Article and photos by Kailey Sullins, courtesy of Barrel Horse News
Under a cloudless sky on a sunny spring day, not a bird chirped or a whisper of wind could be heard. It was quiet; too quiet. The Weather Channel had been warning for a week of the probability of a tornado. When Mary Ellen Hickman stepped out of her door and saw the looming cloud of an F5 tornado, which scaled more than a mile wide in places with peak winds of 210 miles per hour, barreling toward her house, she felt scared.
“That day I stood out in my yard, and I was so scared—I was so scared,” Hickman said. “I was scared for my animals. Possessions mean nothing, and the older you get, the more you realize it.”
On May 20, 2013, at 1 p.m., the F5, which was on track to hit Hickman’s home in Norman, Oklahoma, veered at the last minute and ripped through Moore, Oklahoma, only missing Hickman’s house by a few miles. It was considered the deadliest tornado in Oklahoma and in the United States that year, killing 24 people, up to 100 horses and hundreds of other animals and livestock. That summer, Hickman built a 12-foot-by-31-foot Federal Emergency Management Agency-approved safe room for her horses and her family.
“I stepped out of my house and saw it,” Hickman said of the funnel cloud. “I live at exit 114 [on Interstate 35], and it was coming straight toward my house. At the last minute, it switched directions and crossed the interstate at exit 116. The damage it caused was horrific. When we drove around after the tornado hit and saw the dead animals and the damage, my husband and I cried and cried. It happened two miles from my place. That summer, we built the shelter.”
Weathering the Storm
Hundreds of horses and livestock are killed or injured each year due to natural disasters—fires, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, blizzards or thunderstorms. Each region of the United States is affected differently. Although each region faces its own challenges, Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Equine Specialist Kris Hiney says preparation is key in all situations.
“We recommend thinking about your preparation,” Hiney said. “Certainly being weather-alert. It’s common here in north Texas and Oklahoma that [weather experts] are able to predict when the big cells are going to hit generally a couple days ahead of time. So that does give you a heads-up. We know there’s severe weather coming and when there’s high fire danger.”
Hiney says taking shelter and staying put are typically not ideal situations during more immediate natural disasters that require evacuation, such as fires and floods. However, she recommends making human safety a priority during any dangerous weather.
“Fires and floods will give you different notifications as to time, so fires and floods are probably more likely situations where you would evacuate rather than shelter and stay,” Hiney said. “The one thing I always recommend is human safety first.”
Being mindful of your disaster plan and how to carry out the steps are vital to staying safe in severe weather. For Hickman, this means a well-oiled routine practiced with each horse before the storm strikes, so if she must take refuge in her storm shelter, it is done in a quick and effortless manner.
“It only takes a few minutes,” Hickman said of loading all her horses in the 10-stall tornado shelter. “They load right up—it’s easier than loading in a horse trailer. If it looks like it could get bad, I get my outside horses and put them in the barn, and then I watch the weather. If it looks like it might be getting closer, at least two hours ahead of time I put everybody in there, but if something happens where it’s close, I can still do it in 10 minutes. You want to move them in when it’s calm when they’re not excited or stressed.”
If you don’t have the ability to build a storm shelter or if tornadoes are not a common threat in your area, you must be prepared for the weather conditions typical for your region. The more common question Oakridge Equine Hospital equine surgeon specialist Lauren Lamb, DVM, is asked by horse owners is what to do with your horses during a storm—bring them into a barn for shelter or leave them in the pasture?
“We’re always asked, ‘What do you do? Do you let them go and run or put them in a barn?’” Lamb said. “If I had a lot of acreage and wide open spaces without fences, I would probably turn my horses loose, but a lot of places aren’t like that—they’re small paddocks and cable fences. If you can’t turn horses loose to let them run and fend for themselves, then keeping them in the barn is best [to protect them from flying debris and high winds]. But it’s just like with humans, if it’s a bad tornado anywhere above ground, you’re not safe.”
