The horse rescuers: Westhampton fire crews invest to save horses that have fallen

Last modified: Sunday, August 17, 2014
WESTHAMPTON — With muscles bulging under their sleek hides, horses are pictures of strength. That’s where phrases like “horsepower” and “as healthy as a horse” came from.

But even big, strong horses need a little help sometimes.

In Westhampton last winter, the Fire Department staged three rescue efforts when horses fell and could not get up. Unlike other animals, horses that lie down for more than several hours can suffer internal injuries and circulation and breathing problems that can be death sentences.

The firefighters and emergency medical technicians were able to save one of the downed horses, a draft horse named Katie, but the other two horses had to be put down, according to Westhampton EMT Maryanne Duggan.

“I said, ‘What am I going to do if this ever happens to one of our horses?’ ” Duggan said. She and her husband, Northampton Fire Chief Brian Duggan, have several horses.

Since then, Maryanne Duggan and Williamsburg firefighter and horse owner Robin Merritt have been seeking special training and equipment to help them hoist, pull, or slide horses out of bad situations they can get themselves into. The Westhampton Fire Association has purchased $1,200 in equipment, and Duggan hopes to raise $4,500 so the association can buy more equipment and pay Merritt to train the town’s firefighters.

They are also trying to get the word out to people that they can call their local fire department when their horse or other animal needs rescuing. In fact, calling right away may be a matter of life and death for the animal.

“The sooner we can get there and get them up, the better their chance of survival,” Duggan said last week in her horse barn.

Eventually, they hope to offer the training to other fire departments in the area, Duggan said.

“It’s something all firefighters should know — there are so many horses in the Pioneer Valley,” Merritt added. “And horses can get themselves into some funny situations.”

Hawley Fire Chief Greg Cox said he is interested in that kind of training, as his firefighters have attempted large animal rescues — from cows that fell into swimming pools to a horse that got stuck up to its neck in the Hawley bog.

Most recently, the department extricated a draft horse named Dick after he fell through ice into a pit of muddy water at Tregellys Fiber Farm in March. A tractor and load straps were used to help Dick climb out and he recovered fully, Cox said.

Small volunteer fire departments are usually learning as they go when they get calls to save stuck animals, he said. “I was watching a webinar on it yesterday,” he said. “We’ve had to improvise. If we had ideas about the equipment and things to try to do, we could think ahead about it.”

While he has seen many animal rescues in his 30 years on the Fire Department, they do not happen often. Ashfield Fire Chief Del Haskins said that other than assisting in the rescue of Dick in Hawley, his department has not done a similar rescue in a while.

Amherst Fire Capt. Brian Sterling said his department freed a horse that got its feet stuck in a muddy stream bed a few years ago.

Two Hadley firefighters are trained in large animal rescue, said Fire Chief Michael Spanknebel, although he does not recall any in his town in recent years.

Although the calls about stuck animals do not come in often, Merritt said she has been thinking for years that she and others should get trained and get the equipment to rescue horses.

“It’s comforting knowing that we have it available,” Merritt said of the rescue equipment. “Given last winter, it’s possible these things will happen again.”

Lessons in rescue

Duggan said the three downed horse rescues Westhampton firefighters attempted were on her mind this spring when she heard that her friend Merritt was interested in getting trained in large animal rescue by Richard D. Lynch, an officer in the New Hampshire Governor’s Horse Guards.

Lynch, of Jaffrey, New Hampshire, was retiring from his large animal rescue training work. He not only trained Merritt and Maryanne and Brian Duggan two months ago, but gave Merritt all his training materials and sold some of his rescue equipment to the Westhampton Fire Association. The association had $750 to put toward the $1,200 purchase and Duggan said she and her husband donated the rest.

Merritt said that two years ago, she did a basic class on horse rescue for the Williamsburg, Chesterfield and Goshen fire departments. She demonstrated how to make a kind of harness out of fire hoses, but said she could not imagine trying to do it with a thrashing animal.

“This is what we really needed,” she said in Duggan’s barn, gesturing toward a Becker Sling that the association purchased from Lynch. She and the Duggans demonstrated how to use the sling on Duggan’s quarter horse, Trevor, although they did not lift him off the ground.

Merritt passed two loops of fire hose around his middle, one just behind his front legs and one in front of his rear legs. She then secured them to an aluminum stretch bar above his back.

The horse stood calmly as Brian Duggan pulled on the rope that ran between the stretch bar, up to a hook on a beam in the barn’s ceiling, and down to his hands. The sling touched Trevor’s belly and he happily took a treat from Maryanne Duggan’s hand.

Unlike an improvised harness of hoses, Merritt said this model is simple and easy to use, even around a panicked horse.

“If a horse was down, we’d be able to feed it under him, because there aren’t too many straps,” Merritt said. Rescuers could use hooks to push or pull the hose. “You just kind of wiggle it through, all while trying to keep the animal calm.”

Ideally, Duggan said, a veterinarian would sedate the animal — enough so it is calm but not so much that it cannot stand.

When Merritt does start training firefighters, one lesson will be how to speak quietly and move slowly around a struggling horse, while staying out of the way of flying hooves.

“It’s very hazardous, almost like a combative patient,” Merritt said.

Rescue attempts

Duggan said that before last winter, she had never responded to a call about a downed horse in her seven years on the Westhampton Fire Department. But one night last winter, a horse fell on ice and could not get up.

She was among the dozen firefighters who tried for over an hour to get the horse up by using a tractor and fire hoses. Although Duggan said they got him on his feet twice, it eventually became clear that the exhausted horse could not hold himself up and he was euthanized.

Two more calls came later that winter. One was for an old horse that had slipped in a barn. Though they got that horse up, it later had to be put down.

That’s according to Westhampton Firefighter Melissa Start who also owns Katie, the third horse that Westhampton firefighters helped when it went down last winter.

“It was when we had a couple feet of snow on the ground,” Start recalled. “She laid down to roll and got herself in a perfect gully and couldn’t get her feet under her to get up.” The horse had packed down the snow where she lay, but could not get footing in the deeper snow around her.

Start noticed the horse was lying down and when she checked her, Katie was covered in sweat. Exhausted, the horse had stopped trying to get up. “She’s 1,600 pounds, so there was no way I was getting her up on my own,” she said.

About eight firefighters rocked Katie until she could get her feet under her and get up.

Seeking donations

Duggan said four donors have contributed $1,200 toward purchasing more equipment and paying Merritt to train Westhampton firefighters.

“Then we could be available for other fire departments,” Duggan said. Merritt could eventually offer the training to other departments, she said.

Duggan hopes to raise the remaining $3,300 from donations, but said she may organize a fundraising event. For now, she said, they have some equipment and training and are already in a much better position to help downed horses this winter.

“For me, it’s not so much about the money, it’s about getting the word out for people that they should call us,” she said. “Call 911 and we’ll come.”

Donations can be made by sending a check with “horse rescue fundraiser” on the memo line to the Westhampton Firefighters Association at 48 Stage Road, Westhampton, 01027.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.