Wildfire! Flood! Earthquake! Horse-Specific Emergency Planning

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wildfire prepared, flood prepared, earthquake prepared, Fort McMurray fire, emergency evacuation, natural disasters, emergency preparedness plan, returning home after natural disaster, horse ID, horse safety

Are You Prepared?

By April D. Ray

On the third day of May 2016, Sarah Burns was in Cochrane, Alberta at the time the wildfire evacuation was announced over 750 kilometres away in Fort McMurray. Her two horses were being taken care of by friends at the time, but they were in the evacuation zone and when the fire headed to town it was moving so quickly that the horses couldn’t be moved out in time. To give them the best chance of survival, the gate to their field was removed and the horses were released with no time to even put identification on them. 

Over the next 48 hours Sarah did everything she could to get to her horses and get them to safety, but the rules put in place to prevent people from entering the evacuated zones were stringent and it was nearly impossible to gain access. Eventually Sarah’s friends were able to get access and the additional approval needed to get to the location of the horses. With two empty spots left on the trailer, Sarah’s horses were found grazing right beside their field and loaded, safe and without injury. 

“I remember a reporter coming up to me as we waited, the convoy of people finally heading south after being stuck at the camps, and they asked me if I was worried about my home,” said Sarah. “My reply was simple: Let it burn, I just want my horses to be safe. I’m sure that’s not the reply they were hoping for but it’s significant. I can replace everything in my home, they are material objects. My horses are living, breathing family members.”

In a province that is estimated to have over 320,000 horses, approximately 33 percent of the total horse population in Canada, virtually every municipality in Alberta has a horse or equine-based business. In a disaster as extensive as the Fort McMurray wildfires, the immense impact on the horse community is evidence of the importance of emergency preparation.  

Across Canada there is one thing horse owners have in common: We all want what is best for our horses. No matter what discipline we favour, whether we compete or ride just for fun, we all take steps to ensure that our horses are well looked after, happy and healthy. But what about when it comes to preparing for our worst nightmare? At the very least, most barns will have a first aid kit or two and maybe some fire extinguishers. But in the event of a natural disaster like an earthquake, fire, flood or tornado, do any of us have what it takes to make the best of the worst situation? While it’s uncomfortable to think about what would happen if we suffered at the wrath of Mother Nature, we aren’t doing ourselves or our horses any favours by ignoring the possibility of a natural or man-made disaster.

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The wildfire burning near Fort McMurray on May 1, 2016. Photo: Jason Woodhead/Creative Commons


Given the varied weather types and landscape in Canada, the threat of severe weather and geological events is a constant reality. Natural disasters can include wildfires, floods, hurricanes, tornados, hailstorms and landslides. Many provinces can fall victim to severe weather including blizzards and ice storms, and approximately 5,000 (mostly small) earthquakes are recorded each year. Since Canada is bordered by three oceans, in the event of a major earthquake there could be a considerable risk of a tsunami in certain areas.    

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A category F5 tornado viewed from the southeast as it approached Elie, Manitoba, on June 22, 2007. Photo: Justin Hobson

The federal government’s four pillars of emergency management are prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. These pillars can be used as a guideline when assessing your own capacity to prevent, protect against, respond to and recover from major disasters and other emergencies.      

It is our sole responsibility to take care of our horses as there is no government or disaster agency responsible for the evacuation, transportation and stabling of horses during a large-scale incident. Considering that the majority of stables are located in rural areas, it might take even longer for help to come so don’t expect the city or county services to be available. Barn owners should be responsible and able to remain self-sufficient in an emergency. 

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On October 15, 1954, Hurricane Hazel smashed into Toronto as a category 1 storm, causing 81 deaths and washing out 50 bridges. This house had floated from Raymore Drive, further upstream on the Humber River, where the street of houses was washed away with a large loss of life. Photo: Wikimedia/Martin Taylor


Wildfires are a natural hazard in any forested and grassland region in Canada. Provinces with the highest wildfire occurrence are British Columbia, the boreal forest zones of Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Wildfires commonly occur from May to September, putting lives at risk and causing extensive damage. Approximately 8,000 wildfires occur each year in Canada with 55 percent of those being human-caused and the remainder being caused by lightning.

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View of wildfire near Highway 63 in south Fort McMurray on May 3, 2016. Photo: Darren RD/Creative Commons

Alberta and British Columbia have seen their share of serious wildfires in recent years. The Slave Lake region of northern Alberta evacuated 12,055 residents in May 2011, in the face of 49 wildfires that caused $753 million in damages. Between July and September, 2014, wildfires in BC caused $300 million in damages and burned close to 360,000 hectares, the third largest area in BC’s fire history.

