When emergency responders arrive at the scene of an urgent situation involving a horse, surely everything will go smoothly, right? Not necessarily. While many emergency situations are resolved without incident, emergency responders might not always understand how to best deal with horses. Here are the top four mistakes they can make when working with equids.
1. Chasing a loose horse to "capture" it
Shocking stories abound of police officers attempting to apprehend a loose horse by chasing it with a car or on foot. A short search on YouTube yields a trove of videos and pictures of these types of responses. Warning: Many of these are difficult to watch and might involve impacts with cars, humans, and other objects. These chases result from a lack of training, and officers often base their responses on instinctual predatory human behavior (we all do this as a reaction to a stressful situation!).
Just this week in the news was a story of ten police officers responding to chase a pony that was loose.
Trained officers know that, by chasing a horse, they will only increase the chance of the animal getting injured (or killed) or injuring a bystander or well-meaning responder. The use of a vehicle to chase a horse is ridiculous and fraught with danger. Horses can actually run themselves to death when being chased, as well as impact objects, people, and vehicles. Or, they can fall into holes or pits. Chasing on foot or attempting to lasso the animal is similarly dangerous for the horse, as well as for people.
Safer methods for containing the animal include driving it into a contained area (such as a soccer field, pasture, tennis court, or yard), and then having a trained animal handler approach, catch, and lead the animal. Portable fencing such as snow or construction fencing can be used as a barrier and, with enough people to help, is mobile for setting up funnels or containment pens. Some animals may not be familiar with haltering; those can be driven into the back of a stock trailer for transport.
2. Assuming that the owner is best qualified to be the animal handler
As previously discussed, many owners or bystanders are far too emotional to be up close and personal with the horse in these scenarios and aren't always the best people to handle a horse in a sticky situation. On the other hand, most officers are not going to have any experience with horses and could get themselves injured simply by not understanding how large and fast an animal can react. That said, there are some horse owners who are capable of remaining calm, making rational decisions, and handling the animal professionally (so they and others don't get injured, and that the animal doesn't sustain further injury or get loose).
If possible, a professional animal handler such as a veterinarian, veterinary technician, or someone with extensive large-animal handling expertise should take over this job when they arrive on scene. The incident commander may want to consider mobile containment (panels, construction fencing, etc.) as secondary containment to the primary handler, so the animal is less likely to get loose.
3. Shoot the animal incorrectly using the wrong landmarks
There are many incidents where the obvious right thing to do is to euthanize the animal (and proper use of a firearm to immediately perform field euthanasia is both humane and legal). Although it is best to have a veterinarian examine the animal before choosing to euthanize it, horses commonly endure horrific injuries in trailer wrecks and barn fires, or when falling into holes or becoming entrapped into various objects. Sometimes the best option to do is shoot the horse to prevent its suffering. In these cases, waiting an hour for the veterinarian to arrive is not an ethical choice for the owner or the personnel present. However, personnel need training on how to properly and safely do this job.
As a good example: In 2006 a mounted officer in Toronto was involved in a hit and run that left his horse with broken legs. The horse, Brigadier, was in extreme pain. This officer was forced to shoot his horse on the spot. In another case that took place in 2009 a car hit two horses in Broward County, Fla. When I arrived with the emergency responders, I found one horse had multiple fractures and additional severe injuries gave the animal no chance for survival. A veterinarian was over two hours away, so a police officer was employed to end the animal's suffering.
One shot--correctly placed in the appropriate landmarks--will kill the animal instantaneously. When a projectile weapon is considered for use, however, we must remember the extreme danger it represents to people.
A sad example: Officer Dana E. Paladini, of South Los Angeles suffered a fatal wound as a result of a misplaced bullet on July 4, 1972. Officer Paladini and a sheriff's deputy arrived at the scene of a vehicle accident involving a horse trailer. One animal suffered a broken leg, and the owners asked the officers to shoot the horse. The deputy sheriff fired three shots. One ricocheted off the trailer wall striking Officer Paladini, who died shortly afterward. The 25-year-old patrol officer had been a member of the California Highway Patrol for only nine months.
This type of tragedy can be avoided by teaching officers to use the appropriate landmarks, consider backstops and ricochets, and choose the correct caliber of weapon. Officers should also be instructed how to encourage the animal to drop its head and relax, which often yields a better result. That will ensure that euthanasia is carried out professionally and efficiently to minimize stress, fear, and pain for the horse.
4. Tend to overestimate their own strength
Officers might underestimate the extreme weight, strength, and speed of a terrified, trapped, or injured horse. The importance of safe body position and approach techniques should be emphasized at all times; in some cases. Horses are amazing in their flexibility, power, and speed, but these tendencies can cause an officer to get seriously injured when responding to a scenario.
Large-animal handling skills for emergency situations are a specialty skill set to which many officers might not have had exposure or training. This is a great chance for horse owners that might want to get involved with their local departments (i.e., fire, police, or animal control). Consider providing an opportunity for responders to visit your farm and learn how to safely approach, halter, catch, and lead some horses. They will value the opportunity!
Have you been involved in one of these situations?
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