The original version of this article by Joanne Verikios was published in Equestrian Country Magazine, Issue 7, Winter 2019
as "How To Prepare Your Horse For An Emergency".
My Country by Dorothea Mackellar is a stirring poem that shows an awed but philosophical acceptance of the beauty and terror of nature. As I write this, parts of Dorothea's country - my country - are again being wracked by floods, starved by drought and destroyed by bushfires. Australia has cyclones too; other parts of the world have tornadoes, typhoons and hurricanes. And then there are earthquakes, mudslides and avalanches.
In addition to what nature throws at us, we sometimes have to deal with disasters that result from human error, or crimes such as arson.
So my question for you is, how ready are you and your horse for an emergency?
This article sets out some simple skills and tactics that could save your horse's life... and your own.
Number one is to THINK about all the horrible things that could happen, and have a PLAN.
If you have ever been involved in fire drills, then you will know how boring they can be. That's the idea! Going through the motions for evacuation when there's no emergency, prepares us for an orderly departure if and when there is a fire or a bomb threat. We need to bring that same approach to the stable and paddock.
Begin with the BASICS. Ensure that your horse is accustomed to being handled, leads without question, loads into a vehicle and will stand when tied. Remember that you might not even be on the scene when evacuation is required, so your owe it to your horse to make sure he or she is comfortable with being caught by other people.
The best way to get a horse to follow you out of a burning building, or indeed during any frightening circumstances, is to apply a blindfold. Teach acceptance of a blindfold in advance. Slowly and tactfully, practise covering your horse's eyes. Start with one hand and one eye, then both hands and both eyes, then use a shirt or a scarf. When you horse is comfortable with this (if you do it right they will come to enjoy it), start leading them around while blindfolded. Tie the blindfold or tuck it into the halter or bridle so you can remove it quickly, always keep your horse safe (you are now the eyes of the partnership) and begin with very short walks. As you can imagine, this really develops the trust your horse has in you. Having your horse responsive to you even though he or she cannot see, also builds mutual trust.
IMPORTANT: When you lead a horse out of a burning building, don't let him or her go until you have them securely enclosed or tied up at a safe distance. Unfortunately, horses have been known to dash back to the "comfort" of their stable, even if it's in flames.
If there is an approaching bushfire, you or someone else may need to load your horse onto a float, truck or trailer really fast. It may not even be your float and it may have one or more other horses already in it, so when the flames are approaching is not a good time to try this for the first time!
The key to success is to practise loading your horse into floats and trucks in advance. Begin at the walk. When that skill is solid, step it up to a jog, and then at "evacuate now!" speed. Even if your horse is a seasoned traveller, increase the pressure now and then by pretending to be in a real hurry. It's always interesting to find out how your horse reacts to a change of pace and atmosphere and you may be surprised to discover some areas that need more work. If you don't have a float to practise with, "load" your horse into yards and stables. Lead her into your house or or garage or garden shed! The more variations you can think of and work through, the stronger the bond between you and your horse will grow.
If possible, always tie your horse in the float. The first reason for this is that you don't want them to succeed in pushing through the front window or jumping over the tailgate if they happen to panic with all the noise and heat and smoke. Or to make a break for freedom if the personal access door swings open! When all hell is breaking loose is not a good time for your horse to break loose! The second reason is that you may be able to save other people's horses you encounter along the way, as long as yours can't escape when you drop the ramp.
Have a GO KIT ready to load into your vehicle too. This should include at least one bucket, a bale of hay or a bag of feed per horse, spare halters and lead ropes, a torch with batteries, mobile phone and charger and a basic first aid kit.
But what if there is no transport, or no time to get some? It's far from ideal, but in this case, you'll have to trust your horse's survival instincts and turn him or her loose. Before you do, though, here are a few tips.
Whether you're in a fire or a flood situation, improve the horse's chances by removing any halter, flyveil or other equipment that could catch on debris. As above, lock them out of the stable and prevent access to small areas where they might seek safety but could get trapped instead. Next, secure all yard and paddock gates in the open position and cut the fences in the corners so the horses can get out if they follow the fence lines in low visibility conditions.
Improve your chances of getting your horse back by having a set of current photographs showing their markings and brands. The photos can also come in handy for the authorities, posters and social media if your horse ends up lost or sheltered a long way from home. Make sure you know where your horse's registration papers are, and what his microchip number is. It's good practice to have photos, registration documents and other records uploaded somewhere that's safe, fireproof and waterproof. Oh, and do consider taking out insurance.
You should also write your phone number on your horse, preferably in a couple of places (not on a rug, which could burn or get torn off). Spray paint, permanent marker or even hoof black or boot polish are all options, depending on how organised and innovative you are. Another idea is to plait some ribbons into mane and tail with your details written on them in indelible ink. Some people recommend painting or writing your number on the hooves. If there's time, put it everywhere you can and take another couple of photos showing your ID efforts before release.
It's a good idea to mark your horse in this way even if you take them to a safe haven, in case conditions there change suddenly too.
To sum up…
It sounds scary and it is. I pray that you never have to use this information, but if you do, I hope the emergency best practices outlined above inspire you to create a training strategy, an evacuation plan, a Go Kit and identification procedures that will work for you.
When it's not life and death, you can make it a game or a drill. When it is life and death, you'll have a much better chance of survival. As the Boy Scouts say, BE PREPARED!
Joanne Verikios is a successful rider, breeder and exhibitor. She is an accomplished horsewoman and experienced judge. Joanne's book "Winning Horsemanship. A Judge's Secrets And Tips For Your Success" was written to give you that winning edge and is highly recommended. Apart from a wealth of information about horses, Joanne's book is jam packed with the art of winning in life.
While the focus is on the bond between humans and horses, it reveals powerful mindset and personal development techniques, often conveyed with humour. Joanne wrote her book to fill in the knowledge and experience gaps for people who didn't grow up around horses and horse people. Click here to buy the book or click here to ask Joanne a question.
From a very early age I have been able to tune in to what horses and ponies were thinking and what they were likely to do next.