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Hilltown firefighters train for large-animal rescue

  • Williamsburg firefighter and EMT Robin Merritt works with veterinarian Bonnie Smith and Smith's assistant to demonstrate fashioning a makeshift harness on her horse Red Hawk for rescue purposes.<br/>BOB LABRIE

    Williamsburg firefighter and EMT Robin Merritt works with veterinarian Bonnie Smith and Smith's assistant to demonstrate fashioning a makeshift harness on her horse Red Hawk for rescue purposes.
    BOB LABRIE Purchase photo reprints »

  • Firefighter and EMT Robin Merritt used her horse Red Hawk to demonstrate rescue techniques for Hilltown firefighters.<br/>BOB LABRIE

    Firefighter and EMT Robin Merritt used her horse Red Hawk to demonstrate rescue techniques for Hilltown firefighters.
    BOB LABRIE Purchase photo reprints »

  • Williamsburg firefighter and EMT Robin Merritt works with veterinarian Bonnie Smith and Smith's assistant to demonstrate fashioning a makeshift harness on her horse Red Hawk for rescue purposes.<br/>BOB LABRIE
  • Firefighter and EMT Robin Merritt used her horse Red Hawk to demonstrate rescue techniques for Hilltown firefighters.<br/>BOB LABRIE

This is a question that Williamsburg firefighter and EMT Robin Merritt wants to help answer. Merritt holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts in animal science and works as a veterinary assistant at the South Deerfield Veterinary Clinic.

At a recent tri-town training in Williamsburg, Merritt, along with Palmer-based veterinarian Bonnie Smith, who is a member of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, gave a presentation for firefighters on how to safely contain and remove horses from dangerous situations.

“We focused specifically on horses because we have a lot of horse owners in this area and, of the large animals here, they are the most common to be involved in accidents,” Merritt said.

Merritt, 24, has owned horses all of her life. She and Smith gave examples of situations involving trailer rollovers, burning barns or incidents of horses stuck in mud or ice.

In circumstance like these, Smith said, it is important that emergency responders work with, or have direct access to non-traditional emergency responders like veterinarians and veterinary technicians.

The presentation was based on material from a course in Technical Large Animal Rescue (TLAR) developed by Richard Lynch of New Hampshire. Smith teaches TLAR courses in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Merritt provided an overview of how to approach and assess a horse needing rescue, stressing a calm, careful approach by as few responders as possible.

“Horses can be exceptionally strong especially when they are injured or trapped and they have that fight or flight response engaged,” Merritt said. “So it is important to try and keep them as calm as you can.

Merritt suggested covering the animal’s eyes, both to calm it and to prevent injury from flying debris.

Smith reviewed a range of basics such as equine vital signs, major organ locations, how to take and read a pulse and how to check for shock.

One myth that Merritt and Smith flatly debunked, was that a horse with a broken leg must be euthanized.

“If you find a horse in a bad situation with a possible broken bone, it is not like you should go get a gun. You can save the animal if you know how,” Merritt said.

Smith told the group that there are orthopedic procedures and equipment that can be used on a horse if the animal’s bones are strong enough.

“There are many things that we can do to fix a broken leg,” Smith said. “It is not that we don’t have medical options, it is whether or not an owner decides they want it done, as it can involve a financial expense,” she said.

Merritt, who joined the Williamsburg Fire Department a year and a half ago, took the firefighters to her family’s horse barn to give them a chance to practice harnessing a horse for extrication. The group used a length of fire hose to fashion a makeshift harness around Merritt’s 12-year old horse Red Hawk.

“We practiced a “forward assist,” which is basically harnessing the horse, and then pulling it out of mud or water,” Merritt said.

Merritt said it is important for rescuers to use whatever options might be available in a farming situation.

“Tractors are handy to have access to, as well as teams of horses for pulling,” Merritt said. “Large pieces of plywood can be used like a back board,” she said.

Williamsburg Fire Chief Don Lawton said that he thought the training was good for the three departments.

“I think that Westhampton has had three incidents with horses needing help, and we had to rescue a deer on the ice at the reservoir last year,” he said. “So I think the it was very good to do this.”

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