Equine rescue 101: Aiding a downed horse

Equine rescue 101: Aiding a downed horse

Practitioners must protect rescuers as well as rescuees
Jan 01, 2006

Last year's hurricane season propelled rescue into the forefront of continuing education. Dr. Robert Henderson leads stranded animals out of the ravished New Orleans area following Hurricane Katrina.
Never before have people been made more aware of the predicaments that horses can get into or the risks and difficulties encountered in rescuing those animals. The devastating pictures of horses stranded in flooded barns, stuck on tiny patches of dry ground or entangled by debris during the recent hurricane season give a small indication of the problems that veterinarians and those involved in equine rescue face during these trying times. But horses can and do get into dangerous situations regularly in the most unusual and mundane places.

Each year, veterinarians are called to respond to cases to aid horses that have fallen into neighborhood pools or through ice on frozen northern ponds. Some horses slip, fall or slide while out on trails and become trapped or entangled in locations or on terrain that make it impossible for the animal to save itself. Older horses or horses suffering from a variety of diseases can become recumbent and unable to get up without assistance. Theses horses might be down and wedged in their stalls, or they can be out at pasture stuck in ravines or creeks, or exposed to extremes in weather.

While these situations also might call for firemen or rescue personnel, the horse involved is still the responsibility of the equine veterinarian, and some information and education about lifts, slings and rescue techniques can prove invaluable. Whether the emergency is likely to make the evening news or the more average variety that veterinarians deal with regularly, the techniques used and the need for education about equine rescue remain the same.

Fortunately, there has been a renewed interest in equine rescue techniques, and there are currently many sources for information and assistance. Dr. Nathan Slovis, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, currently runs an educational program on equine rescue techniques at the Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, Ky. Because of the large numbers of horses in that area, the equine response team initiated by this practice has developed into an educational program as well. Various seminars and hands-on programs are offered. The Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue Association (TLAER) also offers assistance and education. Dr. Tomas Gimenez, a professor in the department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences at Clemson University and a Large Animal Emergency Rescue Instructor for the American Humane Association echoes this theme of assistance and education.

"No emergency rescue is ever the same," Gimenez says.

Thus, a wide variety of skills and techniques must be practiced and learned. To this end TLAER offers three-day seminars at locations across the country throughout the year. These seminars are offered to fire and rescue personnel and to veterinarians and animal-control workers. Because large-animal rescue requires a coordinated effort among many individuals, Dr. Gimenez recommends that veterinarians become familiar with the fire departments and rescue teams in the area that are interested in and trained at equine rescue because the majority of these units receive no such training. When there is a problem and a downed horse needs assistance, you need to know who to call.

Off the beaten path

There are many possible reasons for a horse to become recumbent.

"Complications associated with old age and weather-related problems are the two most common reasons for recumbent horses seen in our area," Slovis says.

Mud, ice and snow top the list of environmental hazards. Arthritis can cause some horses to have extreme difficulty getting up after lying down for even short periods of time. Added to the arthritis problems can be complications with poor weight gain and muscle loss, which makes older horses more prone to difficulty getting up and down — especially in colder weather. Occasionally, these older horses will get down in a field or stall and exhaust themselves trying to rise before they are found by stable managers or caretakers. An older horse with a few relatively minor problems can be rendered too weak from struggling to get up on its own.