Hiney agrees the situation depends largely on available facilities. If you can bring your horses into a safe and well-built structure with solid walls and no loose tin, the chances of protecting your horses from flying debris is higher. However, if you are in a situation where you have access to several hundred or thousands of acres, allowing the horses to run and avoid the storm is a better alternative. With that comes the necessity to make sure your horses are well identified with ID tags, tattoos or brands to reclaim the animals after the storm passes.
If a thunderstorm carrying lightning is more common in your area, our experts agree bringing horses into the barn is a safer alternative, along with other options such as installing lightning rods in your pastures to help divert the lightning away from the horses.
“Horses under trees are more likely to be hit by lightning, so a well-built structure does supply the protection to those horses,” Hiney said. “If you have the facility and the capacity in severe storms, bring them in.”
Floods and fires raise a different list of concerns. These types of disasters are typically more sporadic with less notice of arrival. Thinking quickly and having an evacuation plan ahead of time is crucial. Things to think about are whether you have enough trailers for your animals, the evacuation route you need to take and where you will take the animals. If you choose to shelter and stay in cases of floods, be prepared with fresh water, feed, hay and a source of electricity. If you bring your animals to high ground, you need to know if you’ll be able to reach those animals with feed and water until you can get help rescuing them if they become stranded and surrounded by water.
“A lot of [successfully weathering natural disasters] is having a plan in place ahead of time,” Hiney said. “Do you have clean water access, feed, an emergency go–kit for your horse with all their medication and identification, and do you know where to take those animals? Do you have enough trailers for all the animals you own and do they all fit? If not, you need to have another contact for help in case of an emergency, and they need to not be your neighbor, because you will both be affected. It’s building a network and being hooked into your community so you can assist each other during these events.”
Hiney adds that paying attention to fire-prone conditions and wind direction is crucial for fire preparedness.
“Pay attention to local news services to see which way the fire is moving and make those decisions for when to evacuate in a timely manner,” she said.
Health and Healing in the Aftermath
Some of the most common injuries Lamb sees during the aftermath of tornadoes and severe weather are skin lacerations from horses spooked by lightning and corneal lesions in the eye from high winds and flying debris. Other injuries such as puncture wounds from debris impaling animals are also common.
“It depends on the injury—if it’s a severe injury and it’s bleeding really bad and you’re in an area where you can get a veterinarian to your place in less than 15 minutes, that’s the best thing to do,” Lamb said of calling a veterinarian for assistance after a storm. “That visit at the farm probably isn’t going to be the end point. It will probably get you stabilized and referred to a clinic. There’s a lot of horses we see right after a bad storm that have no issues or concerns initially, and then a day or two later the horse’s eyes are painful, squinty and teary. The horse may need to be sent to a referral site, but it might be something that can be treated on the farm.”
Hiney also suggests developing a working relationship with vets other than your local veterinarian. Hiney recommends finding a veterinarian you trust within a 30- to 60-mile radius.
“In a local emergency or a local disaster, a lot of people are going to be affected,” Hiney said. “You need to think about what kind of resources are outside your area.”
Tornadoes are not the only types of natural disasters to prepare for. Lamb says in regions where hurricanes and flooding are common, the major health concern for horses is skin infections. During hurricanes, the waters flooding the region after the storm are extremely toxic.
“The big one [in coastal regions and near the gulf ] is hurricanes. You get some of the high-wind trauma injuries like you do with tornadoes, but the more common type of injury you’re dealing with are horses drowning,” Lamb said. “Horses can also get bad skin infections in their legs and in the bottom part of their abdomen secondary to walking through water that’s sewage water or very polluted. It will scald and burn their skin, and an injury like that is really no different than a burn from a fire. If they have a large enough percentage of their skin that’s affected, it’s hard to save those horses. The best thing to do is get your livestock, cattle and horses to high ground.”
Hiney says no matter what part of the nation you live in and no matter which natural disaster you face, finding help afterward for yourself and your animals can be stressful but not impossible.
