Equine rescue 101: Aiding a downed horse


Horses regularly get into dangerous situations in the most unusual and mundane places.

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.

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.

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.

"Cachexia secondary to medical disorders — such as severe parasitism or neoplasia, liver or kidney disease and neurologic conditions such as botulism, encephalitis and equine protozoal myelitis — can all possibly contribute to producing a recumbent horse," Slovis says.

Trauma is another important concern in cases of recumbent horses seen by both Drs. Slovis and Gimenez, yet it is often overlooked. All too often, the desire to initiate a rescue operation, often by well-meaning samaritans, gets in the way of a complete assessment of the initial situation.

Dr. Gimenez, in a paper presented at the American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention in 2002, writes: "An unjustified difficult, dangerous or high-tech approach is sometimes employed by rescuers ... The excitement of rescues tends to break down the use of teamwork and common sense." This may be the most important role for the equine veterinarian in such scenarios.

A veterinarian should perform a thorough physical examination and assessment of the animal and the overall situation. Is the horse injured? Are there any fractures or lacerations? Is the horse exhibiting signs of neurological problems, disorientation, dehydration or shock? Answers to these questions will often determine the conditions of the rescue or even if a rescue should proceed. Placing rescuers at risk and putting a horse with a severe fracture that might not be repairable through a possible painful rescue procedure might not be advised. It is often said that the first thing to do in an emergency situation is to take your own pulse. This is a reminder to relax and step back to assess the entire situation before responding. Often the veterinarian can provide this objective evaluation and overview in what is usually an emotional situation.

State statutes

Veterinarians are also encouraged to learn about their individual state's regulations regarding rescue of animals. Some states, such as Kentucky, view horses as personal property, so fire and rescue personnel are mandated to help save horses as they would try to save a burning house. The chief of the rescue operation might be the person taking full responsibility for the scene and may use the responding veterinarian for consultation and assistance. Alternatively, the equine veterinarian might be consulted for direction as other states differ about who is in charge and responsible. This can be a potential problem.

"A veterinarian called to the scene of a highway accident involving a horse encounters fire/rescue, emergency medical and law enforcement personnel and often finds confusion in terms of who is in charge of the situation," Gimenez says.

Some veterinarians have been shocked to learn that they would have been held responsible in some states if any rescue personnel had been injured in the operation. It is important to know the rules in your area and which rescue personnel you can easily and responsibly work with.

Problems with dehydration and electrolyte imbalance can cause profound muscle weakness and make a horse unable to stand or help itself rise. This is commonly seen in hot, humid environments where the exertions done in attempting to stand often result in a very sweated horse that has lost tremendous amounts of fluids and electrolytes. Though a physical examination is often difficult, given the circumstances, it is still the first and most important place to start. Correction of dehydration/electrolyte loss should be started while the rescue plan is being formulated. Large-gauge catheters (10 gauge) should be used to permit the delivery of large volumes of fluids (20 to 40 liters in general and usually containing some dextrose as an energy source, B-vitamins and possible additional calcium provided there are no medical conditions that would preclude such a choice) rapidly because the more time that the animal spends recumbent, the weaker some muscle groups can become due to pressure and poor perfusion. Attention to the need for possible sedation should be considered to ensure the safety of the rescuers as well as the victim.

Tools of the trade

Despite an array of resources, the equine practitioner still will encounter the horse down in a stall or at pasture and be required to try to get that horse up without a great deal of assistance. Fortunately, there are a number of devices that make that process a bit easier. The rescue glide (B and M Plastics, Greenville, S.C.) is a large, flexible, plastic sheet that easily slides over many surfaces. A recumbent horse can be rolled onto the glide and moved to an area where a sling can be used or to a safer location for treatment or transport. The glide can be used with a sedated horse to move the animal from a cramped stall to a larger area. Some horses can be slid along to an area of safer footing and allowed to stand on their own. Because of the nature of the glide's plastic surface, most horses can be moved realistically using only a few individuals, and these units are standard issue for all equine ambulances used at major equine sporting events.

Slings are also important pieces of equine rescue equipment. The Anderson sling is perhaps the best known of these devices, allowing for a complete supported lift of a horse in normal position. This sling and others like it have been used in helicopter rescues and have been instrumental in many high-profile situations. A very functional sling can be made for less dramatic lifts by using fire-hose material or webbing. A section of the material is fitted around the horse's chest behind the front legs, and another section is fitted in front of the hind legs. The front section is connected to a piece of material that goes around the front of the chest to prevent backward slippage of the support. The webbing can be attached with heavy-duty zip ties or clamps connected with screws and bolts. A heavy metal rod above the horse's back provides an area to connect to a fork lift, tow truck lift, or a block and tackle attached to a strong beam above the horse. This can allow a horse to be gently lifted so that it can regain its feet and possibly resume self support. There are many variations on these types of slings, but obviously, the time to make one and to become familiar with its use is not in an emergency situation.

Many practices have used emergency rescue education meetings as both a practice builder and a means of uniting the equine community. A seminar held at a local barn involving fire/rescue and interested horse owners can be a great way to identify potential helpers for equine rescue situations and to identify you to the local horse community as someone with interest and ability in such situations. There are videos available on trailer rescue, fire rescue and other such situations that can be shown at these meetings. Use this opportunity to build a sling and become proficient in its use. Many practices make their slings available to other veterinarians and rescue units in their areas. Teaching basic horse handling techniques to fire and rescue personnel (many of whom do not know how to halter or lead a horse) can help ensure they will be better able to serve your clients when called to respond to a barn fire or a downed horse.

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