How to Create an Emergency Feeding Plan For Horses

Disasters can strike any of us without warning. Alternatively, other types of natural catastrophes, such as hurricanes, can give us some warning and preparation time. Regardless, it is always recommended that horse owners have a disaster plan in place to ensure their animals have the best chance of staying healthy and safe.

How Can a Disaster Impact My Horse?

Wherever you live in the world, there are natural occurring disasters that can impact any of us. For coastal areas, it can be hurricanes, floods, or other weather-related events. For inland areas, common threats, like tornados, fires, earthquakes, and floods are a threat to our horses. Not only is it wise to have an emergency management plan for yourself, but it is also wise to have it for your horses.

The most obvious impact to horses during a disaster is injury and/or death. However, it is critical to always prioritize your safety in a disaster. You cannot help any of your horses if you are injured. Some common emergency planning management tips for horses are:

  • Have a plan and keep calm. A good plan will help alleviate any anxiety and helps others stay calm. If you or others are stressed, your horses will detect it and also be tense and upset.
  • Know where you will go in case you need to evacuate. Many states/regions have facilities designated as emergency holding areas for horses.
  • If evacuation is needed, it is wise to ensure your horses are halter-trained and can load in a trailer safely. Well-trained horses will save you time and reduce stress on everyone involved.  
  • Ensure your horses are up to date with their vaccines and that their health records are readily available. Proof of a negative Coggins test is required at many emergency facilities.
  • Share your plan with others, like family, friends, or workers at a boarding facility.
  • Know your evacuation route and plan for traffic.

There are many other tips and advice for multiple types of disasters. It would be recommended that every owner research their state/regions natural disaster plans for horses. You can also talk to your veterinarian, local extension office, or local agencies for more information.

What Is a Good Emergency Feeding Plan for My Horse?

A critical part of any emergency management plan for any horse is how you will feed them. There are many different types of disasters that can impact your options. For example, in some emergencies, you may have plenty of time to plan and prepare. Thus, you can usually bring feed with you or store it safely at your facility. However, in other disasters, you have no time or lose total access to any of the feed your horse was eating. Owners should prepare for either scenario.

If given enough warning, horse owners need to decide if they will evacuate with their horses or leave them in place. Both require careful planning. If leaving your horses in place, with regards to their feed, it is generally recommended two weeks of feed should be stored in a high and dry place. It is also a general suggestion to give access to enough hay to allow your horses to feed themselves for the duration you are gone.

In instances where you will evacuate with your horses, the amount of feed you take will depend on how much you can carry with you. The minimum suggested is usually enough feed for 4 to 5 days. It is also recommended you bring as much water as possible for your horses during travel. For example, during hurricane season, the weather is usually hot and humid. Combined with traffic, horses may need to be watered often until you reach your destination. Other tips include:

  • If your hay supply runs out, try to find a comparable hay to the one you had been feeding. If feeding a grass hay, stick to grass hays and do not switch to legume hay, like alfafa, unless you have no choice.
  • Horses can be off of their feed for a few days. If this happens, just reintroduce the feed slowly at a smaller portion for a few days.
  • If the type of horse feed you are feeding is not available, change to one similar and slowly introduce it over a few days.

In an ideal world, any change in your horse’s diet would be done slowly over weeks, not days. Our article on Safely Transitioning Your Horse’s Diet is a good review on how to properly transition your horse to a new feed or forage. In an emergency situation, these principles would still apply, but at a quicker pace due to the sheer needs of the horse.

What Happens if My Horse Suddenly Loses All Access to Their Feed?

In the rare circumstance where an emergency results in a horse having no access to their former feed or was forced to fast or starve, they must be carefully managed. Besides water, hay is the next most important feedstuff horses need.

  • If a horse has fasted for only 12 to 24 hours, they can be fed a similar hay with little issue or risk for digestive upset. The same or a similar feed can then be introduced as well.
  • If a horse has fasted for more than 24 hours, but not more than 7 days, they will then require a slow introduction of feed. These horses should be fed 25% of what they normally would be given and this is then fed over many small meals throughout the day. You can continue to slowly increase the volume of feed over 2 to 4 days, depending on the duration of the fast.
  • If a horse been off feed for more than 7 days, they are in starvation mode. Our article on Refeeding the Starved Horse is well worth a review about how to safely reintroduce feed to these horses. This is the most extreme situation that requires a very cautious approach.

Finally, in the most extreme circumstances where your horses do not have access to suitable forage after a disaster, you may be forced to use forage alternatives. Another article, Forage Alternatives During Hay Shortages, answers what alternatives may be available to you. These include:

Take Home Message

It is unnerving that disaster can strike any of us regardless of where we live. However, a solid emergency management plan can help alleviate any anxiety and stress if they do occur. The most important tips when it comes to emergency feeding is to plan for every eventuality. In short-term situations, horses can be maintained on their current diets or be fed similar feedstuffs. In longer-term situations, a slow reintroduction of a new forage/feed combination is the best plan. When in doubt about what or how to feed your horses after an emergency, do not guess and always seek advice. If you need advice about your emergency management feeding plan or have any other questions, please contact us!

Article By: Chris Mortensen, Ph.D.
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