The last approximately 100 years of motion pictures and video has profoundly influenced our societal considerations of how horses are rescued from emergency situations, both from the perspective of owner expectations for care, what appears to be “correct” techniques, tactics, and procedures (TTP), and most especially for concerns of animal welfare.

Although these media have increased our understanding of the variety of animals that occur across the earth, some demonstrations and live rescues documented for public viewing haven’t been subjected to scrutiny for any level of animal welfare, veterinary science, or emergency response expertise. 

Additionally, the tendency to celebrate any rescue effort over a well prepared and organized rescue effort has contributed to a societal imprint of expectations that run counter to many of the correct TTPs as practiced by professionals in these areas of emergency or disaster response.

Where did the problem really start? TV coverage of rodeo and western movies--which for more than 50 years featured heroic cowboys driving cattle and riding horses (and rescuing lost calves, extricating trapped cattle, etc.)--“taught” us that cattle had to be driven forward by anyone on any kind of horse. In reality, cattle are much easier to lead with feed or to be guided at slow speeds with minimal numbers of knowledgeable cattlemen or women, and there is significant specialty training that goes into the training of the horses and people that rope, work, or drive cattle.

Genre movie westerns featured mostly horses running with the protagonist and other bad guys either chasing, or being chased. In reality, very few working horses are worked faster than a trot and most cattle work is done at a walk to prevent upsettling the cattle and losing control of the herd. Thus the tendency by bar “cowboys” to want to overpush horses and cattle when presented with the challenges of moving them or containing them.

"Wild Kingdom" and similar wildlife trapping shows of the '70s and '80s produced still more generations of Americans that think darting a large animal (whether it be a hyena or zebra on the African plain or a loose horse on the interstate) is the appropriate, safe, and effective way to deal with large animals that cannot easily be caught. While nothing could be further from the truth, the myth pervades to this day. Chemical immobilization with a dart system can be utilized in special situations to provide safety for the operator, but it can be dangerous to the operator, bystanders, and to the darted animal as well.

Capture myopathy, a condition that occurs in the muscles of a large animal that is stressed and chased for too long, is deadly to animals that are then darted and can cause cardiac issues and death.  Worse, if darted your horse is probably going to suffer a large traumatic injury to the area where the dart hits, resulting in a nasty abscess that will need veterinary oversight.

By the 1980s and '90s, standard fare on TV included "Rescue 911" and similar "docu-dramas," which occasionally showed "animal rescue" situations. These tended to feature a narrator raising the dramatic effect by deeply intoning the importance of hurrying to save the animal while well-meaning but poorly prepared or trained or equipped bystanders jump in to effect a rescue.  

Example #1:  In Louisiana, a tall mounted policeman climbs into an overturned two-horse trailer on the Interstate to provide sedation to the obviously fractious and terrified horse tied inside. The horse is then released from its tie and pulled by the tail out of the trailer onto the asphalt of the highway, for which the rescuer was praised for his heroism and skills. None of which would be vaunted today in a trained rescuer.

Primary Concerns:  Providing sedation to someone else’s animal is within the realm of a veterinarian, not a mounted police officer, even in an emergency situation. Going into a confined space (a steel horse trailer, even when not overturned, with its limited room for access/egress is well within OSHA guidelines for confined space) cannot be recommended for anyone until the animal is sedated from the exterior of the trailer.

Pulling the horse by its tail to remove it from any situation is not recommended or safe for the animal. Leaving the horse on the asphalt to wake up and try to stand is not recommended.

Today’s trained fix:  Arriving personnel perform a scene safety sweep, set up road traffic safety for the scene, and someone knowledgeable performs an assessment of the horse trailer to find a recumbent horse that appears to be minimally injured. They use a tarp over the trailer to minimize stimuli to the animal while simultaneously contacting a large animal veterinarian to respond to the scene.

Using a jab stick or pole syringe, or use of the under-tail vein, the animal is sedated from the exterior of the trailer by the arriving veterinarian or a qualified person under the direction of the veterinarian. Once quiet, the animal’s tie is cut with a curved knife on a long access pole, and webbing emplaced around its hips using either the flossing method or a Strop Guide into a backwards drag configuration. With rescuers using a tarp to cover any jutting sharp edges, the horse is extricated on the tarp by sliding rearward to the asphalt, then pulled to a safe place either at the side of the road or into a waiting equine ambulance. The animal handler at that point maintains control of the animal, the veterinarian further evaluates it for primary assessment at triage and provides first aid.

Reality Check 

Countless movies have downplayed the importance of scene safety and understanding true animal behavior, instead focusing on the dramatic "union" of a young person with an equine such as "The Black Stallion" or even intimating that the animals can talk as in "Racing Stripes" with a zebra. Insinuating that animals can talk, think through problems, or work together to solve puzzling challenges teaches the audience to become more anthropomorphic (assigning the emotions and thought processes of humans to animals), and although horses are very intelligent in their own way and communicate effectively with those of their own species, very few humans have learned to return the favor.

Thus, when trapped a horse doesn’t wait for its human to come rescue it or lay quietly waiting for assistance--it struggles violently and wears itself out--combining medical stress with physical stress, which sometimes overwhelms the animal even before a human can respond. If you get in the danger zone, you can be kicked or crushed by the animal not meaning to hurt you but just fighting for its life.

The bottom line is to understand that movies, TV, and YouTube videos are fun to watch but all take advantage of the human tendency to want to believe that everything will work out all right, and that the horse in peril can “understand” that we are trying to help it. Horses do not. Closer investigation of what you see on media will quickly demonstrate that in many cases, the responders are simply applying mechanical methods with no clear understanding of horse behavior and fear responses. If you want to be able to help your horse, learn more about these aspects and how to mitigate them in your horse, and most importantly, in your own response to emergencies. And if you plan to be a responder, get an education related to emergency technical rescue of horses. Don’t rely on the movies to teach you how to do it right.