Equine Emergency Rescue Techniques

You might have seen it on television—those daring rescues where a horse is lifted from a ravine by helicopter, pulled out of a raging river, or returned to safe ground after being bogged down in mud. These rescues might awe television audiences, but how do emergency personnel know what to do?

In three separate seminars sponsored by Hagyard-Davidson-McGee veterinary clinic on Oct. 22, 23, and 26, veterinarians, rescue personnel, and the public were invited to learn basic concepts of large animal rescue, vehicular rescue involving horses, transport of recumbent horses, and mud rescue. About 40 veterinarians, 150 rescue personnel, 120 clients of Hagyard-Davidson-McGee, and 100 others gathered at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky., for the hands-on seminar.

Basic Concepts in Large Animal Rescue
Tomas Gimenez, Dr.Med.Vet., professor at Clemson University, teaches clinics all over the country on equine emergency rescue. He discussed teamwork of a rescue, the do’s and don’ts of rescuing large animals, equipment, and various techniques.

Gimenez stressed safety first for rescue personnel. Because of the imminent risk to human and animal life, large animal emergency rescue should not be attempted without proper training. He said that many times a horse will survive the initial accident, but become more injured during the rescue because of lack of knowledge of rescuers. After a rescue, a horse should always be examined by a veterinarian, even if he appears okay.

Gimenez stressed horses should not be pulled by the neck, halter, or legs. “Pulling a horse by the legs can cripple a horse temporarily or cause permanent damage,” he said.

When the legs are the only part available, Gimenez recommended wrapping a rope around the leg in a way that increases the surface area, thus decreasing the risk of injury.

Rescue Techniques
Gimenez also demonstrated the foreward assist using his trained gelding Karma. This technique can help a horse up a steep incline. Karma also helped Gimenez demonstrate a vertical lift with heavy equipment. The greater the distance between the horse and the equipment, the better, he said. Volunteers were asked to hook Karma up, then all watched as he was slowly lifted into the air, demonstrating how a horse might be lifted out of a ravine or a hole. Even though Karma is trained and has experience with these demonstrations, he still became nervous, giving attendees a glimpse that a panicky horse during a real rescue could become quite difficult to handle. (For more information on the forward assist and the vertical lift, see article #4061.)

Gimenez also showed attendees an A-frame set up, which is another way to lift a horse out of a hole without heavy equipment.

Rescue Equipment
Ranging from 25 cent harnesses to $5,000 slings, rescue equipment comes in all shapes and sizes. Many types of webbing are used, such as towing straps and fire hoses that the fire department no longer needs.
Some items used in large animal rescue mentioned by Gimenez are:

  • Safety harnesses for rescuers;
  • Canes, umbrellas with u-shaped handles, boat hooks, and golf ball retrievers for moving a horse’s legs and ropes without placing a rescuer within the range of flailing hooves;
  • Bandaging/padding to be placed under ropes and webbing;
  • A basic horse first aid kit;
  • QuikClot, to stop excessive bleeding;
  • A hazmat suit;
  • Eye and head protection;
  • Latex gloves;
  • Baby socks stuffed with cotton, which can act as equine ear plugs;
  • Water-based lubricant, which can help slide a horse out of a trailer;
  • An air tank for mud rescues (blowing compressed air around limbs can help free them);
  • Movable, light-weight plastic fencing, which can guide animals off roads, funnel them into a trailer, or contain them until more help can arrive; and
  • An Anderson sling, which is the only sling that should be used for helicopter rescues. (For more on Anderson slings, see article #44.)

Transport of Recumbent Horses
Rebecca Gimenez, PhD, of Anderson College, and Allan Schwartz, vice president and co-founder of Days End Farm Horse Rescue in Lisbon, Md., discussed the backward drag, use of the rescue glide to transport a down horse, the importance of sedation, how to rescue a cast horse, and precautions during transport.

To keep a horse down, Rebecca Gimenez said to keep his nose tipped up and place a knee on the horse’s neck. “However, if the horse really wants to get up, he is going to get up regardless,” she said.

The backward drag is used to remove a down horse which cannot move on his own or when rescuers only have access to the hind end. To facilitate movement of the down horse, lubricant can be used to reduce friction. (For more information on this, see article #4061.)

If a horse is cast, a cotton rope can be placed around the pastern of the leg that is closest to the ground. The horse is gently rolled over keeping the spine and vertebrae aligned while rescue personnel move quickly out of the way. Usually once the horse has been rolled over, he will get up. Volunteers were able to practice this technique using a trained, live horse.

The tail is another part of the horse that should not be used for a handle in most situations. When the tail must be used, do not use machinery and never twist or jerk the tail as that can lead to spinal cord damage.

