A Safe Escape

By Dr. Lisel O’Dwyer

horse in trailer
Ideally horses will have been trained to calmly accept being loaded into a trailer prior to any emergency © Can Stock Photo/egonzitter

The Adelaide Hills, South Australia have recently faced severe brushfires, an unfortunate situation that has prompted the discussion of the logistical differences between evacuating and housing horses versus dogs and other small domestic pets in the face of natural disasters such as brushfires and floods.

The most obvious difference between evacuating dogs and horses is that it is, of course, much easier to evacuate dogs. The average horse owner can only transport his or her horse(s) with a horse float (also known as a horse trailer in the US or a horse box in the UK), whereas most dogs will fit into the average private car.

The vast majority of trailers hold two horses, although some are built to hold a single horse, and others built for three or more. Some horse people have horse trucks which can carry six or more horses, but these are in the minority. The use of trailers also requires a suitable towing vehicle, and both trailers and trucks need a driver familiar with towing heavy liveweight, which is quite different than towing deadweight.

Trailer Training

Assuming one has access to a trailer and towing vehicle when they are needed, horses must be trained to calmly and promptly enter the trailer. Before the trailer training stage though, they must be able to be easily caught, a skill comparable to a good recall in a dog, and be able to be led (comparable to loose leash walking with a dog).

Entering and standing in a small, often dark, enclosed space is completely against the average horse’s instincts which is why we need to actually spend time training them to load. Much of trailer training does not involve the actual trailer–the horse should be confident about stepping onto wooden boards and tarps, entering narrow or dark spaces, and moving forward away from light pressure on the halter or on his rump or tail.

Target training is a highly useful skill in these situations, and either a nose target or a foot target can be used.

Clearly, this is quite different to the situation with dogs’ transportation, where often all we have to do is open the car door! Of course, there are some dogs with high levels of anxiety about traveling in a car who require similar training, but a key difference between the two situations is that a person is able to stay with the dog while he is traveling in the car to reassure him with touch and voice.

Horses, on the other hand, are on their own in a vibrating, shaking box where they must also try to keep their balance during turns, braking and acceleration.

One method of helping an anxious horse to load and relax while in the trailer is to fix a mirror inside the float so that the horse thinks there is another horse nearby – company is very important for herd animals, who find safety in numbers. See Simple Trick Soothes Horses for more detail. Difficult loaders should be loaded last so the horse already loaded gives reassurance and acts as a “carrot” to the nervous loader.

The main point I am making here is that extensive trailer training may be necessary, depending on the individual horse, before he can be trusted to load reliably. An emergency is not the time to put a horse in a trailer for the first time. There are several methods of forcing reluctant horses onto trailers in such situations (which might also increase their stress levels), but it is best to train the horse properly in advance and thereby avoid taking more time to load him than you actually have.

To put it bluntly, properly trailer training a horse may save that horse’s life and the lives of the people handling him in a brushfire or flood situation. On the other hand, even quiet well-trained horses may panic and refuse to enter a trailer if it is filled with smoke, or if the handler is transmitting his or her own fear and tension.

If you have done considerable trailer training but your horse is still difficult to load even in normal circumstances, make sure you evacuate well ahead of time. If the worst comes to worst and not a minute more can be spared trying to persuade a reluctant loader, better to leave the horse behind and save yourself, your family and other animals’ lives.

In such cases with horses who are reluctant to load, or if horses cannot be evacuated for some reason (e.g., there are too many for the number of trailers based on the time it would take to transport some and return for the others), they should be moved to large paddocks (e.g., 10 acres) of bare ground or closely grazed ground, a paddock with a large dam or with lush green grass or possibly a sand arena if there are no trees or buildings nearby. They must not wear any rugs but safe halters (which will break if caught on something) should be left on.

Horses need to be identifiable after the fire has gone through as fencing may be burnt down, allowing them to move to other locations. It is possible to write a phone number on their coat using livestock grease crayons (make sure you have some handy), write it on their hooves with permanent marker or on a luggage tag securely affixed to their mane.

Microchipping is not as commonly done for horses as it is for small animals. Photos of yourself with the horse and photos of the horse’s brands and other identifying markings should be taken well in advance.

Other Modes of Transport

Small cattle trucks (stock trailers) will work if they are a single level and the horses are individually tied or restrained, but, depending on the floor height, may require access to a suitable loading ramp on or near the property where the horses are located.

Double level cattle trucks do not have sufficient head space for horses and require specialized loading ramps designed for cattle. Even if the head space on a cattle truck is sufficient and the horses are small, or are ponies or miniatures, it may be difficult to find a suitable cattle loading ramp available locally. Most cattle loading ramps are too narrow for horses, and handlers cannot walk safely beside the horse to lead and encourage them.

The back of a pick-up truck or minivan is really not suitable to transport even miniature horses and tiny ponies because it is impossible to safely restrain them.

A Safe Place

While dogs can be accommodated in friends’ and relatives’ homes in safe areas or in temporary community shelters, horses’ needs are more difficult to meet. Arranging a suitable place to take the horses must be considered. Foremost is the need for suitable fencing. Second is the need for adequate space.

There is a risk of fighting and injury if horses who do not know each other or who do not get along are put in a paddock together, especially if the area is small.

The addition of many extra hard hooves and mouths during the brushfire season when grass does not grow and water levels in dams are low may degrade the refuge’s ground cover and drain the water supply, given the fact that the evacuated horses are likely to be in their refuge for several days or more.

Part of being prepared to evacuate a horse is making sure the necessary training has been done, part is having the float and towing vehicle available, and part is having a safe place to go.

This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, March 2015, pp.50-51. For more great content on all things animal behavior and training, you can sign up for a lifetime, free of charge, subscription to the digital edition of BARKS from the Guild.

About the Author
Dr. Lisel O’Dwyer has a background in psychology and has shared her life with a range of species since childhood. At present she has five horses, one donkey, two cats, two dogs and five chickens, all of whom are clicker trained. Currently she is becoming involved with the new horse sport of agility training (unmounted and at liberty).

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