Locking The Barn Door

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After 31 horses, many owned by teen girls, were killed in a fire at a boarding stable in North Salem, N.Y., on July 10, town officials reacted by proposing an ordinance to require smoke alarms that will automatically summon firefighters to burning livestock barns.

The ordinance would require smoke alarms wired to an alarm company or the 911 emergency system for any barn housing more than two horses and also for farms where other livestock, such as cows, are kept. The idea of requiring sprinklers in barns with more than 10 horses — definitely a very expensive idea — was also discussed.

Although well-intentioned, this was another knee-jerk proposal by public officials reacting to a situation involving livestock in a way that would be more appropriate to humans. Smoke alarms that summon help from any distance aren’t going to save horses in barn fires, because barn fires move too fast. Even if helpers are right there in the barn when a fire breaks out, they often can’t save the horses. By the time fire equipment arrives, it’s usually too late.

Legislation to prevent barn fires would make more sense and, upon reflection, this is what North Salem officials next proposed. Barns are often old, with outdated or damaged wiring. They may have been built sub-code or the wiring may be covered in layers of dust, cobwebs and hay. Requiring inspections of livestock barns for safety hazards makes more sense.

Other proposals considered were for more fire extinguishers and emergency bells outside the barn. The mandatory sprinkler-system proposal was shelved. Anyone who wants to house more than two horses on their property already must appear before the North Salem zoning board for a special-use permit, and North Salem plans to begin inspecting commercial horse barns for violations of safety laws now.

Horsemen continue to ignore the possibility that the way they keep their animals is often affected by decisions made by people who know little about horses. Zoning laws, insurance requirements and work-related regulations are often more appropriate for urban situations. Regulators, however, frequently look at horses as if they are a recreational pursuit like boating or golf rather than as farm animals.

Horse owners need to always pay attention when proposals are made that affect their ability to care for their horses and make their voices heard through their local horse council or by attending hearings themselves. Some policymakers are indifferent to the concerns of horse owners while others care deeply about their horse-owning constituents but may be ignorant of the horse owners’ needs. We horse owners need to keep them informed.

’Til next month,

-Margaret Freeman