Monday, October 10, 2016

Trojan Horse to the Rescue

There is an old truism in horse keeping that says a down horse is a dead horse.  That was true a thousand years ago and it is true today.  Horses are not physically capable of surviving for long periods if they are on the ground.  Their shear bulk and weight prevent them from breathing well when lying down and that same bulk prevents good blood flow to their extremities any time they are not moving.

For all their size and athleticism, it is not very hard to keep a horse trapped on the ground and any scenario that prevents a horse form getting to its feet for more than a couple of hours is potentially lethal.  For all their grandeur, horses can get themselves into a lot trouble, even out in the middle of an open field.

Donkeys are usually a bit more sensible, but can still find themselves in some very awkward situations.  Once you add in confinement, obstacles, trailer accidents and unnatural environments, large animals can find themselves in some fairly tough spots.  Getting them out of those spots is always a challenge because of their size and the inherent danger in dealing with a large, athletic, panicky animal.

Cornell now has a full size, articulated mannequin to practice large animal rescue techniques.  I immediately named him Trojan, because, what else would you call this guy.....?

Trojan weighs about 500 pounds, which is half what the average horse weighs.  He provides an opportunity for fire crews and other rescue workers to practice without endangering a real horse or the humans.  Given that most of the people working on rescue crews have little or no experience working with large animals and probably won't even know how to put a halter on, having something to practice on is a real asset.  Trojan does not kick or thrash and, in that way, lives up to his name.

One of the key elements to rescuing large animals is to do everything possible to keep the animal calm.  The first step in rescuing an animal is putting someone in charge of the head head and neck.  That person will not only protect the head and move it with the rest of the body, he or she should also be able to talk to the horse and remain calm and steady.

Sedating trapped animals is a very iffy proposition for a variety of reasons.

  • Sedatives do not work well on panicked animals.  
  • If the horse is trapped on its side or upside down, his breathing and blood flow is already severely compromised and sedation may kill him.  
  • Some horses react to sedatives by becoming more violent, not less.  
  • Once freed from entrapment, you will need the horse to get up on his own unless there happens to be a handy crane nearby.  If he can't get up, he probably won't ever get up again.  A down horse is a dead horse.

Getting "cast" is probably the most common predicament horses find themselves in, especially in stabled horses....

The horse lies down in the middle of his stall and, at some point, decides to roll over only to find he has rolled over onto a wall and gotten stuck that way.  The only way to get the horse unstuck is to get some long ropes around the lower legs nearest the wall and pull them back over.  You have to do that without getting your skull crushed by the panic-stricken flailing of hooves and you have to be able to stand far enough away from the horse that he won't roll over on top of you when you pull him over.

Since this usually happens in a small stall with only one door, being safe and saving the horse are generally mutually exclusive.  I have had to roll a few cast horses over the years and it always does make for an interesting few minutes.

This is one of the other most common predicaments horses find themselves in....

People use old tractor tires as feed bunkers, Trojan climbs into it looking for the last few morsels of food, trips on the edge and falls head-first into the tire.  This is a dire emergency because a horse cannot breath well in this position and will asphyxiate within ten-fifteen minutes.

In this instance, some mats were piled up behind the horse to provide support for the hind end as he was pulled out.

Out in the real world, I can see using some bales of hay for this purpose and covering the bales with a tarp so the animal would slide out easier.  This crew has a spiffy flexible slide made just for this purpose and I can see how it could be a useful addition to any farm....

With some good straps and some manpower, Trojan was pulled from the jaws of death and made a full recovery.

Poor Trojan was having a rough day though as he was destined to be in a nasty trailer accident later that same day.

Other than freak accidents like these or the one that almost took Cooper's life, the reason that horses and donkeys most often get trapped is that there is already some underlying problem and the animal is trying to self medicate.  A colicky horse may roll in a mud pit trying to ease abdominal pain and get stuck.  A horse with sore feet may venture into a cold stream and get trapped by a hidden log.

The animal may also injure himself trying to escape or may be trapped for so long that he slips into shock.  Which is why the second phone call you make when you need help rescuing an animal should always be to your vet.  You may need a vet on hand to provide medical support to a trapped animal or to treat him as soon as he is up on his feet.

It is also crucially important to closely monitor an animal who has been trapped for several days afterwards.  Being stuck on the ground can lead to fluid building up in the lungs, which causes pneumonia.  It may take a day or two for soft tissue injuries to become apparent and a horse who has been trapped is at a high risk of colic.

After a horse or donkey is rescued, monitor him closely for at least a week.  Take his temperature twice a day and watch for any signs of illness or distress.  Talk to your vet and make sure to address any underlying issues that might have been the reason he got in trouble in the first place.

For more information about large animal rescue and to find sources for any of this equipment go here:

And for the love of God, don't use tractor tires as feed bunkers.


  1. People continue to use them and I even knew of someone who lost a mule due to the fact that they chewed on the inside of a tire and ate it. Tires don't make sense as feeders.

  2. Ashamed to say I laughed out loud when I scrolled to Trojan with his head in the tire. No laughling matter. I certainly never knew all the possible pitfalls of owning equines - or farm animals.

  3. Thank you for this. I found it upsetting because of my own experience. What I am grateful for is that somehow I knew to do all of these things when the moment came. I think that all fire departments in rural communities should have this training. I was fortunate that the fire department that came listened to my instructions.

  4. This new thing with hauling horses in trailers at a diagonal is good and bad. At a truck stop last summer during our move a horse had jumped forward out of the window when they opened the guard to put feed in. No one thought of calming the horse or getting something under her front feet. I had to butt in. We blanketed her head with a comforter, it calmed her a lot and then they got a flat bed backed up to the side of the was horrendous and they had to use a side grinder to cut the trailer open. However she remained fairly calm. Then when there was room she scrambled onto the deck. They jumped her off it onto a grassy bank. She had some scrapes but they sent me a note and a thank you and she was fine. So many people haul horses but have no idea of how to deal with trailer wrecks. Trojan looks fascinating!

  5. I'm thankful for this warning about tractor tires. I've been looking for a couple to use for hay nets!
    Another danger of horses laying down too long: their organs can't take the weight of their bodies lying on them.

    Excellent blog today. Thanks, Kris ☺️

  6. Excellent EXCELLENT post-thank you for this valuable information!

  7. I sent this to a friend of mine who is a retired Fire Dept Captain in New England. He said he had never been called upon to rescue anything as large as a horse, but he really was interested in what you said.