Emergency Planning: When It Really Counts, Will Your Farm Be Prepared?

By Sarah Evers Conrad

The day started like any other with morning lessons filled with happy children thrilled to be on the backs of their favorite steeds. The mid-day break rolled around, and the barn quieted down for a break. As horses happily munch on some hay, the owner of the small stable walked to her house on the property for some lunch of her own. Twenty minutes later she gazed out the window and gasped as she sees flames coming from the barn. They were already wreaking havoc on one side of the structure. As chaos ensues inside the barn, horses are nickering and squealing while some spin circles inside their stalls, panicked by the heat and the smell of the smoke. The barn owner races inside to try to save any horse she can.

She runs to the first stall, but then realizes she has no halter, and there isn’t one on the door. She flings the door open to just let the horse run out, but the horse is so panicked, he refuses to leave the place he has always known as his safe haven. Knowing that seconds count, she runs to the next stall, only to experience the same thing. The old barn doesn’t have any sprinklers or fire extinguishers, and she struggles with what to do next as the heat becomes unbearable. Knowing that she will die if she doesn’t get out immediately, she races out of the barn, and it is only then that she realizes she hasn’t even called the fire department. She struggles to look up the phone number using the Internet on her smart phone, but her phone isn’t cooperating. She finally makes the call. Hours go by as the fire fighters struggle to put out the fire. The barn owner, neighbors, and other horse owners have gathered to wait for a final verdict, but all is lost…all of the horses; the owner’s dog, which had been sleeping in the tack room; and the entire barn, not to mention her livelihood. It’s a nightmare scenario for any horse person…onne that we all hope to never experience.

However, just hoping it won’t happen to us doesn’t help if it does. While not all emergencies are preventable, there are precautions that can be taken to reduce the risk and steps to take beforehand so that if an emergency happens, a plan can be put in action to save lives. While the topic of emergency planning is a big topic, the Certified Horsemanship Association would like to share some of the most important tips for blog readers.

The Emergency Plan
First, it is crucial to create an emergency plan for your barn that details procedures to follow for any type of emergency that could happen in your area, whether it involves fire, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, mud slides, blizzards, etc. Plan for the worst case scenario. Post the plan in various places around the barn, next to all phones, and in the facility’s staff manual. The plan should be evaluated and updated periodically.

The plan should include:

    • Procedures for each kind of emergency scenario
    • All evacuation routes
    • Various routes that large emergency vehicles can use to access various parts of the farm. If one access route is cut off, an alternate should be chosen.
    • Procedures for transporting injured horses or people off of the property
    • Procedures to turn off water and electricity
    • The farm’s address and phone number that people can give to emergency personnel. Most people will not automatically have this memorized.
    • Phone numbers for several veterinarians, 911, police, the fire department, poison control, local large animal rescue groups, etc.

Education and Training

Educate all staff and participants, including children, at your facility about the emergency plan, and practice emergency drills and evacuations and how to lead all animals to safety. Everyone should know what to do should an emergency happen, and emergency procedures should be practiced periodically. Role playing can be especially effective with children. Handouts can be a great way for clients to remember the information after a training or drill session.

Due to the inherent nature of equine activities, it is a good idea to have at least some staff members, if not the entire staff, trained in first aid and CPR for people and first aid and emergency care for horses. Eventually a fall or accident is bound to happen on a farm, and the outcome for the horse or rider could be affected by how the emergency is handled.

In addition to practicing with staff and clients, evacuation practice should happen with all horses. Teach horses to be led with their eyes covered in case of a fire, so that panic doesn’t prevent them from being led to safety. Make sure that all adults can safely handle a horse in an emergency, despite any chaos. All horses should be accustomed to trailer loading in a rush, even in adverse conditions, such as during a storm. Horses should also easily follow a handler through water or debris.

Emergency Equipment

Everyone should know the location of all fire extinguishers, fire hydrants, hoses, first aid kits for both horses and humans, and other safety and emergency equipment. All staff and clients should know how to use equipment correctly.

Installation of fire hoses, lightning rods, smoke detectors, sprinklers, or other devices is recommended and may be required according to local building codes, the fire department, or your insurance company. Fire alarms or another emergency alert system should be in place and be appropriate for the size of your facility.

Horse Equipment

Keep a horse’s halter and a lead rope by each stall if the horse is inside so that they can quickly and safely be evacuated in case of a fire or other emergency. In addition, having something readily available that can be used to cover a horse’s eyes is important.

