Attendees at the American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention have enjoyed accounts of spectacular helicopter-assisted equine rescues for the last several years during the popular Kester News Hour session. In 2007 the presenter of those reports, John Madigan, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, director of the large animal hospital at the University of California, Davis, had retired as co-presenter of the Kester News Hour, but he still spoke, and he did more than just report rescues. He explained how to safely airlift a horse during a session of the convention, which was held Dec. 1-5 in Orlando, Fla.

"Most horses we lift are healthy, they are just trapped somewhere they can't get out of," he noted. "We do all airlifts on standing horses."

The first thing to do, he reported, is to look into all other available options of moving the horse, as they're usually a lot easier and less dangerous. Or, moving the horse might not be time-critical; for example, a horse in a flooded area could move to high ground and be cared for there until floodwaters recede.

If it's decided that an airlift might be necessary, the horse's owner makes direct contact with the helicopter operator, approves the costs, and places the helicopter on standby, pending scheduling and future determinations.

Aircraft Concerns

"Live cargo transport presents numerous problems for helicopter safety," Madigan cautioned. "Horses with uncontrolled movements in the air or on the ground during liftoff and landing can produce significant aircraft instability." To limit this risk, he uses sedation and the UC Davis Anderson sling, which controls and supports the head and body of the horse. His team has used this sling in 28 successful airlifts, and they have also used a sling termed the UC Davis Large Animal Lift to move one recumbent (down) horse.

The helicopter needs to be able to lift at least 1,200-1,500 pounds at sea level, and the pilot needs to have longline experience (using long cables below the helicopter). The horse is lifted on a 150-foot cable, preferably one made of Kevlar rather than steel to reduce static electricity buildup. "If someone's misbehaving, ask him to go ground the sling frame," Madigan said with a grin, knowing a static shock would be the result.

"Ideally, rescue groups should have a prior arrangement and training session with the pilot who is on call," he noted. He described several training sessions at the school with multiple military branches that might have occasion to airlift horses and mules into and out of remote areas.

Airlift Procedure

Madigan described the procedures, training, communication, and chain of command for airlifts in detail. Consultation with the on-site veterinarian before getting involved is essential, and the overall theme was that prior training and careful, specific planning of procedures and responsibilities is critical to success. Two complete teams are required--one to send the horse, and one to receive it at a safe location.

Once everything is in place and well-understood, the airlift itself doesn't take long if no snags are encountered; he reported on some airlifts that took only about an hour from start to finish.

Madigan offered the following checklist of information to be covered in a pre-rescue orientation.

1. Know who is in charge of the rescue;

2. Know who will perform a brief physical examination of the animal prior to sedation or transport;

3. Orient and inspect the sling equipment and overhead support device;

4. Organize ground-to-air radio communications and hand signals from ground to air;

5. Know helicopter safety orientation and grounding methods of the sling overhead frame prior to human or animal contact;

6. Animal restraint--know who is in charge of physical and chemical restraint, as well as precautions for personnel;

7. Apply and detach Anderson sling;

8. Use personnel safety equipment, including ear and eye protection;

9. Plan for implementation of helicopter hovering, animal positioning, lift protocol (including inspection at 10-foot hover), and landing and detachment methods;

10. Assign lift and receiving teams;

11. Know who will perform cable attachment to the helicopter and overhead frame; and

12. Establish the timetable of events.

He described several airlifts with photos and videos to illustrate his points, including one rescue that didn't even result in an airlift because a nearby band of inmates helped dig a cast horse out of a ditch.

"You never know where help is going to come from," Madigan commented.

"The process of airlifting a horse still carries inherent dangers for the horse and rescue personnel," he concluded. "Risks may be lessened by a program that involves regular training, including a helicopter lift when possible, to increase the team's familiarity and comfort level with the UC Davis Anderson sling or Large Animal Lift and airlift protocols."

About the Author

Christy M. West

Christy West has a BS in Equine Science from the University of Kentucky, and an MS in Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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