Your horse has fallen down a hill on a mountainous trail ride and there is no way to lead him to safety. Or perhaps your urban horse escaped and now is trapped in an abandoned swimming pool and you can't get him out. What do you do? There was a flood and the levee broke--now your poor horse is standing belly-deep in water with no chance of escape. How can he get out? Or maybe your ailing horse is too unsteady to bear his own weight, and he needs to be moved and treated. Now what?

In all these cases, a specially designed equine sling can save your horse's life. A sturdy harness can be strapped around the horse to lift him without injury, helping rescuers move a trapped horse to safety, or suspending an ill or injured horse on his feet.

To the Rescue

Large animal extrication by trained experts can resolve those incidents of horses stuck in the wrong places. Accidents or disasters can cause a horse to fall into a pool, septic tank, mud hole, quicksand, or canyon. If a loaded trailer rolls over, horses will be caught inside--or a barn can collapse during a storm, trapping horses under its timbers. A sling can help move a stuck horse in these situations.

Tomas Gimenez, DMV, Large Animal Emergency Rescue Instructor for the American Humane Association and Professor of Animal Science at Clemson University, teaches workshops for Large Animal Rescue Teams. He advises, "Use the simplest, lowest-risk alternative. In other words, keep it safe and simple. He adds the most important rule: "Safety first, for both the victim and the rescuer. This can only be achieved by proper training, the use of safety officers during every rescue, and the Incident Command System (more on this later). Emergency responders follow this system of an integrated team with assigned functions for each member."

Rescuers can employ equine-specific manufactured slings, or fabricate a temporary sling from rope or a fire hose. A sling gives rescuers mechanical advantage--it can help them move a horse up an inclined plane (dragging up a ramp) or get a horse out of a tight spot with a pulley. Sliding a horse up a ramp from a hole or into a trailer is easier than lifting him with a pulley; a pulley relies on lifting power.

Gimenez explains that choosing equipment depends on the rescue situation. "For horses that are accessible but are down because of a broken leg, for example, we strap the horse on a rescue glide for transport to a veterinary hospital in a horse ambulance. For lifting a horse out of a hole, we use anything from a rope and pulley system to a tractor, forklift, crane, or helicopter."

The Anderson Sling

For the dramatic airlifts, the king is the Anderson sling. This complex apparatus encases the horse, including head and leg supports. Padding and a system of multiple straps steady the animal, and the sling attaches to an overhead frame. With cam buckles, rescuers can pull straps tight so they don't slip, yet are easy to adjust.

Charles Anderson of Care for Disabled Animals, Potter Valley, Calif., designed the sling that bears his name. In cooperation with the University of California, Davis, he spent eight years developing this specialized device.

"It works with the horse's skeletal system to distribute the weight front and rear," says Anderson. "Up to this point, in a sling the horse showed the 'banana' effect. With weight on the abdomen, the head went down and the rump pulled down, so the horse looked like a banana in the sling."

The sling supports the horse at the shoulder and pelvic girdles as well as under the abdomen. It has been in use for 10 years. Eric Davis, DVM, University of Tennessee, says, "The Anderson sling is probably the most adjustable. It is very strong and won't break if you're lifting with a helicopter."

Anderson recalls that it has been used in 22 airlifts, with no injuries to people or animals. He adds, "When the horse lands, and we take the sling off, the horse can walk right off." (He has been airlifted, so he says he's able to understand what horses experience.)

To refine his sling, Anderson worked with John Madigan, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, and Richard Morgan, DVM, at the UC Davis Center for Equine Health. Anderson says that Madigan and Morgan could fit his newest model, the 2000, on a horse in five minutes. He's improved the sling 2000's efficiency, saying, "It's a parachute-type harness, with military-spec hardware. The snaps are fitted with female ends, so you pull the strap and it's fast."

The new model is priced slightly higher than the original. "Time is a factor with a helicopter overhead," says Anderson. "If you can knock five or 10 minutes off each run, you pay off the extra cost many times over. Or in a university hospital, take five or 10 minutes off each time so you save labor costs of technicians."