Sedation is a necessary part of most rescues, and it can help calm the horse, minimizing the risk for the rescue team, Rebecca Gimenez said. Having a veterinarian on the scene is important for evaluation of the animal and for administration of sedation. Rebecca Gimenez said that sedation does not mean a horse cannot move around; therefore, rescuers must still use extreme caution when working around a sedated horse. It is very easy to get kicked, bitten, or crushed by an animal that is sedated since it looks so innocent and quiet, she said. However, the drugs can have a side effect of making the animal still able to respond to stimuli unexpectedly.

The rescue glide is a large piece of heavy plastic which usually has straps added on to secure the horse in a down position for safe transport. Attendees watched volunteers strap a plastic horse to the rescue glide and maneuver the glide around obstacles as if headed to a trailer. Rebecca Gimenez has found that if a horse wakes up from sedation while strapped to the rescue glide, he will struggle for a few seconds, then give up until he is released.

Rebecca Gimenez also demonstrated bandaging techniques.
Mud Rescue/Loose Horses
Schwartz discussed injecting air into mud near a trapped horse’s leg to break the “seal” holding him. For this, Schwartz uses a 20-gallon air tank and a PVC pipe. The air tank is light enough to be packed to a remote location by horseback. In many cases, after the air is injected, the horse is able to walk out of the mud.

He also demonstrated how to catch a loose horse and how to make an emergency halter. The horse should never be tied with the emergency halter since it can tighten too much if the horse pulls back. Schwartz recommended that rescue personnel not familiar with horses learn how to catch and handle horses.

Both Schwartz and Rebecca Gimenez mentioned other resources, such as the North Carolina State Animal Response Team’s web site at www.ncsart.org. There are also classes on large animal disaster offered on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s web site (http://training.fema.gov/emiweb/IS/is111.aspx).

Trailer Rescue
Dave Becker, DVM, of Jeffersontown, Ky., discussed assessment of a traffic accident scene involving a horse trailer, stabilizing the vehicle, how to upright a trailer, and how to gain control of the scene and reduce the stress on the animal(s) involved. His first recommendation was that before an emergency occurs, veterinarians and rescue personnel should get to know each other and evaluate resources available for large animal rescue.

Upon arriving on a scene, rescue personnel need to assess the situation. “Although people should not ride in the backs of trailers, sometimes they do,” he said. “Always remember to check the trailer for injured people.”

After people are attended, animals can be helped. Becker said the horse--a fight or flight animal--is looking for a way out. Therefore, just opening the trailer doors could cause a horse to bolt, endangering himself and others.

“Don’t give them an opening until the opening is totally free,” he said. “If the horse can get his head through, the body might not fit. The horse will not understand that he needs to come out slowly.” This is especially important if part of the trailer must be cut and removed.

The horse will be extremely excited or in shock after an accident. Becker recommended that rescue personnel turn off sirens, which could cause the horse to panic more. Firefighters should be aware that their uniforms might scare the horse due to residual smoke smell. Smearing mentholated vaseline (or fly spray) inside the horse’s nostrils helps block the smell. In addition, placing earplugs in the horse’s ears could help. Becker cautioned against using fast movements, especially around a horse’s eyes.

Becker said that people should never get into a trailer with live animals. If a person must lean inside the trailer to work, then a safety buddy should be behind him ready to pull him out in case of an emergency.

Becker said that the good thing about trailers is that they are built well. If a horse remains inside the trailer during the accident, then there is a good chance that he will survive. Since there are dozens of manufacturers with different models, he advised rescue personnel to familiarize themselves with various types of trailers. It is up to rescue personnel to determine the easiest and simplest method for extrication of the horse.

“It’s not often that you would want to roll an overturned trailer with horses in it,” he said. However, if multiple horses are involved, sometimes this is the easiest way. He said that using various ropes and rigs, a firm attachment can be made to the axles, which is usually the only secure attachment spot on a trailer. For a controlled roll, ropes are used on the other side to slow the descent. Pressure on ropes can keep the tongue straight and prevent the trailer from pivoting. Becker cautioned that windows must be blocked with plywood to keep horses from stepping through them.

If a horse must be euthanized, Becker said to never use a gun. He told a story of an officer who fired his gun at a horse, missed, and the bullet ricocheted off of the trailer and killed him.

With proper planning, teamwork, and knowledge of rescue techniques, horses can be saved. Hagyard-Davidson-McGee is planning to offer a three-day seminar on emergency equine rescue in 2004. To find out when the Gimenez’ will be doing a seminar in your area, contact Tomas Gimenez at tgmnz@clemson.edu.

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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