The day after the season’s first major winter storm in the Andes Mountains near El Colorado, Chile, an old mare got a new name—and a new lease on life.
“Garbanza” had been wandering in snow that reached four feet deep for about four days when snowboarder Rafael Pease stumbled upon her, thinking she was a rock.
“When I realized it was a horse, I decided to boot-pack over there to see if I could do something,” said Pease, a University of Colorado junior who went snowboarding in El Colorado for his 21st birthday in October.
The aging mare was stuck up to her abdomen in powdery snow, Pease said. She was no longer trying to move forward and was acting lethargic. “She was obviously going to die if we didn’t do something to save her,” he said.
Equine thermoregulation expert Grete H.M. Jørgensen, PhD, of the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research in Tjøtta, seconded that prognosis.
“Depending on the horse’s body condition, its muscle mass, and its age (metabolic state), it could live stuck in the snow until it starves to death,” she explained. “How many days this may take is not easy to answer.
“But if we add into the equation the fact that the horse was stuck in snow, cooling its body down and making it difficult for the horse to lie down and rest, it’s quite amazing that the horse did not die before,” she said. “It must not have been in this depth of snow all four days that it was missing.”
Death by freezing occurs when the horse has exhausted all its internal efforts to regulate its body temperature, through muscle trembling and constricting the blood vessels in the skin to keep more blood around the organs, Jørgensen said. Once the body temperature passes its lower critical temperature, the core body temperature drops dramatically, and the horse goes into shock and dies.
To prevent such an agonizing end, Pease and his snowboarding partner dug the snow out from under the mare and created a path for her to come down the mountains, using the few tools they had with them. To provide nourishment, Pease fed his garbanzo beans (also known as chickpeas) to the mare, which inspired her new name.
After about four hours, they reached the village in the valley where the mare was reunited with her owner, who stated he hadn’t seen the horse in four days, Pease said.
But the ordeal might not be over for Garbanza, Jørgensen added. “If she was starving for four days, then getting her digestive system working properly might take a while,” she said.
“Also, if the horse overexerted herself when trying to get free from the snow, she might have damaged her muscles,” she added. “Lactate may have built up, and it will take time and a lot of care to build up the muscle strength again. Permanent damage from frostbite is also probable.”
Still, the mare made if off the mountain in one piece thanks to Pease and his friend. “Anyone with a good heart would have done the same (as we did),” he said.