Other Slings and Techniques

However, the Anderson sling isn't necessary in most rescues, as airlifts are costly and comparatively rare. Another sling has been developed by Tim Collins of Santa Barbara, Calif., and is made of fire hose material. Gimenez describes it as, "basically made out of two sections of web material that go around the horse's torso--one behind the front legs, and one in front of the back legs--and are suspended from a metal bar above the horse's back."

The Liftex sling, no longer manufactured, is another web sling still in use by some emergency groups. Made out of soft canvas, the Liftex sling has three pieces--one piece goes under the belly, one piece goes around the chest, and the third piece goes around the tail. All pieces attach to the belly piece, which can be attached to a hoist to lift the horse. The Liftex sling is much simpler than the Anderson sling.

Rescue personnel can also use rope or straps to make a temporary harness for dragging a stuck horse. The Felton (California) Fire Department educates other emergency personnel about equine extrication with a four-inch wide rescue strap. Captain John Fox explains, "If the horse is in a precarious situation on a steep slope, the strap can be applied quickly to stabilize the animal. It is used to assist an animal up a steep hill, drag it out of the mud, extricate it out of a trailer, or to assist it to its feet from a recumbent position. The strap allows the animal to help itself.

"In many situations, it is better to use the animal's strength to your advantage. We 'assist' the animal to safety," says Fox.

With so many horses being hauled today, trailer rescue is a more common occurrence than wilderness rescues--a trailer rollover can easily trap horses inside the vehicle. Stephen Dey II, DVM, of Allentown, N.J., demonstrates rescue techniques in a popular videotape (see "Web Resources" on page 56). He shows how to apply a rope sling to lift a horse out of a trailer using two lengths of one-inch cotton rope, each 50 feet long.

He says, "It looks easy when you see someone do it who's had experience, but it's not that easy to do. To use any type of sling, you need to have a number of drill exercises to get used to how you put the rope on a horse that's down--how you pick up his head to put a bowline over his head and back over the shoulders."

Fox describes the vertical lift developed by Dey: "This tie is fashioned out of one-inch cotton rope or two-inch polyester web. The tie is placed to make use of the skeletal structure of the horse, providing overall support so that the animal can be lifted. It is appropriate for low vertical lifts of short duration (10 minutes or so)." A low lift could be one foot or 10 feet, perhaps out of a hole, ravine, ditch, or swimming pool, where rescuers simply "assist" the horse to his feet or only have to lift him a very short distance. Most lifts aren't dramatic, expensive helicopter lifts.

Responding to equine accidents, the Felton Fire Department carries rescue equipment in backpacks to mountainous, wooded areas in Santa Cruz County. Fox says, "Most of our lifts are strictly a horse up out of a hole. Stephen Dey's tie works real well for that. For helicopter lifting, Charlie's (Anderson) harness is the only way to go."

All Together Now

Whatever device is used, "slinging" a horse is a team effort. Gimenez says, "Depending on the incident, the number of people involved in the rescue team can be from only two or three to a dozen. The members of an Incident Command System would normally be Incident Commander, Safety Officer, Animal Handler, Extrication Officer(s), Large Animal Veterinarian, and Communications Officer. Each member of the team is assigned a specific function based on his/her rescue training and experience."

Fox emphasizes the value of such a trained team, advising horse owners, "It's okay to call the fire department. They have the equipment and the radios that horse owners don't have."

He describes how Felton personnel have come up with a technique to roll a two-horse trailer back up on its wheels, with horses still inside. "We spent days rolling a trailer over, and worked out a technique to very slowly roll it back up on its wheels. Next would be to try opening the doors and walking them out, or slide them out with the sling.

"If that won't work, then you cut it open. We've had some experience with cutting, and sometimes the metal will just spring when you cut the roof open."

