TAMPA — The long, dark row of stables sheltered under Barn D appeared deserted Tuesday afternoon, the only noises coming from bothersome horseflies and buzzing box fans.
The first sign that the stables were occupied came when the afternoon rains gave way to the deep grumbling of a brewing thunderstorm. Then the skittish hooves inside the Bob Thomas Equestrian Center stable broke into a syncopated tap-dance against the concrete floor.
Here, these 50 equine refugees have found one of the safest places for a horse as a major hurricane churns off the east coast, said Florida State Fairgrounds chief operating officer Mike Rogalsky. The fairgrounds’ equestrian center is certainly much safer then their home stables in Brevard, Marion and Seminole counties, which were all threatened by Hurricane Dorian.
Dorian was still forecast to cross through the middle of the state when the facility opened up it’s 471 empty stalls to house evacuated horses on Saturday, Rogalsky said. By Tuesday, the center had taken more than 100 reservations for its concrete-block stalls — a rare feature among Florida’s equestrian centers.
Yet only about 50 of the horses have arrived so far. Another caravan of owners from Melbourne were due to arrive late Tuesday with 10 more. They were supposed to arrive the night before, he said, but when Dorian stalled, so did they.
“The storm is still so unpredictable, I mean tonight it could take a turn right for us, so we’re just trying to stay ready for anyone that might come in at the last minute,” Rogalsky said. “We’ve got staff on standby and we’re ready to accept horses 24-7.”
It’s not easy to pack up a horse at the last minute, Rogalsky said. Especially when working in the high winds and thundering storms that hurricanes can generate far ahead of its path.
That’s why Florida, like many states along the Atlantic coastline, temporarily suspended many of the intrastate requirements for transporting horses and other livestock to ensure that owners and their animals can safely evacuate areas impacted by the hurricane at a moment’s notice, according to the Division of Animal Industry.
Until Dorian finally passes by, owners won’t have to provide a recent health certificate to cross into different states, Rogalsky said. However, any owners hoping to board their horse at the Bob Thomas center must still show proof they’re up to date on Coggins blood tests, to prevent spreading the incurable equine infectious anemia virus.
At the fairground’s facilities, the evacuated horses can ride out the storm for $25 a night. While their owners are still responsible for feeding and watering their animals, the center’s staff regularly check on the animals and clean and sanitize their stalls.
The stables have already been stocked with plenty of hay and food for any guests, Rogalsky said. And while the fairgrounds aren’t equipped with free-range pastures, he said the horses get regular intervals to stretch their legs in the show arenas.
This year, a large number of evacuated horses came from flooded areas in east Hillsborough County, particularly around the Alafia River, Rogalsky said. They come for the center’s concrete floor — a safety feature that prevents horses from having to stand in soggy soil during rain storms, he said, which can cause hoof rot.
In 2017, when Hurricane Irma struck mainland Florida as a Category 4 storm, all 471 stalls at the equestrian center were full with equine refugees for a week at a time or longer, Rogalsky said.
The surprising number of horses in need of shelter is a reflection of the surging growth of the state’s equine population. Florida now boasts the third largest equine population in the county, behind Texas and California, and is home to upwards of 388,000 horses, according to the Department of Agriculture.
The equine industry generates about $6.8 billion each year, according to a 2018 study from the American Horse Council.
Horses also need shelter from the storm, Rogalsky said, especially because they’re at great risk of hurting themselves.
“The best place for a horse to be during a major storm is in a stall like these ...,” he said. “If they’re out running around they’re much more likely to injure themselves or other people.”
The Bob Thomas Equine Center is still accepting reservations for those needing shelter from Hurricane Dorian. Registration paperwork can be found at FloridaStateFair.com under Equine Hurricane Evacuation. Paperwork can be emailed to Clay.Crosby@FloridaStateFair.com.