It was the 11th of November. Sunrise illuminated six inches of new wet snow. We
had finished the day before by treating a senior Arab mare that had suffered with
unrelenting colic. I got an early call regarding the mare that required me to make a
slippery drive to her barn to attend the mare’s passing. The day had to get better for
Kathi and me. It wasn’t long before that premise was proven to be quite incorrect.
On days such as this one most of our appointments usually cancelled and
rescheduled on a nicer day. This was the case for most of our calls until we got The
Call. One of our long-term patients was a twenty-five year old part draft gelding.
His owner was out of town, leaving the house sitters to call for help. This gelding
had managed to work both his hind legs into a sink-hole created by a water leak in
his stall. He was down and unable to get up because both hind legs were buried in a
thick, wet clay up to his tail and belly. As we headed out the door I feared we were
about to undertake an exercise in futility as we attempted to extract a 1600-pound
horse out of a four-foot deep hole through a four-foot wide stall door. It was
obvious we would need some form of tractor or machine to have any chance for
Fire and Rescue
It had been recommended the caregivers summon the fire department for
assistance. So as we pulled up the presence of two fire trucks in front of the barn
was a welcomed site. The firemen had pulled one truck equipped with a winch up to
the barn door. We squeezed our way between the fire truck and the barn door and
moved to the second stall where our patient was located. The information we had
received from the clinic regarding this call did not prepare us for the sight in front of
us. Our old friend was stretched out across the stall so that his head struck the stall
wall while his hind legs were stretched out behind him as they disappeared through
the stall mats into a thick bed of clay beneath the stall mats. Our tendency was to
stand there and try to figure out how this happened, but there was no time for that.
Our patient had been in this predicament for hours and continued to throw his head
against the solid stall wall as he futilely tried to stand up.
The firemen were true professionals. We brought our knowledge of the horse as
they brought their knowledge of rescue to a rapid formulation of a plan. We decided
to reposition the fire truck so as to use the winch to pull the horse through the stall
door into the run outside the barn. We moved buckets and metal panels and
removed snow preparing for our attempt at removal as we waited for Dr. Elliot and
Dr. French and his assistant to arrive with a rescue sling we had at the clinic. Our
patient was sedated to keep him as quite as possible while we attempted to pull him
out. Dr. French had been present at a horse extraction in which a strap was run
across the withers before running the two ends through the front legs. We quickly
hooked the winch line to the two straps that had been thusly placed on our victim
and applied a pull as we monitored the effect we were having on all his body parts.
This exhausted gelding slipped out of his mud bath and into the outside run so
incredulously easy that we all looked at each other in disbelief.
There was little time for celebration. As our firemen crew loaded up their
equipment, received our heart-felt appreciation, and returned to their on-call post,
we sat out to administer all meds and fluids needed to give our patient the best
chance to overcome the trauma associated with his mud bath. We spread hay over
the area and attempted to prop him up to improve his respiratory function. The
plan was to build him up with our treatment to maximize his strength he needed for
him to stand. If he were unable to stand, all our effort would have been for naught.
Experience offers the advantage of furnishing memories of positive outcomes on
similar cases. Conversely, experience brings memories of futile attempts. As we
attempted to persuade our old friend to rise, his inability to stand was
disheartening. My experience was not good for animals of his breed, age, and
weight. I communicated to the owner our chance for success was much less than
50:50 as the time he had been down became longer. Our treatments continued but
the chance of those treatments making an extreme positive effect became less likely.
I asked the owner to weigh our possible options and try to make some decisions as
to where she wanted to go from here.
Friends and Neighbors
We received a call from the owner. She had contacted friends and neighbors to
mobilize a large group of helpers and a loader, a type of tractor, to attempt to lift her
old friend. This seemed to be such a simple, logical approach. But the moment of
truth comes when the animal is lifted so his feet hit the ground. Will he stand and
bear his own weight or just hang in the sling, that moment defines success or failure.
If he didn’t stand the game would be over and we would have lost.
We summoned Dr. Mullen and asked Dr. Elliot to return from the clinic to offer
expertise with veterinary care. After they arrived we installed the rescue sling and
attached the sling to the loader. The loader slowly lifted our friend. There was a
point where he was frightened by the loss of control of his movement. As soon as he
could get his feet on the ground, he stood in a stilted, wobbly stance. The gelding
looked even larger as he hung there under the loader as the loader was now
elevated some twelve feet above the ground. We all stood there collectively holding
As soon as the gelding became stable standing in the sling, Dr. Mullen and Dr. Elliot
completed an exam and determined there were no injuries that were not evident
while he was down. Our biggest concern was muscle damage from having been
recumbent for that amount of time, and the effect damaged muscle components had
on his kidneys. Catheters were used to run IV fluid into him as rapidly as possible.
Other treatment was started to stabilize the patient. As time passed, the support
offered by the loader was reduced until our friend was standing on his own with the
sling acting only as a safety net. He continued to improve over the next hour until
we decided to transport him into the clinic for further treatment. His trip to the
clinic was uneventful.
The whole crew, the neighbors, the friends, and the loader operator, the firemen, the
veterinary technicians, and the veterinarians, we all had the feeling of being part of a
team that had been victorious. We had made a difference on that cold, snowy day.
We had potentially saved a life. And best of all, our old gelding friend continues to
do well with his recovery.
Later that evening after Kathi and I had treated our stiff muscles with ibuprofen and
the warmth of our home had finally chased the last remaining cold from our bones, I
reflected on this day. This day had started so badly with an old horse with a
problem we most often can fix, but for this horse we couldn’t. Then with the help of
some firemen, neighbors and friends, and a exceptional veterinary staff, and of
course my exceptional wife, we saved an old horse that had very little chance for
survival. And maybe more importantly a group of young veterinarians added to
their book of experience a successful rescue of a down twenty-five-year-old part
draft horse gelding. So if any of us get a call on a down draft horse tomorrow we
will tell the owner we remember this day, and if the owner so directs, we will
attempt to get the animal up. Quite possibly we will be unsuccessful. Our job is to
give the best care possible no matter what the chances of success are. That’s the
deal. But today had ended up a good day. We need a day like November 11th once
in a while.