Forecasters say a hurricane, firestorm, blizzard or other natural disaster is headed your way. With a day or less to prepare, take these measures to protect your horses.
Stock up on feed. With most disasters, it's difficult to predict how long you'll be cut off from your feed supplier. Your own property might emerge relatively unscathed, but delivery lines can be severed at any point. Assess your storage capabilities, and arrange to stockpile at least one week's worth of feed-even more, if you have room. If you store hay outdoors, cover the pile with a flame-resistant tarp to protect it from flying embers, high winds and precipitation.
Fill up on water. Water is the most urgent matter for horses following a natural disaster. Although horses can get by for several days on scanty rations, water deprivation quickly leads to dehydration and serious digestive problems. Aim to stockpile at least 20 gallons of water per horse, per day. Store it in troughs, large tanks or barrels at accessible points throughout the property, and secure the containers so they won't be damaged. If neighboring properties have wells, ask permission to use them in case of an emergency. Keep bottles of household bleach among your emergency supplies to kill pathogens in the water (one ounce treats 20 gallons of water) or buy water-purification tablets. Plan for ways of making nearby streams or lakes available to your horses during the crisis.
Identify your horses. In the absence of instantly visible identifying brands on your horses, you can paint pertinent information on the animals themselves. In the past, Californians threatened by wildfires have used grease "crayons" sold for marking cattle to write their names and phone numbers directly on their horses' hides. Robby Johnson, who survived Alabama's Hurricane Frederick in 1979, went a step further: He used fingernail polish to write his name, his veterinarian's name and other vital data on his horse's hooves. "You have four hooves, so you might as well identify your horse as best you can," he says. Finally, remember to keep some sort of identification on your person to present to authorities when you come to reclaim your property. You'll also need proof of identity to get back into an evacuation zone.
Adapt your exit strategy to the realities of the moment. You may have mapped out an emergency departure route in advance, but a flood or fire can change your plans hour by hour. Even if the disaster itself does not block your planned exit, emergency equipment or rescue efforts might. Listen for news reports on traffic/road conditions in your area, and contact people along your planned exit routes to see how things are shaping up.
Leave sooner, not later. Emergency personnel may advise you to evacuate. In floods, mud slides, blizzards or hurricanes, you may decide to move your horses to a safer location rather than tough it out. Fires, earthquakes and tornadoes are less predictable and escapable. Even if you don't think you need to leave, be prepared to do so throughout the crisis. Stock your trailer and vehicle with essential provisions, and have your horses confined and ready for loading.
Roads are likely to be crowded if you decide to evacuate, so the sooner you get on your way, the better. Another good reason to leave early: Just one foot of fast-moving water or a gust of gale-force wind is enough to tip a trailer.
If you stay put, however, don't expect to find help available to bail you out as the situation deteriorates. "Emergency rescue people get real frustrated with people who refuse to evacuate," says animal rescuer Terri Crisp. "I tell people if there is any possible risk of something hitting where you live, get those animals out of there immediately. If a hurricane takes a turn [and spares you], at least you've practiced."
This article first appeared in the September 1998 issue of EQUUS magazine.