Safe Rooms for Horses: Preparing for the Worst


By Gabrielle Sasse,

Powerful storms ripped through the Midwest and Southern United States this past weekend and yesterday, continuing into today, leaving several states ravaged by storms. A tornado in Arkansas left an 80-mile path of destruction on Sunday and killed at least 16, while another tornado in Oklahoma crossed over into Kansas, injuring another 25 people. The storms continued to produce tornadoes on Monday and possibly in to today. The states where damage occurred also include Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa. The death toll for the tornado outbreak currently is at least 28 reported deaths, as reported by Our hearts go out to the loss that these families have suffered.

It is important to remember your animals when these storms occur, especially as the country heads into “tornado season”. We talked with Mary Ellen Hickman, an Oklahoma resident and owner of Whispering Winds Ranch, who was doing something to help keep her horses safe.

Mary Ellen Hickman has built a safe room for her horses in Oklahoma
Mary Ellen Hickman has built a safe room for her horses in Oklahoma

“I’m originally from Ohio and moved to Oklahoma, which is obviously known for its tornadoes,” Mary Ellen begins. “In Ohio, we wouldn’t get any warnings about storms coming. Here, they have great ways to predict where the storms are coming, so we get accurate warnings.”

Since moving to Oklahoma in 2006, Mary Ellen said that they have only had to get in their tornado shelter at home twice. “What really inspired me to create a safe room for my horses was the tornado that went through Moore,” she elaborates. On May 20, 2013 an EF5 rated tornado tore through Moore, Oklahoma and the surrounding areas, killing 24 and injuring 377. “The tornado crossed over 35 into Moore on exit 116, and I live on exit 114. As the crow flies, the tornado was a mile from our farm and I watched it go by. The scariest thing I have ever witnessed. We only had minimal damage to our farm, but we would have to drive through Moore on our way to Oklahoma City and that was the first time I really understood what Post Traumatic Stress was about. You would just cry.”

Mary Ellen considers herself to be incredibly fortunate that they did not experience the amount of loss that many others did, both to property and animals. “I told myself I can’t live here and not provide a place of safety for my horses,” she says.

The safe room stands above ground outside of the barn
The safe room stands above ground outside of the barn

“I live on flat ground, and trying to build underground just wasn’t cost effective. I started doing some research, and designed it to look like a horse trailer. You can’t build a safe room any wider than 12 feet, but you can go longer. Mine is about 35 feet, and is built strong, like a bridge,” she explains. 

The completed concrete structure is thicker than regulation safe rooms, and took about a month to finish. The room can house 10 horses comfortably, with room to fit more “if they are friendly”, with horses able to stand in the aisle ways. “We have race horses and Barrel horses, and often they are out at the track,” Mary Ellen elaborates. “We usually have about six, but I often have friends that stop by on their way to Oklahoma City, so I wanted room for more. You could make the safe room as big or small as you want. You don’t even need to make it as elaborate with stalls on the inside as I did. We just don’t have a fixed group of horses, and I didn’t want to worry about one fighting with another if a storm ever happens.”

Mary Ellen says she ran a tornado drill to practice, and then spoke to her vet about how to smooth the process out. “After talking to my vet, I have a bottle of Ace on hand. If they have to all be in there at once, I’ll be able to give them a little Ace in the muscle before they all have to go in. That’s what is nice about living here, is that they are able to predict down to the minute where the storm will be crossing next.”

The stall partitions fold up, meaning the horses can have a little more room if all ten stalls aren't needed
The stall partitions fold up, meaning the horses can have a little more room if all ten stalls aren’t needed

“Since I’ve lived here, we’ve always had a warning but no tornado. I would consider a warning to be when the sky looks bad and they tell us there is a possibility. That gives me plenty of time to give them some Ace and load everyone into the safe room. Hay bags are already hung up, and I can set water buckets in the room. I’ve got emergency lights up so we can see.”

Mary Ellen says she didn’t run water to the room because the cost was too high, and it is only a temporary sanctuary. “In a worst case scenario, I would keep them there overnight but I have water right outside. It’s not something to stay in for days, but it’s a safe place to be. There are no guarantees, but it gives me a great peace of mind.”

“People all over the United States have contacted me and said that they have thought about making their own,” she says, sounding surprised at the popularity. “It’s a good investment, and even gives good resale value to your property. It could even be a great safe! Put shelves in it, or whatever. The way the weather is now, especially here, it’s a good investment. I don’t have a swimming pool but I do have a safe room!” she laughs. “A pool is more expensive. I just hope that I can help inspire others and to save a few lives.”

Thank you to Mary Ellen for talking to us, and we hope that you never have to use your safe room. Keep those in mind who have lost their homes, animals and more, and look for ways you can help those in need as final reports come in.

