Recumbent Transport and Other Rescue Techniques (AAEP 2004)

"We need to learn to prioritize our rescue techniques," said Rebecca Gimenez, PhD, professor at Anderson College in South Carolina, in her presentation on equine rescue techniques at the 50th annual American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) Convention in Denver, Colo., Dec. 4-8, 2004. "We need something that is technologically simple, low-risk, efficient, and the safest for victim and rescuer." She gave an example of cutting a path to a horse trapped on a trail in the mountains after a fall rather than air-lifting it, which should be the last resort. When these last-resort situations happen, you need to be prepared to handle them; she described two techniques that should be practiced and employed in certain rescue situations.

Recumbent Transport

Whether it be a geriatric horse with West Nile virus, a malnourished mare, or a multi-million dollar stallion that is down, recumbent transport can be a useful and safe way to move the horse if performed properly. A rescue glide made of recycled plastic can get the animal onto a trailer or ambulance, and the most difficult part of its use is getting the horse on the glide.

Gimenez explained the process: "You can use a piece of web and 'floss' it around the horse, then drag the animal on. Alternately, you could roll the horse onto the glide. Obviously, this is going to require sedation. We're going to cover the head, protect it, and we don't want that animal to get up and try to hurt someone," she added. She uses truckers' ratchet straps with fleece covers to protect the skin when tying the horse to the glide. She uses specific tying techniques that she and her husband Tomas Gimenez, DVM, PhD, professor of animal and veterinary sciences at Clemson University, teach in their nationwide clinics for emergency first-response personnel, veterinarians, and others.

"You want the horse to be tied down so that it cannot move or struggle. Always keep people on the back side of the horse so they don't get kicked or hurt," said Gimenez.

If the animal has an injured leg, maneuver it onto the slide with the injured leg on top. One person on the rescue team should be in charge of that injured extremity, and they can use a Kimzey splint to immobilize the leg until the horse arrives at its destination. 

A second plastic slide can be put under the one bearing the horse's weight in order to reduce friction for an animal whose condition won't be helped by the jostle of a slide across gravel.

Safety aspects to consider when transporting a recumbent horse:

  • Make sure the horse remains sedated during the trip. You might have to stop during the trip to re-sedate the horse.
  • It is illegal to ride in the trailer with the horse, but a camera in an ambulance can be a very good idea for monitoring the animal.

Simple Vertical Lift

Gimenez explained that slings for lifting horses have advanced over the years from a figure-eight web sling to slings available today such as the Anderson sling and the Becker vertical lift sling. In their rescue clinics, she and Tomas use a Becker sling, which is comprised of webbing that goes around the horse at the withers to down below the heart girth, another webbing that goes around the abdomen in front of the hind legs, and a breast strap. "The average horse owner freaks about how the hind end looks while the horse is in this sling, but this is not used for longer than 10 minutes, and we have had no problems with the demonstrator horses," she said. Other slings should be used for long-term care or lifts that are longer than just a few minutes (simple vertical lifts are good for getting horses out of ravines, swimming pools, or septic tanks, for example.

Safety aspects to consider while practicing and performing vertical lifts:

  • The communication between handler and equipment operator is important;
  • Chest restraint, fleece protection, a two-point overhead (frame) to balance weight, and appropriate lifting equipment (whether it be a forklift or crane, for example) are needed;
  • Quick-release equipment is invaluable when a horse is returned to the ground, because it could try to scramble away while still attached to the lifting equipment;
  • Handlers should use helmets;
  • Hazardous material decontamination is something to remember in the case where you have a horse that has fallen in a septic tank;
  • What you use in rescue operations "doesn't have to be perfectly made web equipment," she assured. "There are very effective ways to accomplish the same thing (with the use of recycled fire hoses as webbing, for example)."
  • If a horse is stuck in mud, sometimes there is such strong suction that you might not be able to get the animal out without lift equipment. Injecting air and water into the mud is crucial to loosening the animal right before the lift is attempted.


Helicopter Sling Load

"This is the last resort, it's extremely expensive, takes a lot of planning, a lot of communications, and a lot of equipment, and you have to practice," she warned.

The steel frame to which the 18 buckles of the Anderson sling and horse are attached is fitted with flotation devices in case it is set down in water. One hook leads from the frame to the helicopter so that the horse can be released more quickly.

A minimum of two to three people remain under the helicopter to stabilize the horse and connect the load hook to the frame. The load can never be swinging or twisting. Leave the lead rope on the horse and use ropes attached to the frame to control the gradual descent of the animal. When he is 20 feet from the ground, stabilize the horse and let him settle before bringing him all the way to the ground.

She narrated a video of a helicopter sling load demonstration. When all four of the horse's feet are stably on the ground, "Unhook the lift hook, and the helicopter goes away. Less time under the helicopter is better," she said.

The Gimenezes' training sessions are held all over the country throughout the year, and they not only teach the rescue techniques, but teach people unfamiliar with horses about the instinctual challenges of horse rescue while teaching them to be comfortable around their demonstrator horses.

"The average firefighter emergency responder doesn't have horse skills, so we show them how to handle a calm horse," she said. "Once they get used to handling the 24-year-old Quarter Horse, you move them to the 2-year-olds, and then the foals. An hour or two of doing that is one of the best skills you could teach to benefit your local practitioners."

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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