In our first blog post last week, I showed you a picture of an overturned horse trailer/float with a Randy Rescue horse mannequin inside - to give you an idea of what it really would look like to view a trailer/float on its side - and to stimulate thinking about how you might manage the situation if you were there. The other reason is to explore ways to prevent this scenario, or at least make it easier to get the animal(s) out with ease and speed.

Here are a couple of examples of these types of incidents (with pictures):

  • Horses Survive Accident on I-540: This accident in July 2011 is very similar to the mockup that I posted last week. Notice that the trailer came loose from the towing vehicle (something that we can discuss in a future blog post) and that both horses are on their sides. Notice that the back doors are being removed - but what is that person doing standing where he can get kicked? Where is his safety gear (gloves, helmet, boots, pants)? Is a hacksaw sufficient to do the job or do you need professional tools (hydraulic cutters, reciprocating saws, etc.) to get them out? In the end both animals were extricated - but there is no mention of their injuries, whether they were sedated, etc.
  • Horse killed in interstate crash: This group included trained large animal responders and they successfully handled a horrific scene involving a tractor trailer, another truck, and a horse trailer with three horses in it. Note they have a safety on top of the trailer, they are forming a body wall to lead the horse from the overturn to another transport, and they have a much better plan for their operational response than the above scenario.

"Best practices" in the emergency services arena (fire, rescue, paramedic, etc.) refers to the tactics, techniques and procedures that are most highly recommended for responding to a particular incident, based on our body of knowledge and technology at the time. As a professional instructor, we bring ideas from all over the world related to a specific topic and apply them to these situations. The responder has to be able to consider many factors: Safety (for the humans and the animals), resources (people, equipment, mechanical, logistics), environment (rain, cold, heat, humidity), medical (stability of the patient, arrival time of medical treatment), and unusual situational concerns such as stability and structural integrity (e.g., is the trailer yawing out over the side of a bridge?).

For the trailer overturn scenario we posted last week - remember we assumed that 911 was called, there are no human injuries, responders have controlled the traffic and any other dangers, and rescuers may now approach the trailer with your horse in it.  Here are the answers to some of our initial questions:

  • Running up to the trailer is a bad idea - we encourage people to approach slowly while talking to the animals and evaluating their stress and orientation by looking in a window or other opening. Horses have been known to attempt to come through openings that are too small for them, going towards the light, so don't open any doors or windows at first. An assessment should be made - are animals dead or alive? Are they tied in the trailer? Is one on top of the other? Standing or lying down? Are the stanchions/gates intact or fallen? The firefighters will be able to make better decisions based on this information. If a door is opened, it should be tied off so that it cannot slam back into place and hurt a person or an animal. Many times, gates and doors will have to be removed or cut even for standing animals to be safely extricated.
  • Generally, a horse tends to fight and struggle to get up if he can get up, and he will stand quietly and wait for help. Slapping or stimulating a downed horse will not help - if he can get up, he would already be up! Short trailer ties (especially ones that don't break) will guarantee that the horse cannot get up, and he will continue to struggle. Breakable halters will break, but then how do you release him from the trailer without control of the head (and no, you are not going to send someone into the trailer to halter him!) Bungee-type trailer tyes will not break, but the horse may be able to get up, and now he will be fighting the pressure from the bungee pulling his head (these should be outlawed!). Solution: Put something in the system that will break--a piece of hay string at the trailer end of the tie or Turtle Snap or Jemal engineered product is preferred--so that the horse can break loose after the incident, but he still has a halter on with a short lead rope. This makes him much easier to handle than a horse with no halter or that is tied in and must be released.
  • Horses are amazingly capable of surviving even catastrophic trailer wrecks - as long as they stay INSIDE the trailer. Their frantic struggling is the best reason to always use leg wraps. Every time you trailer your horse. It can be a proper Pony Club full wrap, or it can be sport boots, or it can be the velcro shipping boots. ANYTHING is better than nothing because the horse will normally survive the overturn or wreck of a trailer - it is the lower leg injuries with their complications that will usually cause the horse to be euthanized.
  • To help the horse extricate himself from the trailer, remove all obstacles -- the doors, gates, and all the stuff in a "removable" tack room that obstructs the exit. If you can cover the windows (which now may be holes in the floor) with a backboard or rubber mat so that the animal doesn't put a leg into them, sometimes the animal can get enough leverage to stand by himself (especially if its head is not tied.) If secondary containment can be set up around the rear of the trailer with cattle panels, tarps, parked vehicles, or even people holding hands - this will prevent a loose horse situation once he is extricated. Have another halter available to catch and control the horse (or use an emergency rope halter).
  • The only safe way to release a trailer tie is to do it without crawling over the horse's body or head to get to it. A seatbelt cutter or curved knife on a long pole can be used to allow responders to stay in a safe position outside the trailer. The problem with using even a serrated knife is that the push/pull motion will usually stimulate the animal to fight, and you might accidentally stab it. Keep in mind that people have had their arms broken by sticking them into trailers to handle the head.
  • Recumbent and trapped horses may lay quietly in these situations for a few minutes -- but that is not because they sense that you are there to help. It is because they have exhausted themselves and are waiting to get their second or third or twentieth wind to fight to stand up. They will fight until they totally exhaust themselves, then they go into shock and can die. They are far more stressed (even when not injured) than a human would be in the same situation. They aren't trying to kick and fight to hurt you; they simply have an instinct that "a down horse is a dead horse" -- so they want to get up. They can hear everything that is going on (voices, tools, vehicles, footsteps, extrication equipment) and even if they can't see outside the trailer, they can still see shadows and reflections. Try to limit loud sounds (sirens, cutting equipment) unless absolutely neccessary.

Upon arrival in the photo at right, the firefighters have discovered that the horse (a mannequin) is recumbent in the trailer, in the left compartment (which is where a person should be loading a single horse in a trailer in the U.S., as it keeps the weight on the proper camber of the road).

In the photo you can see that the ramps, windows and doors are intact, but need to be carefully considered before opening so that the horse doesn’t accidentally get out before responders are ready to manage him. In this case the horse's head is tied inside the trailer, so it must be released before extrication is attempted.

Notice that if the horse attempts to stand, its legs will go through the windows. If rubber mats, plywood, or a backboard can be slipped between the horse and the side of the trailer; his head can be cut loose; and the obstacles (gates, ramps, dividers) are removed; in many cases that animal will self-extricate from the trailer.

Have you ever had a horse in a serious trailer wreck? What caused the incident, and what was the response from others to assist? Did the horse(s) survive? Were they injured? What was the outcome and how have you prevented this from occurring since? I welcome your questions, knowledge, and comments.