Out on the trail when an emergency occurs, you might wonder, “Who should I call?”
And of course since you will have a cell phone (a crucial part of any emergency kit) your first call should be to 911 for assistance with any people that are potentially injured, as well as extrication assistance for the horse. If you have a Large Animal Rescue trained team locally that is who you should ask the dispatcher for help.
The second call should be to a local large animal veterinarian, because every animal that gets trapped should be evaluated after extrication for lacerations, stress injury, bruising, dehydration, and other unseen injuries that occur. In fact, a professional emergency response team will refuse to respond to a large animal emergency without a veterinarian being called to the scene or on call to respond.
If you have friends or neighbors with horse sense and some tools, you might want to call them as well. However, some of the backcountry and trail extrication scenarios that occur will require more technique and specialty equipment than the average backyard horse owner may have available. Specifically, mud extrication and ravine rescues can require portable compressed air, rope, and mechanical advantage systems, as well as sedation from the veterinarian.
All are good reasons to initiate an emergency call in the first place, and if you wait too late and it starts getting dark or raining then you can expect that the speed of the response will be very slow and the horse’s medical condition will deteriorate faster.
For example, in 2005 we were called to a horse incident in the Great Smokey Mountains where a horse had slipped off a steep trail, slid more than 50 feet down, and when the owner last saw it, was trapped between a tree and a boulder, upside down. It was about 4 p.m., and dark came to the mountains earlier, so by 8 p.m. it could not be seen.
The owner called for help by hiking up to the top of the mountain for cell coverage, and the park rangers sensibly required her to hike down to the campsite as rain began to fall and the temperatures fell into the high 40s. Unprotected, the owner would have died of hypothermia that night. We got the call at 8 p.m. and drove several hours to get there, sliding into our sleeping bags by midnight so we could begin the search at first light.
We hiked almost 4 miles up the mountain towards the Appalachian Trail--the ranger, a couple assistants, and us. I have to admit the entire hike I was expecting to find a dead horse when we got to it. Heck, we were hoping that the owner could remember where she last saw the horse! And yes, we took a gun with us to dispatch it humanely in case it was injured or in shock and dying. I had many thoughts on that wind-sucking hike of how horrified I would be if it were my horse left out there overnight.
Imagine our surprise when we rounded a bend and heard a low whicker, the horse was standing on the trail, shivering violently but alive and very happy to see people. Somehow he had wiggled enough (and the owner had removed the saddle girth while he was stuck and before she had to leave him) to get out of his predicament in the dark, cold, and rain. He found his way back up to the trail. The owner had faithfully toted the horse’s blanket up the mountain and we blanketed him, gave him all the water we had in our backpacks (dehydration is a consequence of stress) and let the horse drink out of every rivulet and puddle on the way slowly back down the mountain. When he reached the bottom, we put an IV for fluids in the horse, fed him a warm mash of feed and alfalfa, loaded him in the ambulance, and drove him immediately to the veterinarian, who was able to treat and stabilize him. The horse survived.
This scenario demonstrates that coordination, having a plan, and having a cell phone are crucial before you get on your horse and step into the backcountry or even a local trailhead.
What are your experiences and stories related to these types of scenarios? What are your suggestions for trail tools and equipment to stay safe and react effectively?