To monitor the horse's safety, the veterinarian is crucial on a rescue team. Gimenez explains, "He/she is the only one qualified to determine the medical condition of the victim, and to administer medication if needed." The equine practitioner recommends restraints that are safe for horses and humans. Depending on the location, distractions, and the horse's behavior, the veterinarian might also choose a tranquilizer, blindfold, and/or ear plugs.


A sling can also be used to suspend a horse that is unable to bear his own weight. An equine hospital might use a sling for taking an anesthetized horse to surgery, post-surgical recovery, and/or critical care. Some horse ambulances are equipped to winch an ill or injured horse inside, and even hold him upright in a sling during transit to the hospital. However, not every horse is able to be put in a sling, since some will go out of control and injure themselves further.

A horse which is recumbent too long can develop the complication of myopathy, or damage to muscle cells. Bringing the horse to his feet and keeping him in a standing position can prevent muscle deterioration.

A sling can immobilize a horse after surgery, and/or support and restrict him in the stall during rehabilitation. With a patient in a standing position, hospital personnel can treat the horse and conduct diagnostic tests. A horse can also be supported comfortably for long-term rehabilitation in a sling. Some facilities also employ a sling running on an overhead rail system to assist the horse in moving from surgery to stall, or in and out of a swimming pool.

In a hospital or a barn stall, the sling must be connected to a solid overhead framework that's strong enough to support the horse's weight, standing with his feet on the ground. A pulley hoists the horse up and lets him down.

Candidates for the sling can be ill with neurologic disease or suffering from a fracture or other severe lameness. Davis says, "We see quite a few horses with EPM who are unable to stand, and we use a sling quite a bit for that. The sling helps them keep from falling over."

Not all horses accept the restraint of the sling. Anderson says of his sling, "Now they (UC Davis) use it for anesthesia recovery, which is the most dangerous part of the whole surgery when the horse starts to thrash. We built a training strap so you can have the horse wear the sling before surgery. You don't have to attach it to the frame, but the horse wears it and gets used to it first."

Controlled by an overhead hydraulic system, the Anderson sling can lift the horse off any leg or all four legs. If the horse starts to move, an attendant can respond by slightly elevating the horse.

Anderson says, "Lift the horse just off his feet so he won't move around and he settles. Let him back down, and see if he stands. If not, get his feet off the ground again.

"The owner comes in and stands at the horse's head. She can talk to the horse, get him quiet, and then we let him down again."

Whether for rescue or therapy, this device can help both animal and people survive equine emergencies.


Moving trapped horses requires careful handling, and trained rescuers safeguard the horse while extricating it from danger. Tomas Gimenez, DMV, Large Animal Rescue Instructor for the American Humane Association and Professor of Animal Science at Clemson University, teaches workshops for Large Animal Rescue Teams. He says, "One basic rule is to avoid using the head and legs as 'handles' whenever possible. It is safer for the horse to use wide webbing material around the horse's torso, whether it is for a forward assist, a backwards drag, or a vertical lift. Sometimes, as in the case of overturned trailers on the road, it is best to bring the trailer back to an upright position, and let the horses walk out the door."

Horses fear losing their footing, and a down horse can expend a lot of energy struggling to rise. The trapped horse might resist being harnessed and dragged with the sling. Panic wears him out, which can make him easier to handle, but a fatigued horse can give up all effort to survive.

Gimenez tells us the story of a mare stuck in a mud hole. After hours of struggling, she was exhausted and stood quietly while rescuers stood around her on plywood digging mud around her chest, then placing a sling behind her front legs. He describes their use of a Santa Barbara sling, "a modified wide surcingle made out of leather and felt with several large D rings for anchoring to a rope or hook. After providing additional support to the head and back end, we hooked the sling to a winch and moved her out of the mud. Once on firm ground, she was able to stand by herself and was uninjured."--Charlene Strickland



Large Animal Rescue Team Workshops

Felton Fire Department Equine Rescue

"Equine Rescue" Videotape, $30
The Horse Park of NJ, PO Box 548
Allentown, NJ 08501
609/259-0170; fax 609/758-8460

About the Author

Charlene Strickland

Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.

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