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6 Ways to Improve Your Horse's Natural Disaster Resilience

November 2018 by Dr Kirrilly Thompson
Dr Kirrilly Thompson is a cultural anthropologist, independent research consultant, dressage rider and President and Chair of the Board of Horse SA. She has published over 100 journal articles, book chapters and industry reports and co-authored a book which explores the practical and ethical implications of recognising horses as social agents in human-horse relations.
Assoc. Prof. Kirrilly Thompson image

In this article, you will find six basic principles you can incorporate into your daily interactions with your horses to help you prepare for extraordinary events and improve your horse’s natural disaster survival and resilience. Since 2010, Dr Kirrilly Thompson has been researching the ways in which animals and animal ownership impact human preparedness and responses to natural disasters.

The research

Pet ownership has long been considered a risk for natural disaster survival. In households without children, pet owners and carers are more likely to fail to evacuate their homes. If they evacuate without their pets, they often return prematurely to try to save them.

The desire to put one’s own life at risk to save pets is well intentioned but it can put human and animal lives at risk. Trying to evacuate at the last minute, for example, can increase the chance of death in a vehicle or a road block that puts many other humans and animals in danger.

All of the risks of animal ownership and natural disaster survival are magnified when the animal is as large as a horse.

Dogs, cats, birds, rabbits and frogs can be accommodated in most vehicles and evacuation locations. Horses are a different kettle of fish altogether. 

Horses require specialised transport and equipment, experienced handlers and large holding infrastructure. Moreover, they are often kept on properties other than home.

This means that, as a fire is approaching, horse owners are tempted to drive into a natural disaster threat, as occurred during the 2003 Canberra bushfires.

Their aim is - of course - to successfully evacuate or defend animals. However, they can create congestion and confusion that threatens the lives of horses, owners and first responders.

Most state emergency services have resources to help horse owners prepare for natural disasters such as fire and flood. They provide important information for preparing properties, checklists and survival plans. For many horse owners, these can be seen as special preparations.

In 2015, I evacuated three of my horses from the same property due to the threat of the South Australian Pinery fire in SA. In 2018, a structure caught fire on the property where my competition horse was agisted.
These personal experiences, coupled with my academic research, have helped me to see how there are a number of principles which horse owners and carers can integrate into their everyday horse training and management practices to make them and their horses more resilient to natural disasters.

Most – if not all – of these principles justify keeping horse management simple and prioritising thorough horse training.

1. Train your horse to be easily handled by anyone

You can’t guarantee that you will be available to handle your horse in the event of a disaster.

Your horse might need to be handled by strangers in response to a disaster or in the aftermath of a disaster, when you may not be allowed to enter a recently affected area.

Your horse may need to be handled for veterinary attention, to be moved or to be documented for identification. If your horse is easily handled by anyone – including a firefighter in full uniform, it will have a better chance of being treated, moved and located.

As noted by Tom Roberts in the book The Young Horse: “If you are fond of a horse and wish to do him a real favour – train him well. Teach him good manners, good habits, both in the stable and under the saddle. You need never worry about the future of such a horse if any reason you may have to part with him. You assure him of friends wherever he goes. Perhaps the greatest kindness you can do any horse is to educate him well.

It turns out that Tom’s wisdom might also help us worry less about how a natural disaster might impact our horses too. And in the tragic event that you do not survive a disaster (let us not pretend this cannot happen), your horse will have a better chance of finding a great home.

2. Train your horse to stand, tie, load and travel - and practice regularly

Many horses come with specific instructions for being tied, loaded and transported. In 2015, I had one float and three horses to move (I have since avoided keeping all three at the same property). There was a chance I would only be able to move two horses if the fire prevented me from returning.

The first two horses I put in the float were the ones who I knew would be easy to load – two retired horses.
I had to leave my most valuable competition horse for my friend to try and load because I knew she could not be relied upon to load quickly at the best of times – let alone with a blackened sky and humans working under pressure.

If a good Samaritan had arrived to load her (as often occurs following social media calls for help), they may have wasted time that could have been spent relocating two other horses, or they may have just given up.
Luckily, the two horses I moved first had been transported in the prior 6 months, so they were ‘in practice’. Some retired horses may not have been transported for years.

