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As I was getting my coffee this morning and listening to the morning news, I heard that today was going to be the start of a several day heat wave with Santa Ana conditions.  I live in San Diego, CA, where October is indeed typically the month where we see this weather pattern. 

For those of you who may not be familiar with them, Sana Ana winds are very, very dry (and typically strong) off-shore winds that sweep So Cal this time of year.  Although Santa Anas are not always hot, when it is hot, the dry air and high winds combine to make the perfect ingredients for wild fires. 

Southern California has had two recent and major fire storms in 2003 and in 2007.  While my home and horses were not effected during the 2003 fires, I know many people who were, and am sad to say know several people who lost their lives.  Suddenly shifting winds often spark fires unexpectedly, with little time for reaction.  Many animal lives were lost as well, as people were forced to simply turn their animals loose to hopefully have them escape in time.   

From those fires, however, I learned many valuable lessons that thankfully helped me be prepared during the 2007 fires, when I was effected. 

During October of 2007, I was boarding my horse at a public boarding facility which became threatened by the extraordinary wild fires sweeping the area.  We were forced to evacuate the some 20 horses from the small, close-knit facility. 

Surprising was the fact that I was one of only about 3 boarders who had a trailer, and was accustomed (and able) to hauling horses. 

With horses in panic mode from high winds, thick and choking smoke, unnerved owners, and heavy emergency vehicle traffic, it was a high anxiety situation to say the least. 

As I arrived that day to evacuate my own horse, I was greeted in angst by others asking me to help them move their horses.  Of course, assessing the situation we were in with limited help and transportation, I eagerly agreed. 

The day turned into one of the longest, eriest, and most stressful days I’ve encountered, as I soon realized that there was no evacuation plan in place, we did not have enough trailers for the amount of horses, and worse yet, many horses were not accustomed to trailer loading at all! 

I set forth, two by two, moving horses with my little two-horse trailer and truck.  I immediately called my father (who lived locally and has horse and trailering experience as well) for help.  With his truck and a  borrowed two-horse trailer from a boarder there (who didn’t have a truck to tow with!), the two of us almost single-handedly moved all the horses to safety!  We were eventually joined by a volunteer wild-life rescue team with a six-horse trailer who helped us move the last bunch of horses safely.     

That part, along with the fact the ranch was spared from the fire, was the good news.  The bad news was that had the fire shifted directions, and/or had we gotten there later perhaps, maybe this story would have ended differently.  Tragically. 

I can not stress enough how important it is to have an evacuation plan in place for your animals as well as yourself!!  Know where you are going to take them, know how you are going to get them out! 

I realize that not all people have the luxury of owning a trailer and rig, but that does not mean that you just ignore the safety issues surrounding such a thing. 

You MUST practice – whether you own a trailer or not – loading and unloading with your horse!  It is so crucial! 

It truly comes down to being a matter of life and death, and what a simple, simple thing to do to prevent a tragic ending in the event of an emergency. 

Many of the horses I moved that day were frightened.  I’m sure they all were, really.  The horses I moved first were mine, of course, followed by any horse that would get in the trailer safely and quickly.  If it took more than a few minutes to load a horse, that horse got put back until all horses that were willing and easy to load were evacuated. 

What a sad, horrible thing to say, and how awful would I have felt if something had happened to those animals, but it was what had to happen in order to move the most horses as quickly as possible with our limited time and resources. 

On a side note, or shall I call it a side rant!  – there were owners who did not even come out for the evacuation.  While some could not, do to home evacuations, road closures, and other similar issues, I was shocked at the amount of absent owners.  This is another important reason that your horse should load well; in the event you are not able to be there to transport your own horse in an emergency, you should be sure that others will be able to handle and load your animal safely and easily. 

So, what are the take home lessons and my personal tips from this chaotic and frightening ordeal?      

1) Get your horses micro-chipped.  It’s not just for dogs, and you can ask your regular equine vet about it.  After the 2003 fires and the stories of loose horses found but unable to be returned to rightful owners, I chipped my horses, and they were well prepared for 2007.  This also comes in handy for cases of stolen horses you hear of from time to time. 

2) I also put dog tags on my horse’s halters.  While they can be removed, at least its better than nothing and provides a quick reference for volunteers who may be handling your horse in an emergency situation.

3) PRACTICE loading AND unloading with your horse until they are proficient with it, BEFORE you are faced with emergency!  It becomes more than just a “vice” if they are uncomfortable with trailering, something you don’t quite grasp until faced with an emergency as I was.    Borrow a friend’s trailer to train on if you don’t have your own. It could save their life. 

4) Establish an emergency plan for your animals.  If you keep horses at home, discuss where they would go in the even of a small home fire – a neighbors perhaps, or, maybe a nearby facility.  Have those numbers available, and, if you don’t have a trailer, establish a plan with a friend who’d be willing to help if needed.  If you live in a place like me where the entire county can be threatened at any given time, have a black up location, or three! 

5) Boarders: if you don’t have one in place with your barn currently, talk to your owner/manager about establishing a plan.  You better believe that after that scary day in 2007, by barn owner got a plan in place FAST!

6) If you board or are a barn owner, try organizing a clinic/safety day event where you practice loading/unloading with your barn-mates.  It’s great practice/training for the horses – and more so the people – so you know what to expect, how to react, and who to rely on during an emergency.  It’s also great to identify which horses need more work and who could be transported easily to help things run smoothly during the real thing. 

7) While hopefully you will never have to face an event like this, YOU NEVER KNOW!  Here in So Cal, wild fires are a fact and reality every year.  Don’t think that it can’t happen to you, and don’t think that it can’t happen again, either! 

So as I sit here watching the temperature rise and the winds blow over my patio furniture,  I’d like to take a moment to remember those lost in both the 2003 and 2007 fires, and thank those who helped keep me, my family, and animals stay safe during those times.  

I hope that this post may help you to be able to be among the thankful if you ever find yourself in urgency. 

UPDATE: The December Issue of Horse Illustrated Magazine has a great article by trainer Clinton Anderson on easy trailer loading!  I recommend giving it a look if anyone is having any troubles!

San Diego aflame, 2007

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