Testing out the new safe room




41 thoughts on “Safe Rooms for Horses: Preparing for the Worst

    • 29 April 2014 at 5:05 pm

      Hi Ashley! Please just give us credit with a link back to the original article. Thank you so much for asking first!

  • 29 April 2014 at 12:56 pm

    Mary, what a wonderful idea. I too live in Moore, and have horse. Actually, I’m right around the corner from you. I have had to go into the shelter, knowing my animals and horses are outside. It’s a terrible feeling. I have thought about shelters for the animals and horses. We rescue horses and farm animals. After seeing your idea, It gave me peace. I’m going to do it. Thank you so very much.

  • 29 April 2014 at 1:24 pm

    Where can I get blue prints and specs for this horse safe room?

  • 29 April 2014 at 3:59 pm

    what a great idea!! i live in maine and so far do not have these particular fears.
    may i also recommend to you Rescue Remedy for calming your horses…and your dogs, cats, even yourself. you will find the animals need less of it than humans!! in horrible snowy windy weather, when the indoor is howling and the snow is sliding, we give our horses anywhere between a whole dropper full to my horse is a cheap date and 1/2 dropper full on a sugar cube is more than fine. my shepard, afraid of thunder, gets a 1/2 dropper full. so it is bought over the counter and easy to distribute.

  • 29 April 2014 at 5:10 pm

    I think this is a wonderful idea. I was at a show with a friend and our miniatures and there was a tornado warning..In fact we saw it just north of the fair grounds. We had unhitched the horses and were headed to the cement rest rooms. We knew we and our horses would fit. We were not sure about the full sized horses. Thank goodness it was a small one and passed north of us, but I think of it often when a storm approaches. Thank you for a great idea.

  • 29 April 2014 at 6:29 pm

    Most amazing, I’d love to have this for my horses in Arkansas.

  • 29 April 2014 at 7:09 pm

    How much does it cost to build a structure like this?

  • 29 April 2014 at 8:49 pm

    Absolutely wonderful idea. I was thinking just yesterday when I heard news about the tornadoes, how do people keep their horses safe. We don’t have tornadoes of that magnitude here in Ontario but if we did I would certainly build one of these. Thank you for sharing.

  • 29 April 2014 at 9:09 pm

    I live the New England where we don’t get too many tornados. BUT, I do have a room under my garage that is fully incased in concrete and have used it to house my 2-mini horses during hurricane Sandy, and the blizzard of 2013. I made 2-6’X 8’stalls and it houses them comfortably for as long as needed. I think it is a great idea to have a shelter for your horses in case of bad weather!

  • 29 April 2014 at 9:34 pm

    Great idea!!! I don’t want specifics, but could you possibly give a ballpark number for the cost to build this?

  • 29 April 2014 at 10:18 pm

    What a great idea. What was the final cost of this? And how was the safety rating calculated? Would love to share.

  • 29 April 2014 at 11:14 pm

    Having had a Tornado run just south of us a few years back, just as we were starting a horse show with lots of extra horses and people on our property, What to do has always been top of my mind when I see news reports from your area. We were lucky that we didn’t get the worst of it, even though all of the sand footing was sucked out of our arena. No injuries, accidents thank God. Your setup is amazing but one question. What have you done for the door? Hinged? Slider? Inside I’m assuming. I know what our doors do in a high wind unless they are chained down.

    What an awesome job you’ve done. I’d be adding dog/cat crates too.

  • 29 April 2014 at 11:21 pm

    Why bother sharing an article if we all can’t get info on how to build a safe room for our own Horses? Why doesn’t anyone give more information on these rooms????

  • 29 April 2014 at 11:34 pm

    I absolutely love this idea. There is no worse feeling that having to take shelter yourself and having to leave your horses in the barn or outside as some do. I’m curious as to the cost of this?

  • 30 April 2014 at 1:21 am

    I would not trust anything above ground… nope. Not at all.. It’s a sitting duck.. look at what happened in Moore.. it leveled concrete buildings. . It’s a nice idea but I would be saving up and looking at digging a big storm shelter. .. Under ground. .

  • 30 April 2014 at 4:05 am

    If its above ground i cant see how its safe, i would have got some equipment in and dug it out, its only a small area to excavate

  • 30 April 2014 at 5:21 am

    I’m impressed not only with the structure you described but the fact that you built one at all. I can’t help but feel if you’re going to keep animals, especially large outdoor types you need to provide for them too. Kudos for you!

