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FIRE!! Reading This Might Save Your Horse’s Life

firebarnIt was the ultimate story of triumph over adversity when equine hero Neville Bardos claimed 7th place at Burghley in 2011 only three months after very nearly losing his life in a stable fire. His rider, Boyd Martin, disregarded the instructions of firefighters and fought his way back into the burning barn to rescue the 4* horse. Sadly his stable companions were less fortunate and more than half of the horses in the barn lost their lives in the fire. Later investigations showed that the fire had started due to an electrical fault near a hay steamer.

Last month 35 horses perished in a stable fire in Georgia whose cause has not yet been determined and this winter 4 horses in Kent were killed after a spark from an angle-grinder set their yard alight. Fire is a devastating and life-threatening occurrence for humans and horses alike and not enough of us have a plan in place to reduce the risks of a fire breaking out and limiting the damage if the worst does happen.

Last week I went to an excellent talk on stableyard fire prevention given by Jim Green of the Rural Safety Team of Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service. It really did open my eyes and raised some points which I really hadn’t considered before. I’d like to pass on some of those points so that we can all learn from them.

Risk Assessment

Yes it’s dull but all yards (public and private) should complete a risk assessment. If there are more than five staff or there are minors on the premises then the assessment must be written down. There should be an evacuation plan for people and horses, which should be known to all members of staff and practiced regularly. Staff training is vital, but the most important issue is to stop a fire happening in the first place. The point of a risk assessment is to:

  1. Identify hazards
  2. Identify who is at risk
  3. Remove the hazards
  4. Record, plan, inform, instruct and train
  5. Review

A helpful government-produced risk assessment document can be found here.

Fire Risks

Obviously stable yards are full of highly flammable substances such as hay and straw. It is sensible to make sure these are stored in a separate building at a distance to the stable yard, however inconvenient this may be. The hay/straw store should be downwind of the stables as fire can spread across building breaks by radiant expansion and burning straw sends embers up into the air which are carried in the direction of the wind and can ‘rain’ down on other buildings, people and animals – we saw one horrific slide of a horse turned out in a small paddock downwind from a large fire whose rug had been set alight by embers.

Neat and tidy and fire extinguisher - good. Electrical appliances right next to straw stack - BAD!

Neat and tidy and fire extinguisher – good. Electrical appliances right next to straw stack – BAD!

Generally straw needs something to set it alight. Have a clear no-smoking policy! Electrical ignition is also common. Many yards have sub-standard electrics. Appliances should be PAT-tested – common perpetrators are old washing-machines, kettles and microwaves which have been replaced at home by a new version and the old one has been demoted to the yard. Beware of socket adapters and extension cables – do you run 3 or 4 appliances from one plug? Always unwind extension cables fully before use as these can heat up really quickly when coiled.  Fit communal areas and tack rooms with smoke detectors and make sure these work.

Batteries charging in a tack room. Bad practice!

Batteries charging in a tack room. Bad practice!

Beware storing your lorry in you hay/straw shed. Lorries have large diesel tanks and also gas cylinders. If your straw goes up you will have very little chance of getting the keys and getting your valuable lorry out in time. Your insurance company may also take a very dim view of this arrangement.

Poor gas cylinder storage - tyres are highly flammable.

Poor gas cylinder storage.

What about gas cylinders? I have seen several yards where gas cylinders are stored stacked against the back of the stables. If there are gas cylinders present the fire brigade will pull their personnel back to a safe distance and will not be willing to risk their lives by entering buildings to get horses out. Welding equipment should be stored a long way away from livestock! If your farrier hot-shoes consider where he works – ideally this should be on a clean, dry, swept concrete area and not on a straw bed.

Do you store fuel for lawnmowers/strimmers/quad-bikes? Think carefully about where this is and keep it locked up and away from hay, straw and livestock.

A lot of yards are scruffy and have piles of junk all over the place, sometimes outside, sometimes inside obstructing corridors. These increase the chances of fires spreading and may block escape routes. DIY livery yards are the worst offenders!

