The effects of fire on horses: what are the implications and can they return to health? *H&H Plus*

  • We hope it never happens, but if your horse was caught in a fire, what would be the implications and how would we restore them to health? Andrea Oakes investigates

    ONE of the most heartbreaking aspects of a yard fire is that a horse lucky enough to be freed from a burning stable will often refuse to leave it, or will try to run back to it, in the mistaken belief that his stable is a place of safety. The chaos and confusion as the flames take hold is something we hope never to witness.

    Hope is not a strategy, however, when it comes to keeping horses safe. Instead, prevention and planning will minimise risk and offer the best chance of avoiding a catastrophe.

    According to Jim Green, who brings years of firefighting experience to his role as director of the British Animal Rescue and Trauma Care Association (BARTA), the typical yard set-up presents a perfect storm for an inferno.

    “Most have an abundance of combustible materials, such as wood, forage and bedding, but lack smoke detectors, fire alarms or sprinkler systems – unlike at commercial premises,” Jim explains. “By the time someone realises that fire has broken out, it’s often too late. The usual advice with a building fire is to get out and shut the door; with stables, it can be difficult to contain the flames.”

    The facts are frightening – a fire involving dry materials, such as straw and shavings, can double in size every 60 seconds.

    “Products of combustion are nasty,” says Jim. “Hot air rises, and when horses are scared they lift their heads and their respiration rate increases. In an enclosed space, they are at risk from toxic and often superheated smoke, as well as the physical effects of radiant heat.

    “Other building materials will contribute; the felt under a tiled roof can melt and drip onto the animals below, for example, causing burns,” he adds. “Smoke from materials such as rubber and felt will also create huge toxicity.”

    Causes can range from spontaneous muck heap combustion to arson, but most stable fires are due to electrical faults. Jim cautions against overloading sockets and advises regular appliance safety testing, with checks to ensure that cabling has not been attacked by rats or squirrels.

    “A key preventive measure is sensible yard organisation,” he adds. “Vehicles contain fuel and sometimes gas canisters, so park them well away from forage and bedding stores. Split up anything with the potential to catch fire, and keep the yard tidy to avoid a build-up of dust and other materials.”

    A PRE-REHEARSED evacuation plan can be a life-saver.

    “Get to know your local fire and rescue service and invite them to assess your yard,” says Patrick Pollock FRCVS, who has worked with BARTA to share veterinary expertise. “Practise, to see how quickly you can get the horses out. Is there a headcollar for each of them, and where is it? Where will the horses go when they’re out of their stalls – are there separate paddocks for mares, geldings and youngsters, if they can’t mix, or fields that are better if the wind is carrying smoke in a certain direction?

    “Horses may be traumatised,” he adds. “Work out how to move them away from the blue lights and the sirens, and the people in firefighting gear who already smell like a bonfire from the previous call-out.”

    Professor Debbie Archer FRCVS, who has helped BARTA produce training materials, says: “Mistakes are often made, such as letting the horses out before checking that the yard gate is closed, or not shutting stable doors to stop them running back inside. But planning will help – knowing the location of the water supply, for example, and identifying more than one escape route.”

    Should the worst happen, burns will require immediate first aid.

    “Take any rugs off and start cooling the area with tepid water,” says Debbie, explaining that the recommended formula is 10 minutes at 10°C. “Keep the site clean and apply a water-based antiseptic cream, but nothing oily.

    “The severity of injuries is not always apparent, especially the effects of smoke inhalation,” she says, adding that rescued horses may need supplementary oxygen and supportive therapy. “Any horses involved should be checked over by a vet, even if they appear unscathed.”

    SADLY, where injury to the skin and lungs is extensive, the prognosis is poor.

    “A badly burnt horse is extremely difficult to deal with,” says Patrick. “A large surface area means a heavy loss of fluids but, if a horse won’t eat because his muzzle is burnt, it can be difficult to find a suitable site to insert a catheter. Kidney failure can then result due to substantial fluid shifts.

    “Inhaling huge doses of hot air or noxious chemicals will scorch the delicate lung tissue and the small airways,” he adds. “An affected horse will struggle to breathe as oedema [foam] and sloughs of mucosa [cavity lining] build up in his nasal passages.

    “As with humans, the severity of equine burns is calculated as a proportion of total body area. Beyond a certain point, euthanasia is advised. The skin may never function properly again, even with grafts, and development of a tumour called a burn carcinoma is common.”

    While the knowledge base for treating equine burns is limited, encouraging results have been achieved with innovative dressings and medical-grade honey. When eight-month-old filly Cinders was subjected to a suspected acid attack in 2018, she underwent pioneering surgery at Rainbow Equine Hospital using the skin of tilapia fish.

    “You can’t expect horses to lie between clean sheets and not allow their wounds to become dirty,” says David Rendle MRCVS, who worked with a vet from California to treat severe burns to Cinders’ face. “The fish skin offered potential for a cost-effective alternative to conventional dressings, which can be exorbitantly expensive.

    “We can’t draw too many conclusions from one case, but the experience gained in using the fish skin and performing grafts was undoubtedly useful,” he adds. “Thankfully, we don’t see these injuries often. In 20 years, I’ve only treated two horses with potentially life-threatening burns. I won’t forget either of them, though; they present a veterinary challenge and a real ethical dilemma.”

    “You think they will come out”

    FIVE horses lost their lives when fire swept through the Rothenberger family dressage yard in Germany two years ago. Among the survivors was Sanneke Rothenberger’s Oldenburg gelding Sankt Anton (Toni).

    “When Toni came out, his rug had caught fire,” recalls Sanneke, who suffered smoke poisoning during the rescue. “Thank goodness he was wearing it; the top had burnt down to the wool padding, but the flames did not reach his back. But he had lost a lot of hair on his ears and neck, and he was kept in hospital for three days.”

    While Toni’s skin healed and an initial cough died down, Sanneke was worried about his demeanour.

    “He is normally a very fresh horse who comes out to work with his ears pricked, she says. “I was riding him and he would do his job, but it took a few months before we saw his character come back.”

    Toni made a successful return to competition last year and is back on the path to grand prix, but Sanneke will never forget the struggle to free the horses trapped by fire.

    “You think that when you open their doors they will come out, but they don’t,” she says. “They react quite differently. Luckily, our stables had outside doors and we were able to get most of them out like that – I can’t imagine how we would have done it otherwise.”

    This feature is also available to read in this Thursday’s H&H magazine (22 April, 2021)

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