By Rebecca Hunt
You just checked the forecast and worry immediately sets in. Mother Nature is brewing up a threat to your family, property and animals. What’s your next move?
When those animals include horses, you need specific plans to protect their unique shelter, transportation and general needs. Severe weather and climate events take many forms. If a wildfire is heading toward your property and conditions are dry; or a hurricane is churning in your direction; or perhaps an impending Nor’easter is threatening to dump two feet of snow, you want to be as ready as possible. In the last three years (2017-2019), 44 U.S. weather and climate disaster events caused damage in excess of one billion dollars per occurrence and affected every state.1 This data indicates that it’s not a matter of if you’ll be impacted by a natural disaster, but when.
Effective natural disaster response and recovery starts with a written preparedness plan so that everyone involved knows what to do before, during and after an event. There will be decisions to make, but you’ll have the best options clearly outlined in front of you. Many of the following recommendations have similarities to protecting houses or works of art, but there are even more considerations when horses are involved.
- Plan for the events that are common in the area (hurricanes, floods, wildfires, blizzards, etc.), but also recognize what’s possible. For example, you don’t have to live in a known flood hazard area to suffer a flood.
- Be aware of whether or not you are located in a mandatory evacuation zone. Contact your county or municipal division of emergency management for guidance.
- Establish both evacuation and shelter-in-place plans for each location in question. Geographic considerations should guide planning and may make one more feasible than the other during an event.
- Regularly review evacuation and shelter-in-place plans with those who will assist with the horses and/or staff. Update plans with new resources, different horses, etc. Keep duplicate copies in accessible places.
- Keep supplies well-stocked during times of the year with heightened vulnerabilities to natural disasters in your area. Feed, hay and extra containers for water are the basics for horses. Consider safely storing fuel to avoid a rush to get it when a storm is forecast and potential long lines or limited supply.
- Practice loading your horses on horse trailers. Some young horses don’t know how to lead well, so they may be hard to move to certain areas or get on a trailer. Even mature horses who haven’t left the farm in a while may not load on a trailer easily, so it is strongly recommended to practice periodically, especially if you live in a catastrophe-prone area with the potential to need to evacuate.
- Purchase a generator, if possible. Lack of electricity after an event is one of the most common conditions experienced. It affects the ability to run the water pump and provide critically important fresh water.
- Prepare emergency care kits for at home and away. Suggested items include spare halters, lead ropes, medications, first aid supplies, feed, hay and water.
- Gather basic documentation (pictures, vaccine records, Coggins, microchip ID, etc.) and place them in an accessible location. This documentation will be particularly helpful if you need to evacuate horses across state lines or identify your horse after an event.
Even if the preference is to shelter in place, too many circumstances could potentially change the plan. Always assume that evacuation is a possibility.
- If evacuation is the best choice or mandatory, do so as soon as possible.
- Formalize evacuation plans, including routes and access to other horse facilities near and outside the local area that can accommodate the horses. Identify alternate routes if regular routes are impassible. In wildfire areas, consider evacuating enough distance away to avoid smoke impact to horses.
- Keep identification, health documents and an emergency care kit in an accessible place.
- Evaluate trailering capacity and amount of supplies for the number of horses. Practice loading horses on trailers, especially if they have not traveled recently. Most horse properties have more horses than the capacity of the horse trailer, so a priority list is important, as well as the potential and time for multiple evacuation trips.
- Have evacuation equipment and supplies ready including trailers, trucks and fuel. Fuel is important on a regular basis and critical during catastrophic events when resources (especially diesel) can be scarce.
- Write down evacuation priorities in advance; it will help all involved navigate difficult decisions during an emergency event.
Staying put requires forethought as well. Formalize shelter-in-place plans and:
- Have adequate food and supplies on hand (at least a week), because there may be a delay in availability to get more.
- In areas prone to wildfires, remove nylon halters as well as sheets or blankets, because they can melt on the horse. Also remove sheets and blankets during major flood situations, because they can weigh down the horse and potentially cause drowning.