Then, just a year ago Canada experienced the worst natural disaster to date when on May 1st a wildfire began southwest of Fort McMurray, Alberta. It took just a couple of days to sweep through the community and force a large-scale evacuation of close to 90,000 residents out of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, making it the largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta’s history. Evacuation lasted from May 1 to June 1, displacing people from their homes for a month. 

A provincial state of emergency was in place from May 4 to July 1, 2016 and the aid response included personnel from the Canadian military, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and firefighting forces from Alberta, other Canadian provinces, US, Mexico, and South Africa. The wildfire destroyed an estimated 590,000 hectares and approximately 2,400 structures, nearly 10 percent of the city and 655 work camp units. Estimates show the total direct and indirect cost of the wildfire will surpass $9.5 billion making it the costliest disaster in Canadian history. While not confirmed, it is suspected to have been caused by humans in a remote area. The fire continued to burn well into 2017, smouldering in deep layers of moss and dirt throughout the winter, and wasn’t expected to be extinguished until the spring.

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Across Canada approximately 8,000 wildfires occur each year, with slightly more than half caused by humans.

In the face of unimaginable tragedy, the Alberta equine community stepped up to offer help to Fort McMurray horse owners and people opened up their trailers, homes, and farms. The Alberta Equestrian Federation (AEF) was the first point of contact for updates and coordinated with many other provincial equine organizations to help those in need. The need for monetary funds for feed, water, transportation, and veterinary care was a huge priority with the AEF matching donations received up to $5,000.

Sarah Burns, whose horses were caught in the Fort McMurray fire and eventually evacuated, has some advice for other horse owners when it comes to being prepared for an emergency. “The biggest thing I would say is if you are going to own a horse, own a trailer and a vehicle to tow it. If you don’t have the means to relocate your horses on your own then you are not prepared. Also, make sure your equipment is in top shape, and have an emergency route planned: Where are you getting water? Can you let the horses out in a safe place to rest on the route? How much hay do you have ready to go? Do you have the means and education to handle small medical situations?” 

All of Sarah’s tack and supplies were lost in the fire, including emergency equipment with spare halters and vet kit. Fortunately, friends came through with vet kits from Moore Equine Veterinary Centre near Calgary, eight horse trailers to help with rescue, and contacts to help triage horses as they came out of the fire scene. At the time of the fires Sarah also granted permission to emergency services to break the locks on her trailer to utilize it to rescue other horses from at-risk areas.

Now Sarah has a lock box on the trailer with keys in it so anyone can access it in an emergency situation. She also has spare halters everywhere, and two vet kits on hand.

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A woman seen riding through downtown Fort McMurray fleeing the wildfire that caused mandatory evacuation. Photo: Julie Lodge

Sorrel Schoenberger experienced a fire in 2003 in Falkland, BC. The Silver Creek fire caused her to evacuate about 10 horses, including a mare and foal. While they didn’t have a plan in place they were lucky in that they were able to move the horses to safety about 10 minutes away and had time to evacuate in an orderly and safe manner. Despite not having a plan in place they did have a well-maintained truck and trailer, and the horses were experienced travelers that loaded well. Sorrel was also able to use her truck and trailer to help evacuate other people’s horses that were in imminent danger closer to the fire.

In hindsight Sorrel said she would do things slightly differently. All of her horses are now microchipped in addition to being tattooed. She also has livestock markers on hand to write her phone number down in case the horses somehow get lost or have to be turned out. Having a location to evacuate to is crucial, as is having horses that load and trailer well. 

“I think one important point to note is that in the event of a forest fire people often feel the need to evacuate their horses before it is necessary,” she says. “In my experience, people were evacuating their horses from areas that were in fact not in danger from the fire, and this resulted in difficulty in finding places to take horses that actually were in imminent danger. So for horses in trouble, there was essentially nowhere to take them because those available stalls and pastures were filled due to owners panicking.”

Sorrel adds, “I think that the most important thing regarding disaster preparedness is to have a plan. Because in the event of a disaster, you will find yourself under stress and having some sort of plan to fall back on will give you direction. Make sure you have access to a horse trailer and that all your horses load well, even young stock. Make sure your equipment, such as halters and lead ropes, is in good condition and easy to locate. Have a list of emergency phone numbers, and discuss ahead of time where you will take your horses in the event you need to evacuate. Be sure to have a way to identify your horses should you become parted from them – a brand, a record of their tattoo for ex-racehorses, or a microchip – with the number written in a safe place, and have photographs of markings and any distinguishing features.”

