away from the flames. Horses, given enough space to run, are surprisingly clever about fires. Like wildlife, they won't run themselves into exhaustion if they can avoid it, and in fact will often find their way to some land that has already burned, where they can stand and wait. The problem is that a big fire will often destroy fences, letting horses out onto roads, where they are in more danger from vehicles than from the fire itself!

Horses DO try to get back into burning barns, and into barns that YOU know will probably be burning soon. They aren't stupid or suicidal, they're just doing what comes naturally to horses: seeking security. We teach our horses to exchange the safety of the herd for the safety of four walls, bedding, and a water bucket and feed tub - for domesticated horses living in stalls, the stall and the barn become the herd-substitute. Frightened horses WILL try to return to their "safe place" if they can, so close the barn and take the horses as far away as possible before releasing them into a paddock or field.

Know where you would go - who could take in your horses? Where would they be safe? and know how you would get there. If possible, have several evacuation routes planned. That's routes, with an "s", PLURAL, because the direction/intensity of the fire may require you to go one way instead of another. Also, in a large-scale emergency such as a bushfire or wildfire, it's possible that a road might be blocked, either by the sheer volume of traffic or by the authorities, to provide clear access to emergency services vehicles.

Know how you would get there in another sense, too. Do you have enough trailer space to accomodate all of your horses? If you have four or five horses and a large open stock trailer, you might be fine, but if you have five horses on the property and a two-horse trailer, you'll need to begin evacuation very early or enlist the help of a friend with another trailer... or be prepared to make some very hard choices about which horses to save.

What will pull the trailer? How many minutes would it take to hitch up and move out? If your truck is somewhere else, or if you aren't sure where you put the hitch ball that matches that trailer, things could get very scary, very quickly. If there are fires anywhere near your area, it's best to take the precaution of keeping your towing vehicle attached to the trailer, pointed toward the road, and (of course) with its tank filled. IN the trailer, or in your truck, you should have the horses' paperwork (ownership and identification papers, descriptions/photos, vaccinations/medical records, etc.) and enough of their usual feed to get them through several days in an unfamiliar place. Keep flashlights in the trailer, too, in case of a night-time emergency. And if you don't use your trailer very often, DO ensure that it is safe and ready to use - your evacuation will go much more smoothly if the trailer has solid floorboards, tires with sufficient air pressure, and NO wasps' nests in the roof. And leave the key in the ignition - it could save you precious time.

Yes, blindfolds can help. Horses can be made very nervous in the presence of fire and smoke, especially if the person handling them is also nervous and in a hurry. Blindfolds can help them get their attention back where you want it - on you. Long-sleeved cotton shirts make very good blindfolds. Cotton leadropes are vastly preferable to nylon ones; cotton rope or leather halters should be used instead of nylon. If you have time, dropping the halters and ropes into a water tank for even a few minutes will make them less likely to catch fire. You can also soak the blindfolds before putting them on - or after putting them on.

Identify all of your horses. The ones in the trailer can wear tags; the ones turned out to fend for themselves should wear NOTHING other than, perhaps, a tag braided into the mane, but you can use livestock paint to mark their coats with your telephone number before you wet them down and send them off. (If you don't have livestock paint handy, any brightly-coloured spray paint will serve). With no identification, it can be difficult - especially for non-horsey emergency service personnel - to tell one dirty, frightened, scorched bay mare or grey gelding from another, and in a major wildfire, where fences burn, horses from several areas may join together as temporary "herds" on the run. In such a case, there might be thirty or forty grey geldings to be identified, and owners who did NOT identify their horses in any way might have to wait and worry for weeks before retrieving their animals.

When you've planned your emergency evacuation, practice it once or twice so that you'll feel truly prepared. Think of it as a "fire drill" - which it IS. Do it during the day, and do it at night, too. Your "Fire coming, get out!" warning could come during the night.

DON'T WAIT until there's an emergency to teach your horse to load reliably into ANY trailer or horsebox. Sometimes, when I'm teaching a trailer-loading clinic and a horse's owner tells me "It always takes forty minutes before he'll get into the trailer", or "He'll get into a step-up but he won't walk up a ramp" (or vice versa), I wonder just what would happen to that horse during an emergency evacuation. Teach your horses to go where you tell them to, even if it's smoky, even if it's dark outside, even if everyone is nervous. Calm obedience is a habit that can save their lives - and yours.

