In the vein of the last few blog entries, I am trying to feature the efforts of people, teams and communities that are involved in some aspect of Equine Technical Rescue. This week I’d like to introduce Nicole Ehrentraut, owner of Da Vinci Equine Emergency Transport in Maryland (www.DaVinciEquine.com), who will discuss in detail about the first year since starting her business in Maryland to be able to both transport and respond to emergencies.
--Rebecca

By Nicole Ehrentraut

In Montgomery County Maryland’s beautiful agricultural reserve, horse and cattle farms abound. According to a 2007 census, more than 900 livestock-related farms are here, and about 800 of them are horse farms.

Right where we live in the National Capital Region, there are several major highway systems for numerous horse and livestock trailers daily. If there is a traffic accident involving large animals, it becomes paramount that proper training and techniques are used to protect human life, to protect expensive equine investments (racehorses and international show horses, as well as “priceless” and well-loved backyard horses), and to facilitate the speed at which the infamous traffic congestion is cleared.

Who does this job where you live?

Getting Started: Three years ago by the local fire chief asked me to teach his fire fighters some horse handling techniques. I was stunned to learn that they had virtually no large animal handling skills. I had always assumed that if there was a trailer accident or other large animal incident that the rescue squad just knew what to do, and so did my vet. I was wrong.

So when a friend suggested that I get training in emergency technical rescue for animals, it seemed a no-brainer. I Googled a Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue (TLAER) course and showed up to it in Texas. I learned to avoid common mistakes during large animal incidents where human and horse injury could have been prevented. I had found where I belonged--in the world of equine sports (albeit an unusual one!).

I signed up for applicable courses with the mission to create a local and regional equine ambulance capable of on scene technical rescues, and customized transport for injured horses. Training, research and internship with DEFHR gave me the knowledge and skills to get involved, purchase a trailer, and then customize it for technical rescue and specialty hauling (that took six months.)

Specializations: Storage for the Rescue Glide (ceiling), specialty tool storage, extra padding, i.v. bag hangers, support beam for an equine sling, second trailer and truck tires, video camera and flashing lights on the ambulance for high visibility on scene and during transport. Meanwhile I was collecting equipment specialized for large animal rescue.

I based my purchases on veterinary advice, asking questions, such as:

  • If you needed to work out of my ambulance during a horse show, what would make your life a lot easier?
  • What kinds of first aid supplies would be good?
  • What situations have you experienced where a horse could have been saved but for the ability to transport it to a local equine hospital?

My goal was to be able to serve the community on all levels. Not just for shows or veterinary services. I wanted to transport injured horses to the hospital (whether totally recumbent or standing on three legs).

  • Could I handle virtually any emergency rescue situation for vertical lift, extrication out of mud or ice, etc.?
  • Could I pick up deceased animals for their owners in a way that showed respect for their horse instead of having a wagon show up and drag their beloved horse off with chains?
  • Could I give local courses on emergency preparedness, horse trailering safety, and simple rescue techniques to local barns, 4-H clubs, pony clubs, and give first responders basic safety information?

I realized there was a huge safety gap in the horse community. For example, many barn owners really wanted to have an emergency plan but were always too busy handling day to day chores to be able to sit down and actually put one together. Too many horse trailers being driven with little to no experience hauling, or with incorrectly matched towing vehicles, but the drivers were not aware of the challenges.
But how to do all these great things, and still pay the bills?

Last year we incorporated. Sharing safety provided better marketing visibility for the company - branding our name and logo, as well as show our excellent training so folks feel safe hiring us and trusting their horses in our hands.

As a secondary goal, we provide some casual hauling to vet appointments, horse shows, trail rides, picking up horses bought, or to local horse shows. We also get hired for larger shows as the on-call ambulance. After all, veterinarians get paid for their services, they save lives, but in order to do so, they pay a lot of money for their training and special equipment. So did I. I believe strongly in this and know that once our service catches on, it will be a huge help to both the equine community and to first responders.

Team members and uniforms: It is important to look unified as a team, professional, and easy to identify on scene. There are so many “rescues” that have poor reputations, it smears the industry. Therefore, we dress like a special ops team. Yes, it’s “branding” that people already easily associate with expertise and respect. It works.

I have the words “Team Leader” written on my clothing so folks know who to go to for decisions. Also, everyone’s name is on their apparel so that folks know who they are talking to. It makes things more personal. Our goal is to not only be professional and state-of-the-art, but to be friendly and approachable. We want people to want to hire us because they had great service. It also makes us memorable.

I have official highly trained team members, who have special qualifications they must meet, such as Operations Level TLAER, FEMA courses, CPR/First Aid, and other classes. All of my team members must have rabies and hepatitis A and B shots.

We meet monthly and train bi-monthly. I run my team similar to the way a fire department would run its team. It’s creates a hierarchy and everyone knows the rules and earns their way to higher levels on the team.

We have also realized the need for auxiliary volunteers. These are not full team members but are extra help and our backup plan if none of the official team members can come on a rescue. I determine their level of involvement on scene based on their skills and the seriousness of the incident.
Legal and insurance: It took more than a year to get liability insurance. It was difficult for companies to figure out how to rate us since we were involved in risky activities. There really isn’t much precedence for equine emergency response teams and specialized trailering.

This has been the most difficult part of the business so far. Out of grief, owners sometimes look for someone to blame, and the emotion leads them to do extreme things. From this, we learned to bill up front, using a credit card. Clients pay us a flat fee immediately upon arrival. If there is a dispute, it goes through the credit card company.

We also have a transport contract, a carcass removal contract and an incident report. Because of our weight and commercial capacity as a business, we need a Department of Transportation (DOT) number. Figuring out these laws is difficult in the beginning. We stop at weigh stations because we are over 10,000 lbs. but under 25,000 lbs., so we do not have to do drug testing for employees, CDL license, etc. We do keep driving logs, get the trailer and truck inspected once a year, and go through the initial DOT inspection within the first 18 months of business.

I currently on have one team member with enough experience driving horse trailers whom I trust to drive our clients’ horses. Others are going through extensive training with me to learn special skills to be able to haul horses in distress.

A look to the future: We are currently partnering with Code 3 Associates to be able to respond with them for natural disasters. We also respond with the NDART for the Humane Society United States and American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. We’ve been on scene for two large neglect rescue impounds already.

We are working together with other equine ambulances in the industry. This team work is incredibly important because we can all help each other and cover more area.

Conclusion: In our first year, we’ve been on several emergency incidents, mostly horses down and needing assistance to stand. Some lived, some did not. It’s part of the business. But we know we did all we could do. We’ve been hired to transport horses that needed our sling in the ambulance to go to Cornell and Marion Dupont Equine Hospitals, an injured famous demonstration Appaloosa to his home in Georgia, and even an elderly horse that simply needed a little extra help for a very long ride to a barn farther south. We’ve been to several horse shows.
We’ve brought many deceased horses on their final journey, and been hired for long and short casual hauls. We have a Facebook page, a website and plan to attend local veterinarian conferences to make sure the vets know we are here to help--usually it’s the vet who calls us for emergencies!
We have flyers up in tack stores, and have created magnets with our info and a place to put your vet’s info readily available. These flew off the counters. For a first year, it’s been pretty great!

Thank you to Nicole and DaVinci Equine Emergency Transport. Good luck and thank you for sharing your learning curve. I hope that others will get involved in this specialty area.

What are your experiences with using a for-hire ambulance for your horse? What can you share with others about what to look for?