- Keep identification documents, health certificates and the emergency care kit in an accessible place. Horses may get loose during the event, so it is important to plan how they can have identification on them when possible.
- Prepare signs to communicate your on-site status to emergency personnel.
- Have on-site equipment ready for snow clearing, debris removal, generating power, etc. Trailering capabilities may also be needed post-event if conditions are not safe to remain in place, such as horses in standing water.
During and After an Event
When it’s time to put your plans into action, it’s understandably critical to be nimble. Mother Nature has her own agenda, and even the most calculated plans will require some deviation.
- Contact and organize your local network/community when a natural catastrophe is forecasted. Use social media to connect with equine evacuation and assistance groups. These are great ways to share best practices and stay abreast of conditions.
- When evacuating, confirm the temporary facility you’ve previously identified is available and leave as soon as possible. Be aware of local laws, as in some areas it is illegal to transport large animals when a hurricane warning is in effect.
- Follow your plan for where the horses will be safest–in the barn or out in a fenced area. If not in the barn, close the barn and stall doors after horses are out, because they are creatures of habit and will reenter a barn if allowed, even if conditions are unsafe. Be prepared to function with a lack of electricity for well pump and lights. Keep horses fed and safe. Take precautions to safeguard human life, and consider that horses can harm people when scared.
- As soon as it’s safe to do so, display signs at the front of your property to share your status with emergency personnel. Carefully clean out debris, being on the lookout for downed electric wires and hazardous objects blown into the area.
- When “digging out” after an event, include access to barn and turnout areas. Make repairs and adjustments to damaged barns and fields. Remember, lack of electricity, extensive barn damage, and flooding may require post-event evacuation.
- Be sure to keep track of expenses and receipts in case you decide to submit an insurance claim and it is eligible for reimbursement.
Do a physical hazard assessment of the property to help decrease the potential for damage year-round as well as in the event of an emergency. Some key concerns to look for include:
- Pay close attention to electrical systems, keeping them updated and ideally in metal conduit.
- Manage appropriate storage of fuel and combustibles, including paint, solvents and hay. Hay is not only highly flammable, but it also can spontaneously combust if not properly baled and dried. For these reasons, it is best to store hay in a separate, well-ventilated building away from where the horses are stalled.
- Keep brush cleared and remove overhanging tree limbs by the barn to help avoid fires and damage. In wildfire-prone areas, avoid combustible materials from siding and roofing to mulch and trees, especially within 10 feet of the perimeter.
- Have fire extinguishers and garden hoses connected and ready to use for all buildings in the event of a wildfire or structure fire.
- Store hay in an area that can be sealed off to prevent embers from entering the structure.
Review Your Insurance Program
Over the past several months, most of us have been spending more time at home. Take this time to review your insurance and risk management programs. Be proactive now – not when the next headline-making weather event is upon us.
- Conduct a physical hazard assessment of all your properties.
- Complete or update an emergency preparedness and recovery plan for each property and communicate it to key people.
- Ensure you are maintaining adequate equipment and supplies, particularly in the face of disasters that won’t come with a multi-day warning.
- Complete an inventory of valuables that you wish to preserve.
- Contact your insurance advisor to review lifestyle changes, coverage options and risk mitigation strategies. The right insurance advisor understands your equestrian lifestyle, provides options, and encourages you to think through priorities and anticipate tough decisions in advance so you can consider choices carefully and rationally. He or she will also make introductions to other specialists and suggest loss prevention devices to consider.
Rebecca Hunt is a risk manager with AIG Private Client Group, a division of the member companies of American International Group, Inc. (AIG). She is an accomplished horseperson who has been riding and working with horses for over forty years. Her multidiscipline skills include training and breeding young horses and Welsh ponies and competing in halter classes, show hunters, jumpers and equitation. She has her own farm where she enjoys caring for her horses, as well as maintaining and developing the facilities.