Dealing With Severe Weather: Being Prepared Can Save Your Horse's Life
As the year winds down, many horse owners are still dealing with the aftermath of horrendous natural disasters. From massive flooding and damage caused by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in multiple states, as well as Puerto Rico, to devastating wildfires in California and Oregon, destructive hailstorms in Colorado and Texas and a higher number of tornadoes than usual, severe weather events impacted thousands of people in 2017, destroyed lives and property, and wrought billions of dollars in damage.
Some horse owners fared better than others, and careful preparation played a large role. You can't change the forecast, but you can take steps to be as ready as possible. Knowing what to do ahead of time will ensure your horses have the best chance of surviving dangerous weather.
First Things First
When extremely severe weather (such as a major hurricane) is expected, evacuating your horses out of the area of impact may be the best option. If you decide to evacuate, don’t wait until the last minute or you may be stranded in traffic with your horses in the trailer — definitely not where you want to be when the storm strikes.
We'll address evacuating in greater detail in a future article, but for now, let's look at what you should do if you're staying put.
Making a plan is essential, and you should have one in place well before a potential storm/fire/flood threatens. Preparation should include:
- Keeping all horses up to date on vaccinations
- Having current Coggins paperwork for each horse in case you decide to evacuate
- Having an equine emergency wound care/first aid kit on hand Keeping trees around fences and structures trimmed
- Maintaining fences in good condition year-round
- Taking photos of each horse; keep both hard copies and digital files (on your phone, tablet, etc.)
- Having a generator to run your well so you have water if there's no electricity
- Fill water containers ahead of time if you won’t be able to run your well if the power goes out
- Stocking up on feed and hay so you have enough for at least a week, preferably longer
- Making sure you have enough of your horse’s medications and supplements to last out an emergency
- Having enough fly spray and spot-on fly control (especially in warm-weather season)
- Putting identification on horses before severe weather hits to make it easier to reclaim them if they get loose
- Having a battery-powered weather radio to stay current with changing forecasts
- Having fence-repair supplies on hand to fix any storm-related damage in case stores don’t reopen for awhile
A simple way to put ID directly on your horse is to write your cell phone number in large print along the horse's sides with a contrasting-color livestock paint marker.
Ducks in a Row
"It's all about preparation; you need to have a plan in advance,” says Mark Shuffitt, livestock agent at the University of Florida/Marion County Cooperative Extension Service in Ocala, Florida, and long-time horse owner. “Especially with a hurricane, you know it's coming so you have time to prepare.
"The old rule of thumb was to have feed and water on hand for three days, but that's not long enough. You should have at least a week's worth," he notes, adding that you should expect to be without power and plan accordingly.
If you're on a well, having a generator powerful enough to operate it will ensure that you have running water, even if the power is out. If you don’t connect a generator to your well, you'll need to fill enough water containers to have plenty of water for your horses for at least a week or longer.
"Many people I talked to after Hurricane Irma weren't prepared and had no way to run their wells," says Shuffitt. "For under a thousand dollars, you can have a generator powerful enough to run your well. It doesn't have to run the whole farm, but at least you'll have water."
Downed trees and structural damage are common after strong storms. Keeping your trees limbed up and trimmed can lessen the damage. This is especially important if trees are over buildings and/or fences.
You'll also want to keep fences well maintained, repairing and replacing weak posts, boards and wire throughout the year so fencing is in the best shape possible in the event of severe weather.
Identification on Horses
Before a severe weather situation, make sure your horses have some sort of reliable identification directly on them. Identification of horses is crucial, especially if they might end up loose and miles from home.
One of the best options is to write your cell phone number in large print along the horse's side with a contrasting-color livestock paint marker. The number will be visible to passersby even if they aren't close enough to catch the horse. These grease paint markers will last for several days, even in rain. (Livestock markers can be purchased at a livestock or farm supply store.)
Another method is to write your contact information with a permanent marker on a plastic neckband or ear tag (the kind used for cattle, hogs and sheep) and secure it to the horse’s mane or tail by braiding it in. You can also write your phone number on the horse's hoof with a permanent marker. Keep in mind that both of these options will only identify the horse if someone is able to catch him.
Inside or Out?
Horse owners agonize over where is the safest place for their animals in a severe storm. The barn might seem the logical choice, but that isn’t necessarily so.
"Our recommendation in a hurricane is to turn them out, because they at least have a chance if they're outside," says Shuffitt, noting that barn or roof collapse can be fatal if horses are locked in their stalls.
Flying debris can present a danger to horses during a storm, but it’s still generally considered safer for horses to be left outside than inside a barn.
In a storm of great magnitude (think Katrina), turning horses loose is of course no guarantee they’ll survive, but at least they’ll have a fighting chance. Horses will instinctively seek out the safest places when given the opportunity. Put them in the largest field available with high ground and the fewest trees. Avoid fields with power lines because the lines may go down during the storm.
Shuffitt does not recommend leaving halters on horses. While a halter can be a form of identification, it can also help a panicked horse get hung up on something.
In extreme situations, like when a wildfire is approaching and there’s no time to trailer out your horses, you need to give them the opportunity to survive. Put identification on each horse, then open gates and cut fences so they’ll have a chance to run to safety. Local governments and rescue teams are usually successful at reuniting animals with their owners after a disaster.
After the Storm
While your first thought is to run outside and check on your horses as soon as a storm has subsided, use common sense. Whenever a storm is accompanied by strong winds, trees and large branches that have been weakened by the onslaught might not fall until hours later, so use caution when walking the area.
If you see any downed power lines, assume they’re live and contact your power company immediately. Remove horses from the area and don't try to move any wires.
"With a broad-impact storm, like Hurricane Irma, we saw widely different impacts even in one county," relates Shuffitt. "Some areas had only four inches of rain, while other areas of the same county had 12 inches and significant flooding. Power outages, fallen trees on fences and flooding were the biggest issues we faced in this storm."
As soon as it’s safe, walk the property to assess damage. Walk all fence lines to check for damage from trees, broken boards, wire and natural debris that may have been washed in or blown onto the field. If the area is flooded, keeping horses off the pasture until the soil has firmed up can help prevent further damage to roots and soil.
Depending on the time of year, standing water can lead to a large mosquito outbreak, as was the case in Florida with Hurricane Irma. This is another reason you want to keep horses up to date on vaccinations against mosquito-borne diseases, such as Eastern and Western Equine Encephalitis and West Nile Virus. Since horses may be injured by debris during or after a storm, being current on their tetanus vaccine is also recommended.
While you can’t change the course of a storm, fire or flood, you can take precautions to protect your horses from harm. Being prepared ahead of time will give you the best opportunity to avoid the potentially catastrophic consequences of natural disasters.
Weather Dangers Tip #1: Put Identification on Your Horse
If your horse gets loose in a severe weather event, will someone be able to identify him and notify you? A simple way to put ID directly on your horse is to write your cell phone number in large print along the horse's sides with a contrasting-color livestock paint marker. The number will be visible to passersby even if they aren't close enough to catch the horse. The markings will last for several days, even in rain. Purchase grease paint livestock markers online or at livestock and farm supply stores to have on hand in case you need them.
Weather Dangers Tip #2: Don't Get Caught Short-Handed
If a severe weather event is forecast for your area, don't wait until the last minute to prepare. Stock up on feed, hay and any special supplements and medications your horse needs so you have at least a week's supply — or more — on hand. If you won’t be able to run your well if the power goes out, fill enough containers with water to last a week or more, i.e. 5 to 10 gallons per day per horse.
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