Down Horses

Whether they’re trapped, cast, or dead, down horses can be both difficult and dangerous to move.

“It’s very frustrating to move a large animal that’s not cooperating with you,” said Rebecca Gimenez, PhD, president of Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue Inc., in Macon, Georgia.

Veterinarians arriving on the scene of a trailer accident or a cast geriatric horse have the experience and skills to lead the rescue effort and keep both humans and horse out of danger. For guidance in these scenarios, Gimenez presented ways vets can manipulate (move or reposition) down horses safely and effectively at the 2017 American Association of Equine Practitioners convention, held Nov. 17-21 in San Antonio, Texas.

Rules and Equipment for Moving Down Horses

She first listed some general rules for moving recumbent (another way to phrase “down,” in this case) horses:

  1. Wear proper protective equipment, especially a helmet. “It not only protects your head but it also looks professional,” if media are present, said Gimenez.
  2. Don’t put people in positions that would lead to injuries. In other words, stay out of the “kill zone” (e.g., the hind end), and, if possible, approach the animal dorsally (from its back).
  3. Don’t attach anything to or pull on the horse’s head, neck, or delicate leg structures. “Legs are not handles or anchors,” said Gimenez. Guide the head carefully to avoid asphyxiation or neurologic or neck injuries. “Jerking or pulling will only cause the horse to give the opposite reaction (i.e., pull back more),” she adds.
  4. Don’t pull on or attach anything to the horse’s tail, which can be inadvertently broken, amputated, or otherwise injured.
  5. Use webbing (not ropes) with looped ends and, if possible, padding to manipulate the horse. “The greater surface area and flat surface of the webbing will minimize injury to the skin and underlying structures,” said Gimenez.
  6. Ideally, use pectoral (chest) and pelvic girdles as attachment points for manipulation. “The muscle and bone structures here will protect the delicate soft structures beneath,” she said.
  7. Blindfold the down horse to encourage him to relax and to protect the downside eye. Just be sure it will fall off easily if he panics.
  8. Evaluate whether the horse requires sedation or anesthesia based on his medical status and potential to injure himself or a handler.
  9. Whenever possible, allow horses to self-rescue, leaving the legs, head, and neck free to move and balance. “Mother Nature tells the horse to get up and get out of here,” said Gimenez.
  10. Always treat animals (even dead ones) respectfully and professionally. “You never know who is watching or taking a video,” she said. “Social media is ever-present.”

The basic equipment needed to remove down horses from these situations includes looped-end 10-cm-wide webbing or 2.5-cm-thick cotton rope; reach tools (e.g., a cane, pole, or boat hook) to guide webbing and keep your hands safe; gloves and a helmet; a halter; and a saw.

Down Horses

Techniques to Remember

Gimenez then listed tried-and-true techniques for manipulating down horses:

  • Simple one-leg Useful in confined spaces or with few people, this method involves attaching webbing to the horse’s downside hind leg at the pastern and rolling him over. This is particularly useful with cast horses.
  • Simple two-leg With more space and hands, this method can also help right cast horses and requires attaching webbing to both downside limbs (front and back) and rolling the animal over.
  • Web-assist roll Useful in entrapment scenarios, this method involves placing webbing under all four legs, slightly above the hocks and knees, and rolling the horse over.
  • Forward assist There are several variations of this method, but all involve placing webbing around the horse’s chest and through his front legs, allowing his limbs to remain free and help handlers move him forward.
  • Sideways slide This method moves the animal sideways without rolling, sometimes onto a rescue glide (a plastic sked that won’t crack or break under heavy use). Two pieces of webbing encircle his abdomen directly behind the front legs and directly in front of the back legs.
  • Backward drag This method is useful in scenarios such as trailer entrapments, where the only access to the animal is from the rear. The rescuer wraps the webbing around the horse’s pelvis and feeds it through the hind legs.
  • Vertical lift This last-ditch option usually requires heavy equipment and sedation to place the horse in a sling or webbing and lift him vertically.

In these potentially dangerous scenarios, Gimenez emphasized the importance of working as a team with other first responders, such as police and firefighters; coordinating resources; and making a plan. Otherwise, well-intentioned rescuers can get hurt while trying to help down horses.

“Jumping in without a plan will endanger humans and slow the rescue,” she said.

The Bottom Line

“By successfully manipulating to body of the horse, the responders can encourage the animal to self-rescue where possible and minimize injury,” Gimenez added. “The suggested methods provide a more professional, safe, and efficient response to horses that are recumbent due to being geriatric, debilitated, injured, or in daily clinical situations or as part of a technical rescue response scenario.”