  • 30 April 2014 at 6:36 am

    We have hurricanes and tornadoes. I’m on high ground and have lots of dirt available. My design is similar but with a shipping container covered 3/4 up in fill dirt. You just do the same thing by turning it into a horse trailer with dividers. It’s safe, stable, cheap and 40′ long. You can add electric and air vents as well.

  • 30 April 2014 at 8:31 am

    Hi everyone,
    As Mary Ellen stated, the cost for digging out a shelter was too high for her. The structure she had built is more than what is regulation to withstand an EF5 tornado. I’m sure you would be able to talk to a local contractor or professional builder in your area who has experience building safe rooms to get a good idea of the cost to build one in your area.
    Thanks for taking the time to read!

  • 30 April 2014 at 9:55 am

    after the week end we just had in Arkansas with loss of life including humans and animals I am looking into this very seriously.

  • 30 April 2014 at 10:26 am

    To everyone who is wondering, Mary Ellen had this to say about her planning: Hi! We are so glad that we have inspired others to build a Safe Room for their animals! The response has been a little overwhelming! I have tried to answer all the messages but if I have not responded, this might help. I have listed all information on the safe room under the pictures in my album SAFE ROOM. If you go to you can see the specs that we followed for an F5.
    Our builder was Terry Scrivner from Mustank,OK. He is great to work with and has built other buildings for us. His number is 405-650-8839
    As we are in the midst of Tornado season, we are praying that everyone will stay safe!

  • 30 April 2014 at 11:10 am

    Wonderful! I like your safe room.
    I do live on a hill between Piedmont and Okarche. When we built a new work shop, I had the contractor add a walk-in basement. It is 30′ x 30′, divided into 4 stalls.

  • 30 April 2014 at 12:10 pm

    This is an excellent idea! Why can it only be 12 feet wide though? Is that some safety regulation? The horse in the picture looks like he barely fits. We have 20-25 horses and at least 15 dogs on the place at all times not to mention all of our goats, if we can only go 12 feet wide we would need a VERY long building!

  • 30 April 2014 at 12:31 pm

    This is a great idea. My only concern with the whole plan is the choice of Acepromazine. This is a tranquilizer, but does not reduce anxiety or fear at all. In fact, because of how it works, it can actually increase fear significantly. I don’t know specifically how the drugs work in horses, but in dogs, it’s well documented that some dogs become so fearful under Ace that they will have breakthrough aggression and “snap out of it” enough to bite (or in the case of horses it would be bite or kick) whatever is near them.

    Today most vets recommend Xanax or Valium as the anti-anxiety choice for high stress situations for dogs and cats. My guess is that this would be true for horses as well. You may want to speak to your vet about an anti-anxiety option for your horses rather than a tranquilizer that could actually increase their certain fear in the emergency situation.

  • 30 April 2014 at 1:13 pm

    What a great idea. Here is a question for you. How would the shelters stand up to hurricanes? I live in the most southern point of South Carolina and that is what we get. Any advise?

  • 30 April 2014 at 8:16 pm

    Thanks Jody re the ACP. We had to pick up some brumbies(wild horses) the owner wanted removed from a property and the vet gave them ACP to “make them manageable” all it did was make them collapse when we tried to handle them, and we needed to get them out of the race and into a float. Made the whole exercise worse if anything, we had to roll them onto the floats instead as they wouldn’t even try to get up.
    From what you say, we are lucky they decided to shut down rather than attack us.
    The good news was after the ACP wore off they came round to handling amazingly fast and ended up great horsey citizens as we trained them so they could find good homes.

  • 1 May 2014 at 12:25 am

    I’d rather be underground. I’m in Texas and unfortunately too familiar with the destruction of tornados. In my opinion, its safer underground in anything EF3 or above than an above-ground safe room.

  • 1 May 2014 at 11:19 am

    Another great idea some friends did was to buy one of those heavy metal shipping containers, and then buried it in a hillside, so they can run the horses in and close the heavy metal door. If not practical to bury in a hillside, you could probably strap it down to deep concrete anchors, but nonetheless, it’s a quick and easy way to provide a shelter for the horses.

  • 1 May 2014 at 7:14 pm

    Hi I’m back living in Michigan after living in Nevada for several years. I saw on tv the aftermath of the tornado that hit Moore, and decimated that horse farm. All the dead horses in a pile. My God, it was incomprehensible. The first thing I think of are the horses out in the open when a tornado comes through. I would be heartbroken for me to have shelter, but have to leave my horses behind. The fact that you built this shows your love for your horses. Even if it’s above ground it’s better than having to be outside, especially when the tornados have a debris field. This structure protects them from anything flying through the air. If it can withstand an F5 that’s something. If I lived in your area I would definitely build this structure. I watched The Weather Channel for 2 days and couldn’t believe over 135 tornados went through in just a 2 span. I saw where Mayflower was completely decimated by an F5. In Nevada we had terrible windstorms of sustained winds of 40mph, gusts up to 70mph. I’m so glad you’ve thought of the safety of your horses. Someone suggested putting kennels in there, too. Not a bad idea. Many smaller animals are displaced and separated from their owners. If you found any it would be a wonderful thing to have until families and pets are reunited. Congratulations on a job well done. Thinking of all affected by the outbreak of so many tornados.
    Nancy Richards
    Essexville, Michigan

  • 2 May 2014 at 11:00 am

    Thanks for the info; any extreme weather can create a need for something like this! Does Hearts & Hooves know about this? You should share this with them!

