Horse and yard owners are being urged to update their fire prevention schemes after shocking new figures show how much damage is caused to equestrian properties each year.

In 2014 rural insurers NFU Mutual paid out more than £11m in claims for stable and barn fires. This included the death of 12 horses, the majority of which died due to smoke inhalation.

The amount paid out is 17% greater than in 2013.

“A lot of these fires are a result of stacks of straw or hay catching fire,” said a spokesman for NFU.

“However, what is particularly worrying in 2014 is that we have seen a rise in claims for arson.”

H&H has reported on four stable fires in the past five months, three of which were treated as suspicious.

In April five horses were killed in a fire at a livery yard in Houghton-le-Spring, and in May two colts died in a barn blaze.

In June three stables were set alight in Rochdale, but no horses were hurt.

The next month a pony was killed in a suspected arson attack in Greater Manchester. Nine stables, a barn and equipment were destroyed, amounting to £80,000 worth of damage.

“Our neighbours were woken by flashes and bangs — they thought it was a thunderstorm, but then they saw the flames. We lost everything,” said yard owner Kerry Pardon.

Jim Green of Hampshire Fire and Rescue said there may be “more potential reasons” for a fire to start now than in the past too.

“Generally there are more electrical appliances and devices on yards; vermin are perhaps not controlled as effectively as in days gone by; arson in rural areas is rising; and farms are diversifying and renting out space to other businesses such as car mechanics, blacksmiths and others, who will have inherent fire risks,” he said.

Legal requirements

Fire safety law has applied to all businesses since 2005. However, according to Mr Green, many horse establishments are unaccustomed to fire safety education and many are unaware of legal requirements.

Regulations focus on the need for members of staff and the public to be alerted to a fire and be able to escape unaided to a place of safety.

But legal requirements are frequently widely neglected.

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“For the majority of equine businesses, staff and public spend limited time indoors and there isn’t the level of expected human life risk that would attract the attention of the enforcement authorities,” added Mr Green. “Unfortunately that causes fire safety to sit at the bottom of the priority list. Everyone hopes that it will never happen to them.”

Prevention is key

With plenty of “fuel” around, including straw, hay and timber, yards are prime areas for a fire to break out.

“Fire is always a concern for anyone responsible for horses, and the figures shared by NFU Mutual show that you can never underestimate the risks,” said Sheila Hardy from the British Horse Society.

However, firefighters and vets fear that owners are not putting enough time into prevention.

“Fires on farms and livery yards can cost lives and livelihoods,” said Nicki Whittaker of NFU Mutual.

“We would urge people to ensure they have adequate fire prevention measures in place, and regularly test their fire and evacuation procedures so they are properly prepared if the worst does happen.

“Someone living on site and motion sensitive lighting and early fire detection are very important.”

Most fires start from an electrical fault, so wiring should be checked extensively.

Professor Josh Slater from the Royal Veterinary College says that although people have basic fire equipment provided — that is, fire hose, extinguisher and muster station — they often haven’t planned ahead about what to do.

Experts estimate that just four minutes will pass between a fire starting and it being fatal for horses.

“It’s frightening how quickly a fire spreads,” said Prof Slater.

“How will you get the horse out? Some people think leaving the box door open will work, but often the horse will hide inside as it’s their safe place.

“Similarly, put in place an evacuation route plan. Horses are more likely to
co-operate if it’s a journey they know.”

What happens to horses in a fire?

The height of horses means they are more likely to suffer in a fire than dogs or humans, who are lower to the ground, or can crawl to escape the smoke.

“In a fire people automatically drop to the floor,” said Prof Slater. “However, horses are tall anyway, and when they panic they raise their heads to look for an escape route — their fight or flight mechanism. But within minutes of a fire breaking out in a stable, the roof space is filled with smoke and the horse’s head is automatically in the danger zone.”

The internal damage suffered by horses is often fatal.

“The horse breathes in the smoke, which is toxic and kills the lungs by direct contact,” he added. “But there’s also super heated air that burns the inside of their respiratory tract.”

Horses can suffer both visible and internal injuries in a stable fire.

“There are external problems, such as burns from the fire, but also if tar or material from the roofing falls on them,” added Prof Slater.

“However, sometimes the skin doesn’t look too bad, but they might have a life-threatening lung injury that may not become apparent until a few hours later.”

Signs for this include difficulty breathing and white froth coming from the nostrils, which is the fluid from their lungs.

There is specific treatment that can be used but animals in this state are often
put down.

Ref: H&H 10 September, 2015