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Large Animal Rescue
By Maddy Butcher Gray
Up ahead on the interstate, there is a trailer overturned with two horses inside. The ambulance and firefighters have arrived and are taking the injured driver and passenger to the hospital.
You’re a horse person and you want to help. You see the horses still stuck in the trailer. The trailer is on its roof, just yards from traffic.
So you introduce yourself to the firefighter in charge, tell him you’re a horse person, jump in and save the day, right?
Many of us horse folk carry this attitudinal badge:
I know horses therefore I can solve any horse-related problem.
That might work around the coffee table.
Click here for additional rescue training article.
But when it comes to incidents like this one, it just isn’t true.
More often than not, the horse person ends up getting in the way and putting his- or herself in harm’s way.
We let our emotion towards equines overtake all reason and protocol. Our good intentions can and do impede the rescue process. It’s no surprise that so many human rescues are caused by ill-fated animal rescues.
Animal rescue expert, Dr. Tomas Gimenez, likes to tell the story of an entire fire department deployed to free a goose from a frozen lake.
“It’s not about the goose!” he says. Nor is it about the deer in traffic, or the cat in a tree, or a dog in a culvert, says Gimenez.
It’s about avoiding the potential chaos and tragedy that can ensue when amateurs attempt to rescue that animal.
“Animal incidents are more emotional than human incidents,” says Gimenez. “And that’s when people get hurt.”
"Animal incidents are more emotional than human incidents," he says. "And that's when people get hurt."
On the flip side, successful animal rescue makes great press. You better believe a rescued horse will appear in the next day’s paper. Rescuers (fire departments or animal welfare organizations, or otherwise) can count on a healthy uptick in donations and positive public relations as well. One department in England reported that three-fourths of their media coverage involved animal rescue, says Gimenez.
So, getting back to the Interstate rollover –
How should you respond to this horrific accident?
- Identify yourself as a competent horse handler.
- Offer to do whatever will help – even if it does not relate to the horses.
- Stay out of the way.
I recently became certified in
Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue
, through an intensive, 3 ½ day course led by Gimenez and his wife, Dr. Rebecca Gimenez, of Pendleton, South Carolina. The pair travels across the country and abroad, teaching this excellent course with morning lectures and presentations.
They have a well-stocked library of rescues done right and gone wrong. We viewed a wide range of footage – from tragic livestock trailer accidents involving dozens of horses, to a single trail horse wedged between a downed tree and a riverbank. We viewed the silly horse who got his front half over the gate but couldn’t complete the task. And we pondered at the horses who got up into the hayloft but then couldn’t get down.
Afternoons and evenings were devoted to hands-on problem solving.
Tomas and Rebecca travel with their able assistants – large animals, of course! On this tour, they brought Karma, a lovely strawberry roan walking horse gelding; Torque, a rescued Appaloosa gelding, and Fabio, a white llama. They have several other well-trained equines at their South Carolina home.
Firefighters, paramedics, veterinarians, and people like me (who work with horses for a living) participated in the course. It was a healthy mix. The emergency personnel knew all about incident protocol, but very little about horse behavior. And we knew horses but were fairly clueless about how best to act in an emergency.
Tomas and Rebecca like to point out that there is one constant similarity in all large animal incidents: they are all different and unpredictable!
Even with their calm, well-heeled demonstration animals, each mock incident proved challenging.
We used snow fencing to corral Karma, Torque, and Fabio (who, with Rebecca’s encouragement, did their best to behave like wild, uncontainable beasts). This technique, using one person for every 10-foot section of plastic fencing, would be useful for cordoning off several large animals either to keep them away from a structure, or to move them towards containment without directly handling them.
We extricated Karma from a trench using an A-frame, metal pipe structure and a pulleys-and-ropes system. We threaded thick webbing (old firehoses made of canvas) under his belly and safely lifted him out.
During this exercise, we learned horses tend to struggle during take-offs and landings, i.e., when their hooves just leave the ground and when they are set back down.
When Karma was fully suspended, he hung like a kitten carried by the scruff of its neck. He was limp and seemed relaxed. As soon as he touched ground, though, he had had quite enough of the webbing and ropes.
We extracted a horse stuck up to his chest in mud. But it wasn’t Karma or Torque. This time, we used a 700-pound equine mannequin.
Did you know that you can really, really, hurt a horse if you just throw on a halter and try to yank him out of the mud? And stuck-in-the-mud incidents are all too common because of the incredibly small surface area for such a heavy animal.
“You have 1,200 pounds on four toothpicks,” says Tomas.
It is vital to eliminate the suction before trying to extract anything from mud. We accomplished this task by inserting metal tubes in and around our horse dummy. Each tube was rigged to a water supply. The tubes were perforated, allowing water to seep out every few inches. It flowed in and around the horse’s legs. After feeding thick webbing around its torso, we were able to pull the horse out of the muck.
For our night search and rescue exercise, we tracked down Karma and his panicky, head-injured rider in the woods of New Gloucester, Maine.
First, of course, we treated the rider.
Then we dealt with Karma, who was recumbent (meaning he could not stand).
For this exercise, he was carefully sedated and monitored by two on-scene veterinarians.
We wrapped his mock broken leg and placed it in a secure splint. Then, we placed webbing in front of his hind legs and behind his front legs. We moved him onto a rescue glide (a large, thick piece of plastic which can be pulled by ropes or cables) and transported him to safer ground.
The theme throughout these incidents and, indeed, their entire coursework remained the same: If you can’t rescue the horse safely, then you can’t rescue the horse.
Tomas and Rebecca have participated in many successful rescues and improved the animal rescue operations of scores of departments. They also have nightmare stories of rescues gone horribly wrong, where horses and rescuers have perished. Their experiences, recounted with wisdom, candor and humor, make the course all the more poignant.
There is a well-documented element of
Learn from Mistakes
in their teachings.
Simple mistakes -- like someone throwing a rope around a horse’s neck and trying to pull it to safety, or stepping into a crashed trailer to free a horse are completely avoidable.
As Tomas told us about one hero who climbed into a trailer and freed a desperate horse: “Once freed, the horse is not going to stop and say, ‘Excuse me. I would like to get out now. Would you please step aside?’”
At the end of the day, I asked myself how we, as horse owners and Good Samaritans, can help in the event of a disaster or emergency incident?
Here are some suggestions:
Contact your county or state emergency management agency and ask how you can get involved in their animal rescue training, plans, and operations.
Contact your local fire department, emergency response units, and animal shelters and ask what they have for training and how you can get involved.
If you live within 50 miles or so of Brunswick, Maine, contact
and we'll put you in touch with the local leaders of CARTs (Community Animal Rescue Teams)
Take an Incident command system course, offered by FEMA at various locations and
View Reader Comments:
I think all horse people should audit this course -- so they know what to do or at least when to get out of the way.
I can't wait to take this course. Not a clinic but still essential for this learnaholic.
Dr. Rebecca Gimenez
I certainly hope that plenty of people attend the 2009 Operational Course at Pineland Farms next month - we won't be in the Northeast again for at least a year. Contact Michelle Melarango and I hope to see you there!
I took this course last year, then went home and made my horses safer with changes to my trailer, my barn, my tack room, my first aid kit. What a difference the training has made!
"Practice sharpens, but overschooling blunts the edge. If your horse isn't doing right, the first place to look is yourself" - Joe Heim
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