Whereas once they were reliable, time, stress and injuries may make them a liability to load and transport. This means that you need to practice loading and transporting regularly.

If you only ever use a float and you have the chance to truck your horse (or vice versa), then take it. The more experience your horse has with different forms of transport, the easier they are to transport when it counts.

Likewise, train all of your horses to stand and tie reliably. You may find yourself at an evacuation site or safer place of refuge where there are no yards to hold horses, or even places to tie.

Natural disasters can ruin fencing – you may simply not have any yards or fences to keep horses contained, and you may need to keep stock separate from one another – such as mares and stallions.

  • To learn how to train or re-train any horse for easy haltering and tying go click here.
  • To learn how to train or re-train any horse for easy loading click here.

3. Keep your feeding regime simple

In the aftermath of a disaster, you may not be able to feed your horse the diet to which they are accustomed. You may not be able to access your horse if they are lost, you are injured or you are unable to access the property. You may not be able to access your usual feed because supply has been lost or your horse has been moved to another area where those feeds are unavailable.

Good Samaritans or animal rescue teams may be in charge of feeding your horse with no prior knowledge of your horse’s specific diet.

Keep this in mind when you make decisions about what to feed your horse, so that a rapid change in diet does not compound the other potential stressors facing your horse following a natural disaster. You may want to use feed that is widely available, for example, and avoid a monoculture hay/pasture diet so that a change of hay or pasture will be less of a shock to your horse’s digestive system.

4. Keep your rugging regime simple

Most rug-related natural disaster advice is around removing rugs on catastrophic fire days or rising flood waters to reduce the risk of horses burning or drowning. However, it may also help to keep your rugging in general very simple.

In the aftermath of a disaster, you may be separated from your horse for an unknown period of time. You may have no control over who is caring for your horse or how your horse is being cared for. You may not even know where your horse is. This could mean that your horse will be wearing whatever rugs it had on prior to the disaster.

Keeping your rugging regime simple and in good repair (and your horse in good body condition), will reduce the risk of horses becoming caught in their rugs, overheated or cold if they can’t be attended to in the aftermath of a disaster.

5. Socialise your horse

Under the threat of a natural disaster, you horse might be taken to a property without substantial fencing, yards and stables, or the disaster might have burnt or washed away local fencing.

For whatever reason, your horse might end up in a group housing situation with other horses. This is a very good reason to socialise your horses, so that they have the social skills they may need to tolerate temporary accommodation. This is also an excellent reason to geld horses who are not intended for breeding purposes.

6. Expose your horse to novel stimuli and environments

Firefighting appliances or other large emergency vehicles may attend your horse’s place of residence to defend against disasters.

Graders might come on site to create fire breaks. There may be flashing lights and crowds of people shouting.

Whilst it is not possible to desensitise your horse to all the potential stimuli it may face in the event of a natural disaster, there are many training techniques and approaches available to help your horse develop confidence facing novel stimuli.

This will reduce the risk of stress in horses which can lead to undesirable physiological responses such as stress colic or laminitis, as well as undesirable behavioural responses such as running through fences or being difficult to stand, tie or load.

To learn about the recommended habituation and desensitisation techniques click here.

Make the commitment

These six measures can be incorporated into your horse handling and training every day, all year round to improve your horse’s natural disaster resilience and chances of survival.

They will also make the lives of you and your horses easier, safer and happier.

What they do require is attention to basic principles of horse training and management as well as a commitment to achieving basic standards for all your horses – especially the ones that come with a special set of instructions.

References:

  • Thompson, K. R., et al. (2018). “Planned and ultimate actions of horse owners facing a bushfire threat: Implications for natural disaster preparedness and survivability.” International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 27: 490-498, available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212420917303369
  • Main, N. (2010). Hightailing into the fires: Bushfire planning on ACT horse agistment centres. Canberra, ACT, ACT Rural Fire Service, available at: http://cdn.esa.act.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/bushfire-planning-on-act-horse-agistment-centres.pdf
  • For example, https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/9453/Prepare-your-horse-for-bush-fire.pdf
  • Tom’s approach is discussed at length in the biography ‘Go Forward, Dear’ by Andrew McLean and Nikki Stuart, available at: https://horse-sa.myshopify.com