Every year, someone dies trying to save a dog or cat or horse from a fire. DON'T do this. You have other animals and humans depending on you - if you have a horse that panics and simply WILL NOT LOAD and it's time to evacuate NOW, put the tag in his mane, soak him with water, remove all tack and clothing, and turn him out to take his chances. Even if you are willing to sacrifice yourself for your horse, think about whether you'd also be willing to sacrifice the firefighter who might be putting himself in harm's way to try to rescue YOU.

One of the ways to help safeguard your farm and horses against future fires is to arrange (but please, NOT during fire season!) to have your local firefighters come out for a tour of your farm. This helps everyone - the firefighters will know how your farm is laid out, where the buildings are, where and what the major fire hazards are, where the sources of water are, etc. They will probably be able to offer you some advice - not about horses, necessarily, but about what YOU can do to set up your farm to make it easier for firefighters to come onto your property and fight a fire there. They can show you, for instance, that parking farm mchinery in THIS location would interfere with firefighting equipment, but that parking it in THAT location would be just as convenient for you whilst not interfering with their needs. Firefighters shouldn't have to guess wheere the water pumps are, or whether a given building contains animal feed, machinery, hay and straw, or fuel. If they're familiar with your farm, they'll be able to do a more effective job of fighting a fire there.

You can help them, as well. Most firefighters are not trained to deal with horses. Some are afraid of them, others simply unfamiliar with them, but either way, they would be very unlikely to know how to lead a horse out of the barn - whether it was on fire or NOT. Most horses are highly suspicious of firefighters wearing strange-looking clothing. If your firefighters are willing to take a quick lesson in horse-handling, you can use cookies and carrots to help them make friends with the horses, then teach them how to put on a halter, attach a leadrope, and lead a horse from one place to another. It's worth doing. You won't turn them into horsemen overnight, but they'll have a little bit of familiarity with horses, and your horses will be safer if the firefighters know how halters fasten and how to open the latch on a stall door.

If you're going to evacuate, don't wait until the last second to do so. Your horses will be much calmer and more cooperative if YOU are not in a panic rush, and if the air is not full of smoke and burning cinders.

Avoid synthetics. Jeans and long-sleeved cotton shirts (don't roll up the sleeves, leave them long) will keep you safer. Shoes or boots and gloves should be leather - synthetic gloves and rubber-soled nylon shoes can MELT. Safety glasses or goggles will help keep smoke and cinders out of your eyes. And if you're soaking your horses with the hose, soaking yourself with the hose isn't such a bad idea, either.

Let's assume that your horses all survived and that you've retrieved them all - the ones you evacuated AND the ones that you soaked and turned out. Even if they all seem perfectly healthy, you'll need to monitor the ones that may have been exposed to smoke, and you should consult with your veterinarian as soon as he has a moment. Horse lungs are delicate, and you won't be able to LOOK at a horse and tell whether it has burned lungs or is developing smoke-inhalation pneumonia.

Keep your facilities clean and as safe as possible at all times. Have an evacuation plan, keep everything in place so that you can act swiftly. Be sure that everyone on your property - family, boarders, workers, friends - knows exactly what to do in an emergency and/or if the evacuation plan is put into effect. Think about emergency protection, make a plan, and practice. Think about evacuation, make a plan, and practice. If you're prepared, these things will be do-able. If you aren't, there will probably NOT be enough time for you to figure out what to do, collect all the gear and information you'll need, and act.

I devoutly hope that you never have to deal with a fire, but you are entirely right, it's always better to be prepared for the worst. And since you mentioned your view of "the worst" in your letter, let me speak directly to that issue:

A firefighter friend of mine informs me that a fire coming straight at you does not necessarily have to kill you. When you're dealing with a brushfire or wildfire, your instinct is - of course - to run away from it, but sometimes, under certain circumstances, it may be better to find the right place and go TOWARD it. When a fire is uncontained and out of control, there is only one truly safe place, and that is behind the fire line, in the place that is NOT going to catch fire - because it has already burned.

If you're riding in an area covered with short grass, and the fire is approaching, it MAY be possible for you to ride through the fire line and into that smoky, hot, blackened area behind it. If there's time and you have your wits about you, you may even be able to find a dirt road or path that provides no fuel for the fire, and follow it through and past the fire line. With such a path to follow, you wouldn't have to ask the horse to go through a line of flames, even very low ones. With a frightened horse and in the absence of a flame-free path, you might have to dismount, strip off the tack, leave your horse to fend for himself, and run through the fire line alone. Either way, it won't be pleasant on the other side, but it will be OUT of the fire and thus safer.

The very best of luck to you - and to everyone else worried about the fires! There's no way to predict exactly what a fire will do, and no way for a horse-owner or farm-owner to guard against every possibility, but perhaps some of the suggestions above will help a little. I hope so.


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