“In the event of a true disaster, there will be an incident command center where there is always someone in charge of that response and the people who work under them, and that’s a very coordinated effort,” Hiney said. “But in an initial emergency, you also have to realize our law enforcement attending check-points are not always trained in animal identification. It’s not unheard of that an animal could get lost, so having [identification marks] on those horses and even microchips will really help prove you own the animal.
“Have pictures of all four sides of the horse so the markings are extremely clear, because if you’re not a horse person, a blaze and a stripe may look very similar to you. We tend to take that for granted that somebody can recognize an individual horse, but that’s not necessarily true.”
Sometimes leaving your horses behind during disaster evacuation or turning your horses loose is the only option, and in those instances, making sure your horse is well identified and knowing how to reclaim your animal is important.
“Every county or city is going to have an emergency manager, and they’re typically going to be dealing with the human side of things but will oversee all operations,” Hiney said. “Your local Red Cross might be involved, your extension educators are good contacts, and there’s a variety of entities that play a part in the response. Being hooked into that system and understanding how it works will give you the best chance of getting your animal back.”
Resources such as FEMA, ready.gov, the Animal and Plant Inspection Service and the Extension Disaster EducationNetwork can all help communities and individuals prepare for natural disasters and provide information related to livestock and farm preparedness.
The Sun Also Rises
In the four years since Hickman built the storm shelter, she’s used the facility several times. In 2016 alone, Hickman and the horses took shelter from tornadoes three separate times. Now, as Hickman looks out on her 55-acre home at Whispering Winds Ranch, she rests easy knowing she and her most prized companions are safe.
“I was always too cheap to build a swimming pool,” Hickman said with a laugh. “It’s all about where you want to spend your money. What’s amazing about the storm shelter is, to me, it’s very affordable. It’s cheaper than an in-ground swimming pool—I’ve done the research.”
For a FEMA-approved, F5-safe shelter like Hickman’s, the price is about $300 per lineal foot. This means a 12-foot-by- 12-foot shelter would cost approximately $14,400. Hickman says this price is small compared to the damage which could result from a natural disaster.
“I don’t get scared now; it’s worth my peace of mind,” she said. “My cats, dogs, and anyone can fit in there, so it’s just what I wanted for peace of mind.”
Meet the Experts
Mary Ellen Hickman
Mary Ellen Hickman has been involved in the horse industry for decades. An avid barrel racer and the founder of Future Fortunes Incorporated, she is an expert on the ins and outs of the barrel racing industry. Hickman also understands the relationships formed with once-in-a-lifetime barrel horses and has done the research to protect them in all types of dangerous situations. A retired schoolteacher from Ohio, Hickman moved to her Norman, Oklahoma, home in 2006, where she and her late husband built their dream home and continued their passion for horses and barrel racing.
Kris Hiney, Ph.D
Kris Hiney began her career with the Oklahoma Extension Cooperative in 2014 and has dedicated her focus to disaster preparedness. Hiney taught in Wisconsin for 12 years before moving to Oklahoma. Coming from what she calls a low-disaster state to a high-disaster state, Hiney was inspired to follow her passion for helping others. She began working with youth in the extension services to prepare Oklahomans for natural disasters such as tornadoes. Hiney became involved through volunteering for the Oklahoma Medical Reserve Corps as well as the community animal response team. Hiney saw a need to develop disaster preparedness resources for equine and livestock owners, and through educating youth in the area, she expanded the focus of the Oklahoma Extension Services
Lauren Lamb, DVM
Born and raised in North Dakota, Lamb fulfilled his undergraduate career in his home state before attending veterinary school at Texas A&M University. Lamb graduated from vet school in 2007, successfully completing his residency and surgery at Oakridge Equine Hospital in Edmond, Oklahoma. Lamb returned to Texas A&M University in 2012 to teach surgery at the veterinary school for three years. While a part of the veterinary program, he was a member of the emergency response team and honed his specialty for trauma injuries and wounds, such as the common injuries seen after a natural disaster. Lamb returned to Oakridge Equine Hospital in 2015, where he currently serves as an equine surgeon and specialist.