Planning For a Fire

Hose reels are very handy fire-fighting devices – make sure these are spread around the yard and are functional. There was some talk of a home-made sprinkler system for stable yards – lengths of pierced hosepipe run round ceilings with an adapter on the end which can be plugged onto a tap. It’s a simple idea but would work very well.  No stable should be more than 25m from a fire extinguisher – make sure yours are the right sort and are regularly serviced.

Clear greenery from around fire hydrants.

Clear greenery from around fire hydrants.

Signage – it always amazes me when I’m trying to find people’s stableyards how few are clearly signed at the drive/road end. You might know where your yard is but the fire brigade (not to mention the ambulance service or a vet) may need to find it in an emergency. Two minutes wasted in trying to find the property may be the difference in being able to save horse and human life or not. An obvious signboard with ‘Manor Farm Livery, proprietor Mrs M Smith, phone number 07972 xxxxxx’ at the end of the drive not only tells the emergency services where to go but also anyone passing who happens to spot smoke knows how to contact the owner. If you have a large premises then a sign in the office with the postcode and 6 figure OS grid-reference for people to give the emergency services on the phone is a very good idea. Send someone to the gate to guide the fire-brigade in.

Will fire tenders be able to access your property?

Will fire tenders be able to access your property?

Access – if you have a cattle grid is it strong enough to support a 20-ton fire tender? Are there overhanging branches which will prevent access? Are your gateways wide enough? The chance of saving your yard, horses and possessions will depend on this. Cut back greenery surrounding fire hydrants and know where these are so that they can be reached in a hurry. Rural mains water often doesn’t have enough pressure for fire-fighting or filling up tankers. If there is a pond or river nearby then make sure this can be accessed.

Having a site plan is a very good idea – this can be as simple as a laminated A4 sheet with a diagram of the site marking on where the horses are stabled, where the hosepipes are, access points to the buildings and any particular risks. This can be given to the fire crew when they arrive.

Getting Horses Out

Obviously this should only be attempted where safe to do so.  Plan for this eventuality and make sure everyone knows what the plan is. Does your plan work in the dark – you may have no electricity or lighting? All animals should be evacuated upwind, ideally to a safe field with a secure gate. Think about difficult animals – if you have a stallion you should have a separate plan and separate evacuation paddock available. All gates should hinge outwards so that you don’t cause traffic-jams. All horses should be removed with a headcollar – keep these hung in a handy spot. Stressed animals have been known to seek out their comfort zone in times of danger and it is not unknown for horses to run back into a fire to get to their stable. This is why they should be secured behind a gate once evacuated.

Make sure that fluorescent strip lights have their covers on to prevent dust building up on the tubes, heating up and igniting.

Make sure that fluorescent strip lights have their covers on to prevent dust building up on the tubes, heating up and igniting.

Horses that are often missed in fires are ones that are in a ‘stable within a stable’ ie. where the access is through another stable. If this is the case put a sign on the outer door to make it very clear that there is more than one animal inside.

It sounds simple but have easy animals – ensure youngstock etc. are well handled. In a time-pressured situation the fire-fighters (who may not have a lot of horse experience) will first rescue the easiest animals. Any horse that is aggressive, difficult to handle or hard to catch will abandoned in favour of others that can be evacuated more quickly.


Remember RING 999. None of this advice is intended to turn you into a firefighter! However prevention is the best cure and being able to limit small fires before they spread (if safe to do so) is vital. Having a look round your premises and making changes to reduce fire risks is worth doing as a priority. Following this make a plan and communicate it to everyone. The best outcome is not having a fire in the first place; however if the worst happens then having a fire extinguisher or hose laid out ready may enable you to extinguish or slow a fire enough to save your property or protect yourself and your animals.

There is some excellent advice from the Hampshire Fire Service Rural Safety Team here. Alternatively contact your local fire service and ask whether they will conduct a fire safety/education visit.

All photos copyright of the Hampshire Fire Service Rural Safety Team.






About the author

The Eventing Vet

1 Comment

  • I wish all yards would read this! Especially the signage parts, the number of times vets have got lost is unbelievable!

    I have also seen a great head collar rack especially for fire, just 20 or so rope head collars with short 8 inch ‘grab handles’ like foal slips – ONLY to be used in emergency, that way people are rummaging about for ‘Fluffy’s’ head collar hidden under 3 rugs or the other side of the field – Maybe tip of the day?