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Slave Lake, Alberta, in June 2011 after wildfire destroyed one-third of the town. Photo: Wikimedia/MrsRamsay


In terms of property damage, floods are the most costly natural disasters in Canada. They can occur at any time of the year and in any region, and can be caused by heavy rainfall, snowmelt or a combination of the two. Between 1900 and 2005 there were 241 flood disasters in Canada. 

Toronto, Ontario experienced that province’s most costly natural disaster in July of 2013 with an estimate of insured property damage coming in at more than $900 million. A record-smashing rainfall soaked the city leaving cars stranded and widespread power outages. 

In June that same year, Calgary and surrounding areas experienced heavy rainfall that triggered catastrophic flooding. Described by the provincial government as the worst in Alberta’s history, it was the costliest disaster in Canadian history before the Fort McMurray wildfires. Five people were confirmed dead as a direct result of the flood and over 100,000 people were displaced throughout the region, with overall costs estimated to be over $5 billion.   

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Flooding in Grand Forks, BC, that overtook several farms. Photo courtesy of the BC Provincial Emergency Program

In June of 2013, Alyson McCann had just started a new job and was in charge of 80-plus horses when flooding hit the Calgary and Canmore area. While on the road back to the site with horses on the trailer, she got word that the flood warning had been increased to severe and they had to leave the trailer and horses at a partner’s site for a week. While their barn was on the border of the flood warning, they were lucky to have some higher points where the horses could go. Trying to manage the large number of horses in the relatively small dry space available was challenging. The flooding got so bad they had to evacuate some staff and help with removing horses from other areas, which ended up with them walking horses through belly-high water and even evacuation of locals in farm machinery.

While they did have an emergency plan in place, most of the preparation they had done on site was geared towards fires and not floods. Alyson says after going through that experience she would now have a full flood prep package ready including contact information prepared for each horse in the event they have to be released for their own safety, and a pre-set arrangement with an outside party that would be a safe location for the horses to go to. But with such large numbers the challenge would really lie in the ability to move the horses, with a need for outside people willing and able to help should they need to evacuate. Having enough feed on hand to survive being cut off from the outside was their saving grace in this instance.

“We always think – Oh, that can’t happen to us. But then it hits and it hits us hard. Having a plan may seem silly now but you never know. I would recommend having back up feed just to carry you through at least a week more than you think, have it planned how to put contact information on your horse. Have photo records of your horses with written description and photos of distinguishing marks, and a list of places that may be able to assist with board, pasture, or transport to safety.”

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Severe flooding of the tributary rivers of Quebec’s Saguenay River in July, 1996 devastated the region, causing the evacuation of more than 15,800 residents and damaging thousands of homes, roads and bridges. Photo: Wikimedia


Earthquakes resulted in the loss of more than a million lives worldwide in the 20th century and are perhaps the most dangerous of all natural hazards. While not widely recognized as a major threat, in Canada each year more than 50 earthquakes occur that are strong enough to be felt. Looking back in history, earthquakes in Cornwall, Ontario in 1944; on southern Vancouver Island, BC in 1946; and in the Saguenay region of Quebec in 1988, have totaled up millions of dollars in damage. 

For as long as I can remember we have been hearing about “The Big One” here on the west coast of BC. An active boundary between tectonic plates makes Western Canada subject to frequent and violent activity. Having experienced a few smaller earthquakes over the years, the thought of the ground shaking and the subsequent damage and destruction that could occur is nothing short of terrifying. Add into that the responsibility for 20 horses at home and the terror leads to even more dread. 

What happens when the earth starts shaking will depend on the severity of the earthquake and of course, your location. Anyone close to the water needs to consider the possibility of a tsunami and having to evacuate. Having said that, most horses are not threatened by earthquakes, but some may be aware of them well before humans. Some abnormal behaviour should be expected following an earthquake, especially if there are aftershocks occurring. Some horses may become aggressive, erratic, and out of control, often needing to be soothed or distracted by food and attention. Returning to a regular routine as quickly as possible can help alleviate this undesirable behaviour.   

Related: The Barn Owner's Vacation Checklist


There’s an old saying that failing to prepare is preparing to fail. One of the first steps in preparing your barn for an emergency is to make sure that your own home is prepared, especially if you live on the same site as the barn. While it’s rare to put ourselves before our horses, it’s something we must do in the event of an emergency. What chance do you have of taking care of your horses if you can’t take care of yourself?