  • 2 May 2014 at 11:47 am

    Great questions but would like to see answers/replies after the questions so that you don’t see multiple same questions.
    I can see how this is a great idea but I can also see other people’s point about this being underground. My thought would have been to make sure the opening is facing NE (because most tornadoes travel that way). Then make it into a mound with compacted dirt on all three sides. Seeing that you don’t have that option because it was built so close to the barn you did the best that you could for what was available.
    I am in hopes that you have vertical AND horizontal ways of locking that door.
    Congrats on a great idea.

  • 2 May 2014 at 12:39 pm

    To everyone talking about burying a shipping container, please don’t try this yourself, talk to a builder. Because they’ll tell you it’s not a good idea. They are NOT meant to withstand pressure loads from all sides; they are not appropriate to try to put underground or in a hillside, etc.

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  • 6 May 2014 at 8:01 am

    How can I contact Mary Ellen to get a set of plans

    I have a friend hit by the recent tornado in AR and she lost a horse. I’m working with a contractor to rebuild her barn and we are looking for plans to build a safe room.


  • 15 July 2014 at 9:40 pm

    We live in the deep south and have rounds of tornado weather, we are considering moving to oklahoma to be near our daughter but one of my concerns was the tornados that have hit oklahoma in recent years. I was thinking of how to build a shelter for my horses and was considering making one underground with a easy access from the pasture…..I like your plan and how it is laid out…Thank you for sharing this. My horses and dogs are too important to me to not try to put together some plan….It broke my heart to hear of the loss of life of so many pets in last years tornado…

  • 31 October 2015 at 10:58 am

    Ricks saferooms built this saferoom.. 4053133696

  • 17 March 2016 at 3:44 pm

    Jody- I am an equine veterinary assistant. You are correct that acepromazine does not block out fear. While dog and cat veterinarians may utilize Xanax or Valium for dog and cats, I have never experience the use of those two drugs in horses. They are ineffective/ do not have the same effects in horses. Veterinarians are also limited by FDA drug labeling. We cannot administer to an animal that the drug was not FDA approved for. Our most common choices for mild sedation are acepromazine, xylazine, torbugesic, and dormosedan. Of these, acepromazine is the only one we can leave with the owners to administer without a veterinarian present. The rest are more strictly controlled and cannot be given except through a veterinarian. This is why acepromazine is used in situations like trailer loading when the owner cannot call a veterinarian out to administer the medications every time or to be used in an emergency situation.

  • 29 September 2018 at 10:49 am

    I have thought about this for 10 yrs.i now have the $ to do it.i live in mo.where we live we haven’t had tornados hit , but they’ve come close. I take my dogs,all 15,in our shelter,praying my horses are ok.well I can at least do my absolute best to help them now.thank you

  • 2 October 2020 at 12:59 am

    We live near piedmont and El Reno, Oklahoma, two towns that have been hit more than once by tornadoes.
    Our property slopes to the west….we needed a new hay barn and planned to build a much nicer one, steel, for hay, tractor, workshop etc.
    Due to a then-recent tornado I suggested we build a storm cellar for our 4 horses, under the barn. (One more can stay in the aisle.)
    Long story short, we could “tunnel” In from the west (From downhill to west facade of barn). There is a ramped walkway leading down to a steel entry door (double Dutch door). Lights (emergency lighting as well), water drainage system that directs any water via underground pipe to the nearby bar ditch. Double-reinforced concrete ceiling -is also the floor of the barn above- load bearing capacity of floor is 3x that of parking garage.
    10” thick concrete walls form 2 stalls on each side of the aisle and also help support the ceiling. Stall fronts are purchased.
    We’ve used the cellar during Oklahoma “blizzards” as well. Being underground it’s cooler in summer and warmer in winter, around 40F in winter.
    Best peace of mind I know of!

  • 14 October 2020 at 7:59 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this for years, my biggest concern is I don’t quite have the money to afford it. Living in Florida, though, it seems like a constant concern. The best I can do now is medicate and pray it doesn’t hit us that hard.

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