By Dr. Howard Lanham (Westminster, MD)


I hope that you and your horse never have an emergency, but most of us can recall a close call or two.  To give credit where credit is due, it was often the horse who made the clear-headed decision that averted disaster.  I recently attended a clinic on rescue emergencies offered by the Equine Rescue Ambulance Team, Fair Hill Division, in Wrightsville, PA.  The various techniques were demonstrated using a 700-pound, full sized plastic horse model with flexible joints.

There is no excuse for not being prepared should you have the misfortune of an emergency.  Mental preparation is part of it.  Panic serves neither the rider nor the horse.  When a living thing becomes anxious, blood is shunted away from the brain, tunnel vision happens, and it is difficult to clearly consider options for action.  Your horse knows when you are upset and will mirror your reactions.  If you cannot control yourself, you cannot control or calm the horse.  Preparation also includes being materially prepared.  The presenter said that areas where horses are stabled should have a sign posted indicating contact information for the animal’s veterinarian, and the name and number of an emergency contact person who is authorized to give consent to treat the animal in your absence by a notarized authorization paper.  Absent this, the vet’s hands are tied and no treatment can be undertaken.

They also suggest that everyone with a horse barn keep a couple very basic rescue items.  The first is a 30-foot by 4-inch yellow tie-down strap.  The second is an elongated boat hook pole.  The strap’s function is to allow you to safely drag and reposition a horse that is flat on the ground.  The pole allows you to position the strap without being in the kick zone of a thrashing animal.  These can be obtained at Tractor Supply or Walmart stores.  Do not get the straps that are 2-inch wide; these put too much pressure at the point of contact.  Mark the middle point of the strap with a red line to help position it.  A person working with a horse should always be wearing a helmet.

A common problem is a horse that needs to be rolled over, for example, it is cast in a stall.  This is done by placing the straps over the horse’s body and looping them around the pasterns of the limbs closest to the ground with the boat hook.   This takes a bit of practice to learn how to do in a coordinated fashion.  Remember to work over three feet away from the nearest hoof.  A panicked horse may kick first and question later.  If necessary, work from an adjoining stall through the bars between the stall partitions.  This same technique is used to lever a horse up on a special 4×8 foot polymer rescue glide stretcher in order to slide them to an animal rescue ambulance.  In the case of putting a horse in an ambulance, the animal is first sedated, and each of the legs pulled up to the body by four hobbles secured to a carabiner and lashed to a slot on the other side of the sled-like horse stretcher.  A team then drags the stretcher to the waiting vehicle.  Remember to designate a leader/coordinator and a person responsible for positioning and protecting the horse’s head.  The ambulance is equipped with a special neoprene horse head protector.  A horse’s eyes protrude out from the face and are subject to injury if pulled along the ground.  A soft neoprene human life preserver is a low-cost substitute for an expensive purpose-made head protector.  Also, remember that an anesthetic is not forever, and a stress-hormone flooded horse may wake up much quicker than you expect.  Lastly, do not try to drag an unprotected horse’s body over a rough or abrasive surface.

The other situation that the strap is used for is to drag or reposition the horse a short distance over soft ground without benefit of the stretcher.  Let us say it has fallen and slipped under a fence board.  The straps are worked under the body of the horse.  The ambulance has a special metal T-bar tool that is in some ways resemble a two-man saw without teeth.  The tool is used to pull the strap under the horse’s body using areas that are not too firmly in contact with the ground.  The demonstrator assured us there are such areas located at the shoulders and a place forward of the haunches. (I need to go out in the field when my horses are lying down and see for myself.)  The straps are then thrown back across the horse’s body and a team of people, pulling together, drag the animal toward them.  Again, they keep out of the kick zone and try to protect the horse’s head.

In a case of a need to pull the horse backwards, never, never try to pull a horse by its tail.  As tempting as this might seem, this can result in serious, irreparable spinal cord injury.  Instead, loop your strap over the back end of the horse’s body, and then back the ends out between the horse’s inner thighs.  Pull with pressure mostly against the body in the direction you wish to go.

I am not saying that you should try all these things at home, and certainly not by yourself.  Call in your vet and some nearby friends that know how to work with horses.  The local fire company or animal control might provide manpower, but may not have the experience or equipment to work with horses.   It is also possible that you live within range of one of these dedicated horse rescue teams like the one from Fair Hill.   I do not claim to be an expert, but I have written this to encourage other horse owners to think: what if?  Thanks to Jo Ann Bashore for giving the clinic and reviewing the above article.