Know Your Local Emergency Personnel

If you can, invite your local fire department and large rescue group for a tour of your farm and a review of your emergency procedures so that should an emergency happen, they will already be familiar with your farm. In addition, leave each group information about your farm, how many staff and horses are usually on the property during various times of the day, all emergency procedures with locations of equipment, etc. The tour and information can be a great way to facilitate a quicker and smoother emergency response. In addition, if local fire fighters or other local emergency personnel have never worked with horses, have an introductory session to teach them the basics. Also, invite personnel to wear any typical equipment so that all horses become comfortable around a person in full fire fighting gear.

Disasters Off the Farm
Plans should also be put in place for when staff, clients, and horses travel off of the farm to horse shows, equine events, trail rides, camping trips, and other excursions. Everyone should know basic safety procedures, evacuation routes, meet-up locations in case people are separated, and other emergency protocols at other equine facilities since emergencies can happen anywhere. Also, when traveling off of the farm, don’t forget to keep a human and a horse first aid kit in the trailer.

Don’t forget to discuss any special medical needs with parents for children traveling to shows or other events. A phone or other means of communication during any excursion is a must-have item. If cell phone service is not available in a more remote area, than a satellite phone or a two-way radio are options.


Natural disasters can sometimes damage fencing, causing horses to escape and become lost. It is recommended that horses already have a permanent form of identification, such as a microchip or brand. In addition, if a natural disaster is looming, owners can use a temporary form of identification. Some options include: duct taping a waterproof ziplock bag with important information about the horse and the owner to the horse’s halter or braiding it into the horse’s tail, painting a phone number on your horse’s hoof with non-toxic paint, or using a neck band. In case a possible separation from your horse is possible. Make sure to have proof of ownership and photos of your horse, in case you have to find your horse at an evacuation facility, etc.

Evacuation Plans

If you live in an area prone to evacuations for natural disasters, such as along the East Coast for hurricanes or in the West for wildfires, be familiar with where you can take your horses in case of an evacuation. If the evacuation facility is compromised, you should have an alternate, and perhaps an alternate for the alternate. Be prepared for an alternate evacuation route as well and know whether that route will accommodate a horse trailer.

Have a plan in place for how to transport all of your horses. Keep your truck and trailer in good working order to be ready at a moment’s notice. Are horses up to date on vaccinations and do they have all necessary paperwork to be transported (i.e, a current Coggins test and a Health Certificate to cross state lines)? If you don’t have a trailer, then plan who will help you in advance. In some cases, facilities may fill up fast, so don’t wait too long or there may be no stalls or paddocks left. Also, keep in mind that it is dangerous to transport horses in winds beyond 40 mph, so don’t wait until that hurricane hits the coast.

If you can’t move your horses, who can help you care for them if you have to leave without them or if roads are impassable and you can’t get to the barn? You will need to make sure all horses have plenty of hay and clean water for two to three days, at least. If you must leave your horses outside and evacuate due to a storm, do not leave horses near power lines or toxic trees (ie, Red Maple) that could fall. Also, do not use a field with an electric fence that could end up shut off if power is lost. Inspect the field for debris or other hazards. Plan ahead in case water sources become contaminated. If a horse needs special medications or has special nutritional requirements, make sure the information is handy in case the owner can’t get to the barn due to a natural disaster. You should also think about how will animals be confined if structures are destroyed. If power is lost, is there a generator?

Obviously, there is a lot to think about for emergency planning. Below are a few more resources to continue learning about emergency planning.

If your barn has been through a major emergency, let us know what you may have learned during the experience or feel free to share how your emergency plan worked. Feel free to share in the comments below.

Additional Sources on Emergency Planning:

  • Book: The Certified Horsemanship Association’s Standards for Equestrian Programs Manual
  • Website: http://www.thehorse.com/topics/horse-care/disasters/emergency-planning
  • Book: Animal Management in Disasters by Sebastion Heath
  • In-Person Training: Seminars are often held through an extension office, local agricultural university, or through a large animal veterinary clinic, or veterinary association.
  • Website: http://www.aaep.org/info/emergency-disaster-and-preparedness-290

Sarah Evers Conrad is currently the Digital Content Editor at Horse Illustrated and Young Rider magazines. She also owns All In Stride Marketing. She is an award-winning equestrian journalist with a background in magazine publishing, feature writing, news and event coverage, editing, digital marketing, social media, and website management. Conrad has been published in equine publications such as The Horse, Blood-Horse, Equestrian, Arabian Horse Life, USDF Connection, the American Quarter Horse Journal, Paint Horse Journal, Off-Track Thoroughbred, Stable Management, Camp Business magazine, Lexington Family magazine, and HorsesDaily.com and DressageDaily.com. She is also the current editor for the Certified Horsemanship Association’s official publication, The Instructor magazine. Conrad has also edited several books, including CHA’s “The Equine Professional Manual—The Art of Teaching Riding.” Learn more at www.equestrianjournalist.com.