Saving Horses 911

Equine technical rescue training means getting first responders on board.

Tim looked around the pasture, puzzled. The last time he had checked, both mare and foal were fine, but now the 2-month-old colt was nowhere to be seen. Tim mounted up and started searching, finally catching the sound of a faint whinny. Following the cry, he discovered the foal had fallen down an uncovered well hole. Lassie was busy, so Tim called 911 instead.

Okay, maybe events didn't exactly unfold like that, but during the last year in Kentucky alone, three separate incidents of foals falling into exposed wells were reported to Hagyard Equine Emergency Response Team and Kentucky Large Animal Emergency Rescue (KLAER).

Undertaking such a rescue is a harrowing matter, not just for the unfortunate victim, but also for rescue personnel. In one of those incidents in Kentucky, "we had to send a team of specially trained people that knew about technical rope rescue," explains Nathan Slovis, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, large animal emergency response director at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington. They tested the air quality inside the well to identify potentially toxic gases. They lowered a veterinarian trained in large animal rescue, wearing protective clothing to safeguard against hoof strikes, bite wounds, abrasions, and infectious organisms, slowly into the well to put rigging on the foal. An A-frame with a winch was positioned over the hole so the team could slowly raise the foal.

After standing in two feet of water for several hours, the foal had hypothermia, shock, and dehydration. "The foal could have died without prompt veterinary treatment," Slovis reports. But ministered to on the scene with fluids and antibiotics, the youngster quickly recovered.

"When you have one of these disasters, you don't have time to look in a book and read. You've got to think, you've got to know, you've got to have had the training." --Dr. Nathan Slovis

Nearly a thousand miles away, a large group of horses described as starving and very, very sick were seized from a farm in Minnesota. Taking possession of the animals was one thing, but finding responsible and capable caretakers on short notice was another.

Fortunately, the veterinary hospital at the University of Minnesota was already part of an equine rescue network. Operating as a triage team, staff and students at the veterinary college assessed and admitted animals, initiating treatment on those horses that could recover and humanely euthanizing those that could not be saved.

"I'll never forget Otto, a foal, a cute little guy who was very starved and who had secondary issues of an infected tooth, terrible sinusitis, and endocarditis (inflammation of the membranes lining the cavities of the heart)," recalls Julia H. Wilson, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, an associate professor of large animal medicine at the University of Minnesota. "Otto had an infection in his bloodstream, so we were on the fence: Do we invest a lot of money trying to fix him with the problems that he's got, or do we say this is enough? Because he was a young horse, we decided to go ahead and treat him. He had many visits back here for his endocarditis, he had surgery on his sinuses, but he ended up getting adopted and doing very well," as did the majority of the other seized horses.

The outcome for both types of rescues was successful in large part because there were skilled, appropriately equipped large animal rescue networks already in place, consisting of veterinarians, large animal emergency rescue technicians, animal control agents, and law enforcement personnel. The rescues also were successful because the first responders knew how to contact this team.

Unfortunately, throughout the United States many areas lack such a network or responders experienced in large animal rescue. Consequently, some large animals become further injured in mishandled rescue efforts or are made to wait too long and die.

Getting Technical

Traditionally, in the event of some sort of accident--trailer overturned, horse stuck somewhere, horse down, environmental disaster--the owner or witness often attempts to deal with the incident himself/herself or with the aid of a friend, and when that doesn't works they call 911. Regardless of when that call is placed, many first responders are trained and equipped to deal with human rescue, not with frightened or recumbent 1,000-pound four-legged creatures. A-frames and stretchers designed to raise or carry human beings are not going to work for horses and cows.

Dealing with the aftermath of an accident or extricating stuck animals is beyond the scope of most veterinarians, too. Explains Slovis, "Veterinarians come into an equine rescue situation and we know how to triage, we're good at treating illnesses, but we don't know how to handle crowd control, how to delegate rescue efforts. When you have one of these disasters, you don't have time to look in a book and read. You've got to think, you've got to know, you've got to have had the training."

