Rescuing Horses in a Fire: Firefighters Learn

Most of the firefighters had never touched a horse, let alone put a halter on one.

"I rode a merry-go-round once," one firefighter quipped when asked of his prior equestrian experience.

"I'm Shane from Crystal Lake, and I'm actually afraid of horses," another announced.

They were among the more than 70 firefighters from six area fire departments who gathered last Monday (Nov. 20) at Roundtuit Ranch on Fletcher Road, near Enfield, Conn., and enthusiastically endured the chilly night to learn how to save horses from perishing in barn fires.

They said it was training they hope they'll never have to put to use but are glad to have, given the number of farms and stables in their towns.

The firefighters from Ellington, Crystal Lake, Stafford, West Stafford, Somers and Tolland were part of the sixth in a series of on-site workshops coordinated by the Connecticut Horse Council's "Horse911" project. The initiative is aimed at teaching members of all of Connecticut's fire departments basic horse-handling techniques and promoting fire prevention and preparedness among barn owners.

Typical horse barns made of dry timber and with hay bales stacked to the rafters all have one nightmarish thing in common. If a fire breaks out, it spreads swiftly. Without quick intervention by rescuers, the horses inside can suffocate or burn to death within minutes.

Though their imposing stature and strength might suggest otherwise, horses are fragile creatures when it comes to smoke, heat and fire. Once a fire is within 10 feet of a horse, it can suffocate within three minutes, said Amy Stegall, a Stafford resident who is president of the Connecticut Horse Council and a coordinator of the workshop.

"A horse has large nostrils, and it's going to be inhaling a large amount of smoke," she said. "Even if it isn't burned, it can still die from smoke inhalation."

It's an event horse lovers would rather not think about, but with the right training, firefighters - if they arrive in time - can save the lives of the horses as well as prevent concerned bystanders without fire gear from risking a potentially fatal rescue attempt.

At Roundtuit Ranch, initial caution quickly gave way to wide smiles as each firefighter got up close and personal with the three cooperative volunteers - the ranch's horses, Pippi, Comet and Ozzie.

One by one, each firefighter approached one of the horses, talking softly to announce their presence, coming up to the left side of the horse - never directly in front or behind - and offering a hand to sniff and a gentle rub of the neck.

Pippi, a 13-year-old dark chestnut mare, seemed to take the attention in stride, though her ears perked quizzically as a pump truck that was parked incongruously in the center of the ranch's enclosed riding ring fired up its diesel engine and began to flash blue and red strobe lights.

Each firefighter then took a turn leading a now slightly anxious horse around the truck, buttressed by experienced handlers ready to take over if the noise and flashing lights got the better of the animals.

But the horses were good, and by night's end each firefighter was trained to approach a horse, put on its halter and lead it to safety, recognizing and reacting to cues from the animal's demeanor and avoiding injury if the horse panicked.

Horses have a habit of stubbornly holding their ground in their stalls even in the face of danger, and have been known to flee back into burning barns once freed, according to Halide Caine, the workshop's facilitator. That's why learning to lead the horse is so important.

Caine told the firefighters to use caution when deciding whether to attempt a rescue.

"We don't want you running into a burning barn, thinking you might be able to save a horse. If that barn is fully engulfed, it's over," she said. "Sometimes by the time you arrive it will be too late."

Barn fires are often caused by faulty wiring, lightning strikes and improperly baled hay, which can spontaneously combust in the right conditions, according to Caine. Part of Horse911 has been teaching barn managers how to guard against common causes of fires.

The horse-handing abilities now held by the firefighters could easily come in handy in the more likely event of a loose horse or an accident involving a horse trailer, Caine said.

After three hours of hands-on instruction, many firefighters said they came away feeling more confident in their ability to help save a horse.

Brian Gagnon of the Tolland Fire Department said he planned to share what he'd learned with others.

"In our community, we actually have a lot of horse farms, and this has definitely been a useful training," he said. "I don't think tonight is the end of that training, but the beginning."

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The Associated Press

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