Can you fireproof a horse? Asking for an equine friend.
Updated: Nov 16, 2018
We horse people tend to be thorough and pragmatic with an *if it can happen it will happen* attitude toward pretty much everything. Except fire! Just a hint of smoke or an odd dark cloud will send us snuffling anxiously around. Eventually someone reasonable, probably the barn manager/guru, will have the sense to shut down escalating dread. Because the smell is usually nothing. Or better yet- something to self-righteously disdain! For example, in the rest of the US we understand that second hand smoke falls into a health hazard category. Californians scorn smokers because they put everyone at risk of conflagration! Ostentatious vaping is entirely acceptable as an alternative to cigarettes- and those nasty candy flavored stinkers that ruin a perfectly good restaurant meal get a pass from picky eaters during fire season.
So what have we done to protect our miniature horses Ziggy and Flash on their lovely plateau? The one that backs up onto a canyon meeting Red Alert warning criteria during fire season? When Santa Ana winds blow 80 mph, and the humidity is 5%, compulsive preparation and advanced over thinking are the only antidotes to 24/7 alarm. The wildfires this year are already among the worst in state history and there is no indication that burn risk will decrease. California police officers and firefighters are big-hearted animal rescuers, for which we are grateful, but it is our job to make sure that the horses are willing to cooperate with them during an emergency. We train the minis for fire evacuation with the same enthusiasm and determination that we devote to fine tuning their potty control.
The horses will load calmly, in the dark, and with anyone, should there only be first response rescuers available. Horses are also resourceful if you have to turn them loose to hide from or out run a fire. We make sure that Ziggy and Flash know a number of escape routes from the ranch and the house in case they need to be freed in a hurry. Several times a week we practice walking to safety from each location- in different traffic conditions and times of day. As therapy horses in training for service, they know not to trot or canter when positioned right next to you. However, this year we added trotting or cantering side by side next to a running human in case rapid departure becomes imperative. People have been saved by riding away from flames on regular sized horses when roads are impassable and timing is critical. However, miniature horses gallop like wannabe greyhounds and may very well do better without us. If it looks like no one is going to make it out alive- horses should be sent off to fend for themselves.
Identification is a really big deal because so many horses end up mournfully detached from their people. Ziggy and Flash are micro-chipped, have GPS locators braided into their manes and, if there’s time, will be painted with bright orange names and phone numbers. They have ID tags with location and health data clipped to their halters, should strangers with vehicles be involved in an orderly exit, but it is the information attached to their fat little bodies that is going to save their lives.
Several months ago the boys were demo models for a new animal-safe fire retardant gel. They didn’t freak out during the buttering up process so we keep a jug of the stuff at the ranch and another at home. It is not something you apply in a couple of minutes so effective evacuation prep requires knowing the exodus timeline. You add water to an odorless powder, shake it to finger paint consistency, and then spread the paste evenly over the horse stem to stern. Thankfully it brushes off in dandruffy flakes so no worries RE itchy, ashy, sticky, nasty skin issues a day later at the evacuation center.
Looks like a bucket of toys, right? It’s really a fire gel/H20 stash waiting to be activated!
Once we discovered that catastrophizing is for amateurs and phobia management is the name of the game we nailed down a pretty good fire safety plan for the minis. In addition to what is noted above we have 1) a rapid response phone tree that includes barn buddies, vets and other heroes, 2) ownership and health records for the boys on a flash drive and in the cloud, 3) water jugs and at least half tank of gas in all vehicles, and 4) snacks. Snacks are stashed everywhere. Because hangry + crisis = guaranteed meltdown and no flipping out is allowed! Once OUR horses are no longer in danger we expect to help rescue teams evacuate other animals because all hands on deck is the only bearable option. (See what we did there?)
Many thanks to law enforcement, firefighters and other first responders who put their lives on the line for us day after day in harrowing circumstances. San Diego Fire Authority, North County Fire Protection District, California State Wildfires and the United States Forest Service web and social media accounts keep us properly informed and permanently frightened so I guess we're obliged to them as well. Both trained and volunteer Southern California Equine Emergency Evacuation folks prove over and over again that horse people will show up anywhere, no matter what, whenever animals need help! They are dedicated life savers in trying times who inspire us to live up to their example!