Equine Emergency Rescue

Many of us have seen the daring and exciting rescues of horses shown on television--such as rescuing a horse hanging from a bridge, or one trapped in a river. Then there's the famous scene of a horse being rescued by helicopter. However, many of these rescues cause further injury or death of the horse, according to Tomas Gimenez, Dr.Med.Vet, of the Animal and Veterinary Science Department at Clemson University. In his presentation "How to Effectively Perform Emergency Rescue of Equines," he stresses that rescuers should use the simplest, safest, and lowest-tech approach possible to prevent further injury to the horse.

He cited the increased population of horses in urban environments, the increase in the number of horse trailers, and the number of horses used for entertainment as the reasons for an increased occurrence of emergency situations.

Gimenez explained the basics of the Incident Command System (ICS), a method used by emergency response personnel to identify leadership and resources in emergency situations. Those involved in the ICS include law enforcement, fire fighters, paramedics, other emergency medical personnel, and the veterinarian--all of whom work as a team during an often-dangerous endeavor. "Attending veterinarians should be aware that they are on the scene as part of a team--first to assess and possibly stabilize the medical condition of the horse, and second to assist as a team member in the selection of the most appropriate rescue procedure," he said.

"A basic understanding of the Incident Command System, community disaster response guidelines, low-angle rappelling techniques, flood and swift water rescue techniques, and the use of rescue ropes, anchors, and accessories is essential to increase safety, risk assessment, and a successful rescue of large animals," he said.

One of the most important things that Gimenez stressed was to avoid using the horse's legs, head, or neck as "handles" when pulling a trapped horse. He also suggested increasing the surface area of contact on the horse that is being rescued. All rescue equipment must be strong enough for the weight and forces being placed on it. Use of a sedative is up to the attending veterinarian, said Gimenez. He mentioned that in instances where the drugs could cause the horse to drop his head, sedatives might be counterproductive, such as in situations where the horse could drown.

Temporary containment of loose animals can be achieved with temporary, movable light-weight plastic fencing with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) support, according to Gimenez. This fencing can be stored in a roll in a vehicle, and it is used to guide animals off roads, funnel them into a trailer, or contain them until more help can arrive. Use of this fencing takes minimal training and bystanders are able to help.

Gimenez uses the forward assist and backward drag methods developed by the Felton Fire Department in California. The forward assist is used for those horses who can move, but who might not be able to traverse an incline or an obstacle, and/or when rescuers only have access to the front end of the horse. A web is placed around the girth area and between the front legs. Rescuers then assist the horse using a 50-foot rescue rope with a carabiner (an oblong metal ring with one spring-hinged side that is used in mountain climbing as a connector and to hold a freely running rope). The backward drag involves placing a web around the pelvic bones and between the rear legs of the horse while rescuers pull on a 50-foot rescue rope from behind. This method is used to remove a down horse which cannot move on his own, or for one which cannot use his head or neck for balance, or when rescuers only have access to the hind end.

Lifting methods include the hobbled lift for a horse which might be stuck on his back, such as in a narrow trench or in a collapsed structure. "Support of the head and neck should be attempted by attachment of the halter to the frame through the lead rope or by physical support from humans," said Gimenez.

There is also the simple vertical lift system for an easy, inexpensive, and practical way to move a horse for a short time to safe ground. Webbing is placed behind the forelegs and in front of the hind legs (around the horse's ribcage and flank), with an additional piece of webbing secured across the chest to prevent the horse from slipping forward.

When rescuers need to move a down horse, they can use the rescue glide, which was originally developed by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals (MSPCA).

Gimenez discussed rescue of horses from trailer accidents. He said many times it might be easier to bring the trailer back onto the wheels and walk the horse out than to try to extricate him from an overturned trailer. This is especially true if multiple horses are inside. He said that if rescuers must work with an overturned trailer, it is important to block the windows on the down side of the trailer so that the horse does not stick a leg through one.

Gimenez said that there are short courses, workshops, and publications available on this topic.

About the Author

Sarah Evers Conrad

Sarah Evers Conrad has a bachelor’s of arts in journalism and equine science from Western Kentucky University. As a lifelong horse lover and equestrian, Conrad started her career at The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care magazine. She has also worked for the United States Equestrian Federation as the managing editor of Equestrian magazine and director of e-communications and served as content manager/travel writer for a Caribbean travel agency. When she isn’t freelancing, Conrad spends her free time enjoying her family, reading, practicing photography, traveling, crocheting, and being around animals in her Lexington, Kentucky, home.

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