Horses and Bushfires

Planning for fire safety

Fire and horses just don’t mix. High temperatures and limited rainfall produce conditions of very high fire danger.

In times of crisis, people worry not only about their family and property but also about their livestock and pets. There are steps that horse owners can take to prepare themselves in case of bush fire danger. The key to survival is forward planning and self reliance.

Leave or stay? It’s your decision

Bush fire protection strategies include forward planning. You are responsible for developing a survival plan for your family and pets. Leave or stay? It’s your decision.

The first and most important thing to decide is whether you intend to stay on your property if there is a bushfire. Assess your risk from a fire and understand how safe your property would be if a fire occurred in the immediate area.

If you decide you will leave, with or without your horses, you must do it early on a high-risk day and in advance of knowing there is fire in your area – e.g. A Total Fire Ban. Late evacuation can be deadly. Decisions should be made on the basis of advice from the Fire Brigade.

The risk of losing life and property during a bushfire is influenced by:

  • the location, aspect and accessibility of your property
  • the amount, type and location of surrounding vegetation
  • the condition and placement of buildings
  • availability of water
  • your physical capabilities and those of family members and employees

Everyone’s situation differs according to the size and nature of their horse enterprise. That’s why each and every horse owner needs to develop an individual survival plan, coolly and calmly, before the hot weather arrives.

Have a plan

If you live in a high risk area it is essential to develop a fire safety plan before the fire season. This may include:

  • a plan for early evacuation of horses to a safer district. Make arrangements ahead of time for a place to relocate your horses. Options may include showgrounds, sale yards, racetracks, pony club grounds or with family/friends; Identify several possible retreat routes from your property in case fires block your escape.
  • identifying a “safe” area on the property where horses can be placed if evacuation is not possible. This area should be as large as possible and may be a closely grazed paddock or be created from several paddocks by opening gates. Ideally, it should have a dam with clear access. An alternative “safe” area might be a large well-fenced sand arena provided there are no trees or buildings near that will burn
  • posting your plan in a clearly visible place together with the telephone number of the local fire brigade and your property’s CFA map reference;
  • making sure that everyone who lives, works or agists at you property understands the plan;
  • on days of Total Fire Ban, putting your horses in the designated “safe” area or, if you work away from the property, you might do this the night before;
  • contacting the CFA Community Service Facilitator in your area;
  • setting up a bushfire emergency plan with the landholder if your horses are agisted;

Reduce fire hazards

Reduce fire hazards before the fire season starts:

  • remove all fire fuel such as excess grass, sticks, leaf litter etc for 20 to 30 metres around buildings
  • store hay, straw, shavings, scrap wood, fuel supplies and chemicals safely away from important buildings;
  • clean roof surfaces and gutters regularly
  • create firebreaks in strategic locations
  • a well-maintained garden and well-watered lawn will help protect the house
  • use fire-resistant plants on your property
  • post “no smoking” signs in and around the stable and property
  • if you live in a high-risk area, invest in a rainwater storage tank, a sprinkler system and a fire fighting pump, and consider erecting fireproof fencing, ie steel or concrete posts, particularly if you own a stallion
  • if your fences are electrified, make sure the remainder of fences are “horseproof”, as often power is out during a bushfire

Maintain a fire cache

Tools to have on hand at your property:

  • a ladder long enough to reach the roof of buildings in case of a roof fire
  • a minimum of 30 metres of pre-connected garden hose (or adequate length to reach all parts of your buildings) with a spray nozzle
  • a shovel for clearing vegetation and throwing dirt
  • a rake for clearing vegetation
  • water buckets
  • a torch
  • a battery-powered radio for monitoring news

Keep these items together in an easily accessible place. Don’t let the tools be used for any purpose other than fire fighting. Make sure everyone who lives, works or agists at your property know where the cache is located.

Prepare an evacuation kit

Equip a plastic rubbish bin (with lid) with the following:

  • wire cutters and a sharp knife
  • torch, portable radio and fresh batteries
  • water bucket
  • extra lead rope and head collar
  • woollen blanket and towels
  • equine first aid items
  • whatever else you feel is essential for the first 24 hours

Store the kit in an easily accessible location and don’t use it for anything but emergencies.

Identify your horses

Permanently identified horses (microchipped, branded or identified by a drawing, which includes whorls and white markings) will be more speedily reunited with their owners if separation occurs during a disaster.

In an emergency at the very least be prepared to “paint” your name and phone number on the horse itself using livestock grease crayons like the ones used to number horses in endurance rides. Neckbands, hip stickers and identification tags on leather head collars can also be useful.

Just do it

It has been shown, if you don’t take the above precautions within the next 24 hours, the chances are high that you won’t do anything to prepare for a fire emergency.

If fire threatens

Decide quickly – Whatever your decision, this decision must be made very early. A late evacuation is a deadly option. Once the fire is close, visibility will be very poor and travel will be hazardous. Fallen trees, powerlines, abandoned cars, and even fire fighting vehicles can easily block roads. Even quiet horses may panic in a float filled with smoke or when exposed to the noise of sirens.