In welfare situations the problem is that many law enforcement personnel don't understand body condition scoring or basic horse needs, so a neglect case can go unrecognized until or unless it's severe, says Wilson, who is also an advisory committee member of the Minnesota Hooved Animal Rescue Foundation.

For either accident or welfare situations, when a number of horses need rescuing, there's the added and immediate dilemma of where to transport the equine victims for care and safekeeping.

There are, and have been, excellent groups that partner with first responders to efficiently and effectively handle horse rescue. But it hasn't been until the last few years that a concerted effort was launched to reach out to first responders across the United States to provide them with the know-how of large animal rescue.

Learning Rescue

At the forefront of the educational effort are Tomas Gimenez, DrMedVet, professor emeritus for the Animal and Veterinary Sciences Department of Clemson University, member of the National Veterinary Response Team, and his wife, Rebecca M. Gimenez, PhD, signal officer with the rank of major in the United States Army Reserves and a lecturer on animal rescue. Both are primary rescue instructors and co-founders of Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue, Inc. (TLAER), which they started in 1995 to instruct interested parties in the techniques of large animal rescue. TLAER teaches trainees how to rescue animals in situations involving mud, unstable ground, tight entrapments, swift or flood waters, ice, and transport accidents. Trainees learn how to temporarily contain loose animals, evacuate horses from barn fires and wildfires, and use webbing, rope, slings, and glides in a variety of situations to secure, extricate, lift, or move mobile or immobile horses.



  • Hagyard Equine Medical Institute Offers hands-on training east of the Mississippi. More information can be found at

  • Large Animal Rescue Company Offers hands-on training at various locations in the western United States. Articles and links at

  • Large Animal Rescue Offers hands-on training at various locations. The group's book is Save Your Horse! A Horse Owner's Guide to Large Animal Rescue, by Michelle Staples, and accompanying CD-ROMs, Introduction to Large Animal Rescue for Horse Owners and CD-ROM Horse Awareness and Safety are available. The group offers a newsletter, articles, and links at

  • AAEP Care Guidelines For Equine Rescue And Retirement Facilities can be found at



    First responders also learn how to provide first aid and field medical care. "Animals stress out extremely easily, and earlier treatment is better than later," explains Rebecca Gimenez. "The medically trained personnel at the incident will probably be human EMS and paramedics, but there is no reason that they cannot use their knowledge to assist within their scope of care or under direction of the veterinarian."

    That assistance could be as simple as taking vitals and calling the responding veterinarian so he or she knows what to expect, or it could be as complicated as splinting an extremity, bandaging wounds, and providing fluids.

    "Most of the people taking TLAER training are firefighters, many of whom are specialized and have received intense training in various aspects of heavy rescue," explains Tomas Gimenez. "When a large animal incident occurs and somebody calls 911, it is the fire department that will be on-scene first and that should have the most knowledge of extrication techniques."

    Although horse owners can take rescue training, TLAER training is intended mainly for veterinarians and emergency responders--firefighters, rescue, military personnel, law enforcement, animal control, and EMS personnel. Individuals involved with welfare cases also can benefit by learning how to deal with downed animals.

    Offered in various locations in the United States, TLAER training consists of a three-day course with classroom sessions and lectures, numerous scenario-based learning points based on real rescues, hands-on demonstrations, wet lab exercises, and a nighttime search and rescue operation to "save" a live demonstration animal and its owner. The training course is tiered to accommodate beginners up through various technical skill levels. "One does not become an �expert' after attending one TLAER (or any other type of fire service rescue) training," says Rebecca Gimenez. "Rather, a person builds proficiency through practice and additional training at higher levels."

    Slovis reports, "The Gimenez teach it, then they help organizations like Hagyard Equine Emergency Response start a rescue network, and then organizations like us start going around going around teaching this training and showing people how they can start a rescue program. It's really growing. We go to vet schools, state organizations, and firefighters. We have liaison firefighters that work with Hagyard Equine Emergency Response that go out and help train rescue personnel."

