It is a scenario that haunts many of us — whether we have actually seen it happen or not. We can just imagine what it would be like to walk out to the barn one morning and call the horses to feed – and not have them come. The sense of dread. They don’t come because they can’t. One (or more) of the horses is trapped in the fence! Great timing: In the movie “War Horse,” in theaters now, the horse Joey is trapped in a barbed wire fence and saved by the unlikely combination of German and British soldiers — it goes to show that everyone loves horses and wants to help when they get trapped.

But doing this is more complicated than in the movies, especially if you’re by yourself.

Reality check: It happened to me in 2006 in Kentucky. My horses were in a newly fenced pasture for a clinic, and when they didn’t come running for morning feed, I walked down the pasture in dread. Sure enough, my mare Elektra, stood trapped in old, rusty four-wire hog fence that had been shoved into a ditch. Oops — I hadn’t seen that when we arrived!

Problem: Horses evolved for millions of years to walk slowly while grazing (to gain nutrition to stay alive) and then run quickly away from predators (everything that likes to eat horsemeat). No fences enclosed the steppes of Mongolia or the plains of America while little Eohippus was slowly developing into the modern Equidae (zebras, Prezwalski’s horse, and Equus caballus). So, no mechanism in the equine brain says, “hold still — you’re caught in the fence — slowly lift one leg at a time and carefully extricate yourself!”

Instead — their instinctual prey-animal programming causes horses to panic and fight to get out of any entrapment — in many cases causing them to further injure and trap themselves.

horses hobbled

Hobble training can teach a horse not struggle when its legs are confined or trapped.

Preparation: There are many ways that horsemen and women can work to desensitize their animals for this possible entrapment — many natural, endurance and western horsemanship programs teach hobble and rope training around the legs. (Here is an article about training a horse to tie and hobble.) These excellent ways to ask your horse to stop, think and not react in an excited manner to the vines that wrap around their legs on a trail or an old fence wire around a hoof. Any horse should have this type of preparation — whether you do dressage, equitation, western pleasure or trail riding.

Prevention: Many people use diamond or two-inch mesh horse fencing to prevent a horse from getting a hoof through the wire fencing in the first place. Cleaning up around your property and checking for holes in the fence, loose wires, or old rusty portions that should be removed is a regular part of facility maintenance. The best type of fences combine a method where the horses can see it (tape, wood, flagging on new wire, etc.) and a method to keep the animals away from it in the first place (usually electricity).

Barbed wire should not be used for horses. (I really cannot say that too strongly.) It’s designed for cattle, not horses, and the horrific injuries that horse get from barbed wire often cannot be fixed. These types of injuries tend to be on the lower leg and are notoriously difficult to heal.

Reaction: If you run in to save the horse, you will probably scare it and cause it to struggle. Don’t let anyone approach the horse until you have a plan for your safety, too.

Possible solutions:

  • Call for help first! Call the vet and get him or her on the way.
  • Use a halter and lead rope for guidance and control if possible.
  • Get some hay and see if the horse will relax and eat while waiting for assistance (some will, some won’t).
  • Bring a calm buddy horse to stand close to the horse and minimize its stress.
  • You will need, at the minimum, a set of good wire cutters or bolt cutters to cut the wire, as well as your equine emergency kit to treat any injuries while waiting on the vet.
  • If the horse is recumbent, use a blindfold to cover the eyes and a good animal handler to restrain the horse. (This is easier said than done.) Sedation may be necessary.

The rest of the reality check: When I walked around the corner and saw Elektra standing in the wire. She was up to her belly in the wire with three legs. I picked up the phone and called my partner to come help with wire cutters. I spoke to the horse calmly, walked up and used a piece of hay string as an emergency rope halter, buddy, Aerial (and the llama, Dexter) stood with us calmly.

There was enough poop present to tell that Elektra had been stuck for a while. No injuries yet — so I offered a treat to both horses, stroked them and waited for the wire cutters. When he arrived, he cut the back leg loose first and removed the wire piece by piece – careful not to pinch or poke the horse. Once she was free, I backed her up and then released her. The horses ran and bucked and snorted toward the barn. Whew  —  that was close

What are your experiences with this type of situation? We welcome your pictures, stories, and comments. Please share so we can all learn from how you handled this situation.