The Red Cross recommends that you keep a disaster preparedness kit in your home with enough supplies to last for a minimum of 72 hours including:

  • Water
  • Non-perishable food
  • Manual can opener
  • Crank or battery-operated flashlight and radio, with extra batteries
  • Extra keys for house and vehicles
  • First aid kit 
  • Cash in small bills
  • Special needs items (i.e., medications, infant formula)
  • Personal hygiene items
  • Important family documents (i.e., copies of birth and marriage certificates, licenses, wills, land titles and insurance)
  • A copy of your Home Emergency Plan

Once that’s looked after it’s time to put together an Emergency Plan specifically for your barn and horses. While it’s impossible to plan for every imaginable situation, the planning you put in ahead of an emergency could make the difference between life and death. 

Horse-Specific Planning 

Every horse in the barn should have a halter and lead rope outside their stall or paddock gate. Having additional halters and lead ropes in multiple locations on site is also a good idea. Storing extra feed buckets, bedding, pitchforks, shovels and wheelbarrows will come in handy as well.  

There are many ways to ID your horse for emergency situations. Some suggestions include:

  • Copies of ID papers (if applicable), insurance papers, and photographs of your horse with your name, address, horse’s name and description, and your vet’s name and number in a Ziplock® bag wrapped around the horse’s halter with duct tape.
  • Luggage tags with the same information can be braided into the horse’s mane and tail.
  • Some horses will already have a tattoo, microchip or brand, but if not you can even take small clippers and clip your phone number into the horse’s neck if time allows.
  • Spray paint or etch the hooves.
  • Auction crayons work as well.

A horse’s ID should include any vital information such as medical history, allergies, and vaccination records and can be stored in a watertight plastic bag. Having something ready beforehand is preferred as time is short in an emergency. 

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Identification information for your horse can be attached to the halter with duct tape, or braided into the horse's mane and tail.

Long Range Planning 

Keeping in mind the possible disasters likely to occur in your area, develop a written plan for each. These plans should be kept in your disaster preparedness kit and reviewed regularly with everyone who comes to your barn, including boarders, staff and coaches. The plan should also be available in multiple places on your property including tack room, horse trailer, and barn entrances so it can be clearly communicated during an emergency with everyone and anyone present. Emergency contact information on hand should include first responders, veterinarian, your contact information, and others who are willing to assist during an emergency.

In the event you need to evacuate your horses, plan for two or more exit routes and a prearranged destination that can accommodate your horses. Make arrangements beforehand with a friend or another horse owner to take your horses to a safe zone. It’s also important to have a Plan B if it’s impossible to take your horses with you when you evacuate. Depending on the particular event, your horses may be better off in a barn or loose in a field should you have to leave them behind.  

If you own a truck and trailer they should always be in good working order with a full tank of gas and fully insured. Make sure that your horses will load easily, especially given the added stress of a possible evacuation. 

At all times there should be enough feed for the horses to last one week in the event of being cut off from deliveries or if unable to get to the feed store. Determine how much feed can safely be stored and ideally have it stored away from the barn or home. Pelleted feed and grains should be stored in metal containers with secure lids, and if hay storage is outside you can purchase a flame resistant tarp to cover the stack to protect it from embers in the event of a fire. Hay should be elevated (pallets) to avoid mold and spoilage. For horses needing special feed or medicine, make sure it is part of your disaster kit. That kit should also include a chart of feed each horse requires; if you have to evacuate this will be very helpful at the evacuation site.

If public water services are cut off there will be a need to have water stored for your horses, preferably in several locations on your property. In colder climates this can get tricky given the lower temperatures in the fall and winter. To avoid freezing water, purchasing a de-icer is a good idea. In order to ensure that the water stored is potable, it should be changed at least four times a year. Water storage containers need to be secure and unable to become contaminated. You can also have on hand water purification tablets that are available from most camping stores.  

Each horse will require between 12 and 20 gallons of water per day, and there must be adequate water available for other livestock and pets on the property. Plan to have sufficient water on hand for at least 72 hours, which for a barn of 10 horses means storage capacity of 360 gallons minimum. Considering that most commercially available water storage barrels hold 55 gallons, storing enough water for just 10 horses can be a significant undertaking. Emergency responders may be too busy dealing with the crisis to provide assistance, so self-reliance is your best option for coping in a disaster situation.   

If on a well, make sure to have a back-up electrical power system to run the well pump and people on hand who know how to operate it. For barns that are equipped with automatic waters, ensure that there are enough water buckets on hand should you need to water horses by hand in the event of a disruption of water service.

Keep your horses’ records and vaccinations up-to-date. Even if you don’t plan to haul out to horse shows or other barns, in the event of an emergency it is possible your horse could be exposed to other horses needing shelter at your facility or if you have to evacuate to another site. The spread of equine infectious diseases is the last thing you want to be dealing with on top of a disaster.   