    Beyond the Technical

    In addition to dealing with the physical part of a rescue, first responders and animal control agents should also know who to summon to handle on-scene veterinary care and aftercare. This is the point where the teamwork of a rescue network is necessary to continue and complete the rescue effort, be it an accident or welfare situation.

    "In Kentucky, first responders know to call either Hagyard Equine Emergency Response or Kentucky Large Animal Emergency Rescue (KLAER)," says Slovis. "Both organizations have networks of veterinarians, humane societies, and animal control agents throughout the state. KLAER gives the 911 groups in Kentucky a book that lists these contacts in every county, so the first responders don't have to search around."

    Minnesota has a federation of humane societies, with two full-time licensed humane investigators. The director of the Minnesota Hooved Animal Rescue Foundation, Drew Fitzpatrick, is also a licensed humane investigator, and he works closely with the federation humane agents.

    "These investigators have veterinary contacts throughout the state to provide medical assistance for rescued horses, and resources for immediate housing of seized animals," notes Wilson. "Efforts are under way to improve first responder training in equine rescue techniques through the Basic Animal Rescue Training (BART) program and hands-on live horse handling wet labs." (BART is a Minnesota-based nonprofit organization that trains first responders on emergency animal rescue.)

    Every horse, even those that appear relaxed and uninjured, should be seen by a veterinarian, Tomas Gimenez says. "Horses that are successfully rescued and alive after an incident can still suffer from life-threatening complications or die from unsuspected internal injuries if not taken care of at a veterinary facility. A prey animal will not easily show injuries immediately after injury--only later will they show up. Often the veterinarian will simply want to observe the animal and perform a clinical exam to ensure it is stable."



  • Call 911, reminding the dispatcher to have sirens turned off on arrival (sirens can really frighten already stressed horses).

  • Call a local large animal veterinarian.

  • Don't try to save your horse yourself. You could become injured, injure your horse, or imperil your horse by delaying rescue.

  • Be patient. Because there are far fewer large animal rescue responders than general first responders, it can take longer for experts to reach the scene. Do not allow or expect untrained personnel to jeopardize their own personal safety.



  • Do not trespass on private property.

  • Take photos from the road or public rights of way.

  • Call the local law enforcement agency, animal control, or a humane society.
  • Additionally, a veterinarian should obtain a health history of the horses before transporting them to a facility. Warns Tomas Gimenez, "Cases have occurred where horses involved in trailer incidents were taken to local private farms for recovery, no questions asked. During their stay at those farms, they infected the local horse population with a disease from somewhere else."

    Getting Local Responders On Board

    How do you get local responders to take on large animal technical rescue training? By reaching out.

    "You need to get the folks in your community involved," states Slovis. Through fund-raising efforts, your local Pony Club, 4-H, or other horse groups, barns, animal welfare groups, veterinarians, or businesses can give the gift of large animal technical rescue training to the local fire department or responder by sending a firefighter, veterinarian, or other type of first responder to a rescue course. "You send them, you pay for it, you cover the cost of food and lodging. Think �promotion.' Put it in your local media. You get free PR for your community, your organization, for the firefighters. And they love that. After they complete the training, you host a fundraiser and buy them the equipment. Five thousand dollars buys the majority of this equipment."

    This opportunity becomes even more compelling for veterinarians and emergency responders when these training courses earn them continuing education credits. "That's a big plus," Slovis says.

    Take-Home Message

    Presently, large animal technical rescues and networks are still pretty much a grass roots effort and not always known or visible. "We need to grow rescue training," says Wilson. "The information hasn't been disseminated, and too many of our first responders and vets aren't aware that it's out there. The guidelines we've gone by for decades aren't enough. Once you've seen people who do this for a living, you realize the mistakes we've made. There is much to learn."

    About the Author

    Marcia King

    Marcia King is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ohio who specializes in equine, canine, and feline veterinary topics. She's schooled in hunt seat, dressage, and Western pleasure.

    Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More

    Free Newsletters

    Sign up for the latest in:

    From our partners