Wear safe attire

In the event that a fire threatens you, whether you decide to evacuate or stay, the right clothes can help shield you from radiant heat, burning embers and flames:

  • cotton fabrics are essential. Synthetics can melt and cause serious burns
  • wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt with sleeves down or a woollen jumper, and a wide-brimmed hat
  • sturdy leather gloves are essential to protect your hands from painful burns
  • leather boots are the safest footwear. Tennis shoes or rubber shoes will melt, causing serious burns
  • wear a damp cotton scarf or handkerchief “bandit-style” to shield your nose and face
  • goggles will help protect your eyes from smoke and burning embers

A word to the wise: condition your horse to your strange appearance ahead of time!

Fire-safe gear for horses

The same principles for fire-safe clothing apply to your horse:

  • don’t use synthetic (nylon or plastic) halters or lead ropes. These may melt and cause serious burns to your horse and its handler. Leather halters and cotton lead ropes, while generally not as strong as nylon, will be safer
  • don’t use nylon fly masks or other synthetic tack or equipment

When fire strikes

You should plan on the basis that you will receive no official warning that a fire is coming. You must be aware that fire-fighters will be concentrating their efforts on controlling the fire.

When fire comes your way, your personal safety and that of the people working with you must be your first concern, so:

  • try to remain calm and alert, think clearly and act decisively
  • pay attention to weather conditions and fire behaviour. Watch for sudden changes in wind direction or speed, a dramatic change in air temperature or humidity, or smoke and ash or burning embers dropping around you;
  • monitor weather forecasts and media broadcasts, especially ABC radio and local community radio stations for emergency information
  • maintain good communications with the people you’re working with; give clear instructions and make sure they are understood
  • ALWAYS co-operate with fire-fighters and emergency services. Your safety and safety of other civilians and emergency personnel are their paramount concern

If your property is closely threatened by a bushfire and you cannot move your horses to a safer district:

  • fill troughs, baths, sinks and metal buckets (plastic melts) with reserve water
  • Turn off power and gas and disconnect electrical fences
  • remove all equipment from your horse. Rugs burn, plastic headstalls melt and metal buckles may get hot
  • move your horses into your previously identified “safe” area
  • if you take horses out of stables, close the doors to prevent them running back into their perceived “safe” area
  • if you are shifting fractious horses when a fire is very close, a temporary blindfold over the eyes may help
  • if hoses are still operational wet tails and manes or drench the horse in water if it has to pass near or through fire. Veterinary literature on stable fires suggests that this will protect a horse from serious burns for about half a minute afterward.

Remember, give your horses plenty of room to move. Past experience of bushfires indicates that horses will suffer minimal burns if given maximum space. They will gallop through flames, or around edges, and stand on the blackened, previously burnt area and remain there until the fire has passed.

Do not shut horses in stables or small yards. Never turn them out on the road. They will be in danger from traffic and the fire. There is also the risk that they may cause a car accident, leaving you legally responsible.

The main fire-front usually passes relatively quickly (10 – 20 minutes in bushland and a few minutes for grass fires). There is little one can do during this time. While horses might gain confidence from the nearness of humans and a calming voice, you cannot provide this assurance when smoke is everywhere and the sound of the fire is deafening. Go inside the house and do not put your own life in additional danger. Your horse will cope well on its own if it has a chance to move in open space.

After the fire has passed

Deal with spot fires first. As soon as it is safe, check your horses for burns and other injuries to see whether veterinary attention is required.

Possible problems

Any horses that have been in a fire area should be assessed by the veterinarian as soon as possible – smoke inhalation can take a few hours to days to show signs – the most important signs to watch out for are burns around the eyes, muzzle, forelock or a sooty discharge from the nose. Seek immediate veterinary attention

Any small burns can be treated with First Aid attention by yourself whilst waiting for veterinary attention – cold water delivered by a hose or gentle sponging if you still have access to a water supply. Careful nursing is of utmost importance to recovery – encouraging to eat and drink and have access to shade. The veterinarian will be able to assess any further treatment

Re-entering burned areas

Care must be taken introducing horses to burned areas. There may be hot spots that could flare up without warning. Partially burned structures and trees may be unstable and suddenly fall over. Make sure the fencing is secure. Check for ash pits – areas where root systems have burned underground – downed power lines and dangerous debris before turning horses out in a burned paddock.

Develop and practise your fire safety plan now!

The distress of having a horse burnt in a bushfire can be magnified by the lack of readily available first aid measures. This can be compounded if the fire destroys facilities and prevents any form of communication to seek help.

Good forward planning will protect the safety and well-being of your horses if you live in a high fire risk area. Carefully consider the needs of your animals when developing your household survival plan, develop your fire safety plan now and practice it regularly!


Credit to Hawkesbury Equine Veterinary Centre for the article.