How many people and pieces of equipment does it take to extricate a 1,400-pound Trakehner mare from a 4-foot-deep ditch? On Aug. 11 New Jersey residents discovered it could take three different fire departments, plus shovels, a backhoe, straps, airbags, and lots of manpower.

On that day Mare Olsen, owner of Gooseberry Farm in Harding, N.J., looked out her window toward the back pasture and saw only the brown legs of her 26-year-old mare, Lyra, sticking straight up in the air. "She was probably there (in that position) for maybe 30 minutes by the time Mare saw her," said Mare's husband, Richard Olsen.

After discovering the mare had fallen into a drainage canal that separates two pastures, Mare immediately called 911 for help. Ten minutes later, crews from three area fire departments arrived and began assessing the situation. One option was to lift the horse out of the ditch using a crane. but the couple did not like the idea of placing straps and hooks around their mare, who wasn’t thrashing or struggling.

The Olsens suggested digging parallel with the ditch so Lyra could roll over and off of her back. After about 30 minutes of digging, both manually and with a backhoe, the mare was able to roll over onto her side. The firefighters were then able to slip thin airbags, used to turn over cars that have flipped in accidents, under the mare to help her on her feet. Within an hour Lyra was back on all four feet, walking around–a little shaken, but in good shape.

"She didn't have a scratch on her," said Richard. "I think the fact that she's a Trakehner and they're calmer than most horses helped. She didn’t thrash or kick around—she stayed calm through the whole ordeal."

How exactly Lyra fell into the ditch that has been on the farm property for more than 20 years is still uncertain. While the mare was diagnosed with the neurologic disease equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM) about five years ago, Richard doesn’t believe that contributed to her fall. Until recently, the Olsens used to keep the surrounding grass tall to mark the drainage canal. But they recently cut the grass down short to neaten the pastures. He believes Lyra might have misjudged where the ditch was when walking, stumbled into the ditch, then while trying to get up flipped over onto her back. For now the Olsens have closed off that pasture until they can prevent horse access to the ditch. "If it happened once, it can happen again," said Richard.

The outpouring of community support and the firefighters' knowledge of large animal rescue impressed the Olsens. A few years ago, Mare had attended a large animal rescue training class with a few of the area fire departments, which helped her come up with the idea of digging the parallel ditch. Neighbors and other members of the community showed up ready to lend a hand or their support. "It reinforces your opinion of humanity," said Richard.

Today Lyra is walking and trotting soundly around in her pasture without a scratch.