Evacuating the big guys — horses and other large livestock

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Guest post by Laura McLain Madsen, DVM

If you’ve watched the footage of the recent wildfires near Colorado Springs, you may have seen photos or video of people evacuating horses from the fires, and of horses that were tragically burned. In my last guest post I talked about packing your pet’s evacuation kit, but it gets much more complicated with a horse or other large animal. You can’t just put a horse in your car and take off.

image by eXtensionHorses
image by eXtensionHorses

The first consideration is transport. Do you have a trailer? Many horse owners don’t. If you have a trailer, keep it maintained so it’s ready to go. If you don’t have a trailer, start talking to horse-owning neighbors. If your neighbor has a trailer with more stalls than they have horses, they may be willing to load your horse on their trailer. This is a pretty big favor, so arrange the details (including an offer to reimburse for gas money) ahead of time.

Train your horse to trailer quickly and smoothly. In the photos from the Colorado fires, there are shots of people trying to bodily push horses into trailers. Trust me, you’re not going to move a 1200-pound horse unless he’s willing.

Start today—use gentle training techniques with positive rewards to teach the horse to load. In a disaster situation, you’ll be tense and your horse will pick up on your nervousness. You don’t want to be fighting a spooked horse when wildfire smoke or hurricane winds are blowing.

Also, anyone who might need to SAFELY drive/pull a horse trailer should be trained and practice. If it’s the husband or father that normally does it, the wife or other possible drivers should practice.

If there are no trailering options for your livestock, you’ll have to hand-walk them out of the evacuation zone. This is an option for smaller numbers of animals and shorter distances, but will be time-consuming, so start evacuating early.

The next consideration is, where will you go? When my neighborhood was evacuated a few years ago due to wildfire, a local equestrian center about ten miles away was opened as a temporary shelter for horses. Other possibilities are equine veterinary hospitals, fairgrounds, racetracks, or boarding stables. Make a list of facilities and directions ahead of time. Don’t wait for officials to designate a shelter location—get the horses loaded first and get on the road.

image by USFWS Headquarters
image by USFWS Headquarters

Wherever you shelter your horse, food will most likely not be provided. Water may or may not be available. A horse or other large animal goes through a lot of food and water in a day. A 72-hour kit for a horse isn’t something you can stuff in a backpack.

If you own your own trailer, keep a bale or two of hay stored in the trailer at all times. Grain is more calorie-dense, so easier to transport, but eating too much grain can cause colic or laminitis, so you’ll still need to transport hay. If water isn’t available at the equine shelter, use buckets or even large industrial garbage cans to hold and transport water. Each horse needs 12-20 gallons of water per day.

If you’ll be putting your horse in a facility with other horses, make sure you can positively identify him. Have photos from all angles of the horse, especially showing unique blazes, whorls, etc. Have documentation of permanent identification such as a microchip, tattoo and/or brand. Other means of identification are a name/address tag attached to the halter, a waterproof name/address tag braided into the tail, important papers in a zip-top bag duct-taped to the halter, or even a phone number spray painted on the horse’s flank.

Make sure your horse is current on immunizations. Minimally, you’ll want Eastern and Western equine encephalitis (EEE and WEE), West Nile Virus, tetanus, and rabies. Your veterinarian may also recommend equine influenza, strangles, equine herpesvirus, or other vaccines depending on your horse’s risk factors. Also make sure your horse is current on his Coggin’s test, a test for equine infectious anemia. This is required if you have to cross state lines.

Unless you frequently trailer your horse to shows or events, he’s probably going to be nervous about the evacuation process. Take leg wraps and bandaging material in case he spooks in the trailer and injures himself. Also take anti-inflammatory medications such as phenylbutazone or flunixin meglumine (Banamine), as recommended by your veterinarian. Other things to pack are extra lead ropes, extra halters (make sure they’re leather because nylon can melt), buckets, hoses, tack, and towels to blindfold nervous horses.

If you’re evacuating in advance of a hurricane, there are a few other issues to consider. Evacuate early, because trailering horses in winds over 40 mph is unsafe. When you return to your property, check the pasture for downed power lines, broken fencing, or branches of red maple which might have blown in (red maple causes red blood cell destruction and anemia).

Finally, in some cases, you may have such short notice to evacuate that you must leave your livestock behind. In that case, fill every trough, bucket and garbage can with water. Experts recommend leaving the animals out in the pasture rather than in the stable, as long as your pasture is well-fenced and without power lines or many trees. More horses died during Hurricane Andrew from being trapped in collapsed barns than from being injured by debris outdoors. In addition, if there is flooding, horses can seek high ground if they’re loose. Hopefully you’ll never have to leave your beloved horse behind, but make plans to cover all contingencies.

6 thoughts on “Evacuating the big guys — horses and other large livestock”

  1. Dr. Madsen –
    If I could add that newly wilted cherry leaves will kill large livestock and cherry limbs are often brought down in storms especially in the eastern part of the US.

    Years ago we realized that in the event a major disaster the best we could provide for our cattle,sheep and hogs would be as you suggested – fill up the water tanks, put out the hay, open the gates and turn them all loose.
    Figured we would deal with the roundup & rodeo when and if we had anything to return to.

    Our farm is located within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant. Our animal welfare plans in the event of some type of nuke disaster and fallout is to confine all animals with food & water for up to a week or 10 days until the nuke dust settles and then hose off everything & all critters.

    I believe every farm, homestead or small holder needs to consider & plan for the welfare of the animals that we steward in the event of some unforeseen occurrence.
    Thanks for the post 🙂

  2. Also, be aware of Japanese Yew. It is an evergreen often used around houses. Just 1 cup of the greens is enough to kill a full grown horse or cow. It causes a massive heart attack. Symptoms include seizures and disorientation, but if they are showing the symptoms it may very well be too late.

  3. Hi, the comments about the wilted cherry and yew are great as well- also remember that walnut trees can founder a horse, and if livestock is left out with oaks dropping acorns (fall), they’ll eat the acorns and it can also cause founder and colic.

    This is an excellent advise post about pre-disaster information. I have had to deal with post disaster situations and have compiled a list of what to do:


    Other sources include:
    Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue (TLAER)
    American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)
    Local/State emergency management

    All of them have some useful information.

  4. Laura McLain Madsen

    Granny Miller and Isabeau, Thanks for the additions. There are so many plants and trees that can be poisonous, that could be a post of its own!

    Granny Miller, very nicely put that we need to plan for the welfare of the animals we steward.

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