Fires In The Barn

Posted Saturday, September 26, 1998 in THOROUGHBRED TIMES

By Pohla Smith

Psychological as well as physical effects from a barn fire can be devastating. If your barn catches fire, will your horses naturally flee to safety? Will they resist your efforts to evacuate them? Or will they run back to the barn if they are unsecured after you get them out? A combination of primal behavior, learned behavior, and the panic that even humans can succumb to in a hot, smoky, and flame-lit room can produce many different reactions.

Chances are that if you have heard of any of the reactions described above, they are based on real experiences. That range of reactions is confirmed by two veterinary behaviorists who have had first-hand experience with rescuing horses from barn fires.

“They’re totally unpredictable,” said Linda Aronson, D.V.M., an animal behaviorist who works in a private clinic in Lexington, Massachusetts. “We had a horse, who would normally try to kill anyone who came into her stall, lead out as nice as could be, and nice leadable horses give us trouble. I think you will find the more people you talk to, the more different stories you will hear.”

Kathleen Bowker, D.V.M., M.S., of the University of Florida at Gainesville, has seen similar reactions. “Horses seem to be mesmerized by fire,” Bowker said. “They don’t blow like they are frightened, they just freeze up and stare at the flames. We had five horses in the barn and three left their stalls willingly, but the last two refused to leave. Horses spend their whole lives in the comfort of their stalls. They believe they are safe there and do not want to leave. Our horses didn’t have the opportunity to run back into the barn; it is a possibility they would do that for the same reason.”

That makes sense to Nathaniel White, D.V.M., an equine surgeon at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. “I have never seen horses during a barn fire; I’ve only seen them after,” White said. “But we do know they have a flight response and will run from things that frighten them. But, they also have a herd response and, when they are confused and frightened, they want to herd together, which could cause them to want to go back into the barn. My best guess is that if you have one horse, he probably will run. If you have more than one horse and they all got together and “talked” to each other, some might run; but then, if they hear some others back in the barn, they might go back in. At the same time,” White theorized, “the horses still inside might be trying to get to the horses they hear outside. But horses are creatures of  habit and those habits might overwhelm primal instincts. If all this sounds confusing, you can well understand how confusion leads to panic during a fire.”

“I know horses are generally creatures of habit,” said Nicholas Dodman, B. D.V.M., director of the Behavior Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. “Things that would not bother other species do bother them, like shadows, small spaces, and the like. I’m wondering if, since horses gravitate to staying in a familiar base and things are already bad there, they may think, ‘Why go somewhere scary?’”

“Whenever they get sensory input of flames or smoke, they don’t necessarily put two and two together and get four,” commented White. “Even humans sometimes come up with sums like three, five, or 22 when confronted with the panic and the confusing, disorienting atmosphere of smoke and flames.”

“They just can’t understand,” said James Orsini, D.V.M., a general surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center. “Even trying to lead them out is difficult because of their anxiety of the situation, the smoke.”

That is why some old-time horsemen swear the only way to get a horse out of a burning barn is with a blindfold. That was Bowker’s experience with the two horses that were mesmerized by the flames and refused to leave the barn. “We remembered the stories of horsemen blindfolding the horses to get them out of  a fire, so we tried it and it worked,” Bowker said.

But famed behaviorist Katherine A. Haupt, V.M.D., Ph.D., of Cornell University, said horses can react several different ways to blindfolds, and two of them would not help you get a horse out a fire. “One reaction is to just run, one is to freeze, and one is to be tractable,” Haupt said. For that reason, she believes an important part of emergency preparation is working on a horse’s ground manners. “I don’t know if everyone should try blindfolding a horse and leading him to a fire, but you do need to make sure you have a leadable horse,” she said. “Like if he doesn’t like to go from bright to dark or dark to light, work on his ground manners so he’ll walk. There are all sorts of video tapes on how to do this.”

Still other horsemen try to herd all the horses out at once. That would allow the horses to obey both inclinations to flee and herd. But, oftentimes, the stall doors cannot be opened fast enough for a mass evacuation. That is just one of several reasons why veterinarians advise leading horses out of the fire and securing them in a safe, familiar place like a paddock or another barn. The other reasons have to do with easing anxiety and shock and getting them to where their seared respiratory systems can breathe fresh air.

Treating the burn victim

Even if your equine fire survivors appear to be uninjured, have them immediately checked out by a veterinarian.

“They don’t have to be burned to die,” said White. “Inhalation of smoke or fire is the biggest killer. Usually pneumonia or suffocation kills them before burn injuries do—very similar to the case with humans. The main thing is to get them out of the flames.”

Securing the horses in a safe area in which they breathe clear air and from which they cannot flee in panic also helps to calm the horses’ anxiety and to prevent, or at least limit, shock. Shock also can be a killer. Symptoms are disorientation, blanched mucous membranes, cool skin, and sweating. Veterinarians must administer the primary treatment. It involves a huge infusion of liquids and possibly administering tranquilizers. But horsemen can limit the damage while awaiting the arrival of a veterinarian by keeping the horse warm and encouraging it to drink water.

Burns are also best treated by veterinarians, but there are some preliminary things that horsemen can do and, even more importantly, things they should not do:

  • Do not treat burns with oil, grease, butter, baking soda, flour, charcoal, Lysol, iodine, or any other irritating substance.
  • Use gauze soaked in warm saline solution (one teaspoonful of salt to one pint of boiled water) to loosen charred debris from the burn.
  • Clean burns with mild soap and water.
  • Swab them gently with a warm saline solution applied by gauze.
  • Apply tannic acid jelly available in your pharmacy (warm, strong tea is a good substitute) or another approved topical burn salve or spray.
  • Cover burns with layers of sterile gauze, if possible.

Preventative measures

More important that learning how to treat horses exposed to a fire is fire prevention. “You should have a plan,” said James Orsini, D.V.M. who co-authored a text on first aid, Manual of Equine Emergencies: Treatment and Procedures.

Here are some of Orsini’s suggestions:

  • Although expensive, a sprinkler system would be the ideal safeguard.
  • Do not use space heaters unless someone is around. The only safe heating system is one that works on a thermostat, as in your house.
  • Have lightning rods installed by a licensed company. They work, guiding lightning strikes into the ground and away from the barn.
  • Store flammables such as hay and straw away from the barn in a separate shed, if possible.
  • Do not allow anyone to smoke in the barn. In dry weather, one hot ash could be enough to ignite a catastrophic fire.

A case of fright

The anxiety caused by the experience of being in a fire can have terrible repercussions. Nicholas Dodman, B.V.M.S., treated a victim of a lightning-strike fire that developed into a phobia to any and all conditions similar to those that accompany a thunderstorm. “It was a dark and windy night,” Dodman said. “The rain was coming down horizontal, lightning hit the barn, it ignited, and a rafter fell on top of the horse. I didn’t use the standard techniques like desensitization to the sound of thunder. I felt they wouldn’t work in this particular horse.” Instead, Dodman used a technique called chemical desensitization, giving the horse daily doses of the anti-anxiety drug Buspar while spraying water from a hose on the barn’s metal roof to mimic the sound of hard rain. There were no results the first two weeks but, after three weeks, Dodman and his staff thought the horse should be chemically desensitized and began outlining a plan for finishing the drug portion of the treatment. “Then one night, I woke up and there was a storm, and the room was lighting up. I said to myself, ‘Oh, my God, that horse,’ and I called the hospital and had them check on the horse in stall 12. After a couple of long minutes, the man came back and told me the horse was standing there peaceably, not bothered at all.”

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Pohla Smith is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.