While just good practice regardless of an emergency, ensure that any chemicals or toxic materials are stored in waterproof containers, preferably in a storm-proof building. Any supply of diesel fuel, gasoline, propane, or kerosene needs to be at a safe distance from the house and barn. 


No matter what type of event has occurred, returning home after a disaster can be very distressing. You need to be prepared both emotionally and with all of the personal belongings you were able to escape with. Make sure your phone is fully charged and you have essentials needed for at least 14 days including food, water, medications, etc. for yourself and your horses. Consider using a cooler in case your fridge/freezer is no longer functional or you are without power. 

Stay up-to-date on news reports and know which roads are open or closed, and the areas that may still be under evacuation notice. Now would also be a good time to restock your emergency kit. 

If you had to leave without your horses, check them immediately on your return for cuts or any other injuries, and seek veterinarian help if needed. Horses are creatures of habit and tend to stay close to home, or they could have been taken away by a local resident. If your horses are missing contact the SPCA. You also need to do a complete check of the structure of your home and barn for safety and integrity, looking for unstable trees or any other damage or debris on your property.

Depending on the extent of the damage, hopefully life can now start to return to normal. It might take some time to rebuild, repair, and recover. Regardless, when it comes to your horses you need to monitor them for any digestive upsets or other injuries or sickness. Stress can be really hard on horses and returning to a regular schedule as soon as possible will help them both mentally and physically.


Specific resources to help prepare for an equine-involved emergency can be found on your provincial equestrian association’s website or by contacting them directly. There is an endless amount of information out there, especially online, but each province has region-specific threats that you should be prepared for, as well as resources and support they can provide in the event of an emergency.

In addition to provincial associations, there are various groups offering further education including workshops and courses to help horse owners and their horses to be better prepared in the event of a disaster. 

Nationwide, Equi-Health Canada offers a one-day course for Disaster Planning and Emergency Preparedness and covers what to do in a natural disaster. Topics include fire prevention, planning for and executing evacuation, as well as hidden dangers and responding to first aid emergencies.  

Both Olds College and Equine Guelph offer courses in large animal rescue training for emergency responders. Given that not everyone has a basic understanding of the flight-or-fight response from horses and their elevated stress in an emergency, these courses can ensure not only the successful rescue of horses but also the safety of everyone involved.  

The Manitoba Horse Council (MHC), in addition to some great links and resources, maintains a resource list of individuals and businesses that have generously offered to aid equines and their owners in an emergency by providing stabling/acreage or transportation. Volunteers wishing to provide emergency assistance can contact the MHC office and their name and details will only be released to those who need help in an emergency situation.

In July of 2016, AEF commenced a development process to identify the response and recovery capacities of Alberta equine owners, custodians, and industry with regard to emergency and disaster preparedness. In collaboration with other resources and government, the goal of this project is to develop a strategy that will assist and educate horse owners to be prepared in the event of an emergency or disaster including disease outbreak, fires, floods, hazardous material spills, train derailments, extreme weather (tornado, ice store, and blizzard), building maintenance, or lack of structural integrity, etc. A survey on post-disaster analysis is taking place specifically for those affected by the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires including anyone involved with evacuating and caring for horses at that time.  

Horse Council of BC has a section on their website dedicated to disaster preparedness with guidelines and checklists to help you get prepared. They also maintain their Disaster Response Program to be able to help facilitate and coordinate information for BC horse owners needing emergency help in the event of a disaster. They are continually searching for volunteers with suitable facilities to house horses displaced due to an emergency as well as volunteers to transport horses. You can find more information on their website and sign up for Evacuation Housing and Hauling if able to help with this important project.  

Additional resources to help you get prepared can be found online at:

Government of Canada

  1. Includes a section on Emergency Preparedness for Farm Animals
  2. Lists emergency management organizations across Canada 

Canadian Red Cross

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The information, tips and resources in this article can help to minimize stress in the event of an emergency. The best thing we can do is make sure we are prepared. Although no one can prepare for everything, even a little advance planning will go a long way toward keeping you and your animals safer.

Sometimes if a task feels really daunting, it’s easier to start with something simple. In this case, ensuring that every horse in your barn has a halter and lead rope at their stall or paddock with extras stored elsewhere on the property could be a great place to start. After that, get to work on the first steps of your disaster plan. You could also get together with other barn owners in your area to help each other build your individual emergency preparedness plans. There is power in numbers and if you do experience a disaster, it would be great to have help nearby and know that your neighbors are just as ready as you are.   

Then all we can do is hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.   

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Related: Barn on Fire

Main photo: Wikimedia/John McColgan