by Scott Thomson
Recently, I attended a two-day seminar on large-animal rescue in disaster and emergency situations. The seminar was organized by Pinos Altos Volunteer Fire and Rescue and was taught by Vicki Schmidt, a respected and seasoned firefighter in the state of Maine. Vicki has special expertise in large-animal rescue techniques, and also breeds and trains draft horses that she uses to work her farm in Maine. In short, she knows what she's talking about. If you are interested in inviting Vicki to come teach a similar course, I suggest you contact the PAVFR to get more info on how to contact her.
As a trainer, I took away some important thoughts for anyone who wants to get horses better prepared for what could happen in an emergency, whether the constant threat of fire we live with here in New Mexico, a flash flood, a trailer accident, a serious issue on the trail — or just one of those circumstances horses seem to get into for no good reason.
My first thought is obvious: Firefighters and those involved in emergency rescue, especially in an area like ours where so many give their time and risk their lives as volunteers, deserve our constant praise and support. I was reminded of a bumper sticker — "Have you hugged your local firefighter today?" Say thank you, buy them a beer, let them know you really appreciate what they do for us.
During the class, there were many pictures of situations that required sophisticated and creative techniques to rescue a horse in an emergency. Not all attempts were successful. I noticed, however, that many of these situations were set up or caused by human negligence, with the end result placing an animal or rescuer in a life-threatening position: people driving too fast with a trailer, equipment or fencing that was in poor condition, unorganized or not safely put away; unnecessary risks taken on a trail ride; vehicles not inspected for safety. You can't possibly be ready for everything and accidents do happen, but you can certainly reduce risk by using good judgment and better planning. Your horse isn't responsible for his own safety.
I don't have the space here to discuss many of the good ideas that came up about emergency preparedness, but a few suggestions might give you some direction for basic disaster training for your horse. Good horsemanship says this should all be part of your foundation training anyway if you want a safer, more trusting working relationship with your horse. Ask yourself these questions:
Is your horse truly halter-broke? I can promise you that every owner says "yes" to this question because they can walk out, put a halter on their horse and lead him somewhere. Instead, I'd like you to think about it like this: Can you lead your horse, softly, from any body part? That is the real definition of a halter-broke horse. Can you lead him by an ear, by one leg, by his tail, by his chin? In many of these disaster situations, you may not be able to get a halter on the horse, but you still have to get movement or repositioning. You may be able only to get a strap around a single leg, maybe even just the tail. This is easy but overlooked training — but critical for a rescue-ready horse.
Does your horse really give or yield softly to pressure, wherever it is applied? A horse that yields and comes softly off pressure will be much easier to handle in an emergency, especially with some of the slings and straps necessary to rescue the animal.
Can you tie your horse and have him stay calm under pressure? A halter-broke horse that gives to pressure will not pull back in panic if he is tied. In an emergency, your horse may get tied to an unfamiliar object, maybe by someone who doesn't know a quick-release knot or simply ties the wrong one in a chaotic situation. If you can't tie your horse and create a lot of energy around him — noise, machines, loud voices, lots of movement — then you need to work on improving this, doing it safely and correctly with progressive desensitization.
Have you done enough high-pressure sensory work? It is your responsibility to help your horse live in our world, with all the sights, sounds and surprises that can be frightening to a flight animal. Learn the techniques for the safe presentation of objects and pressure, and constantly challenge your horse with new things. This is what teaches your horse to trust your guidance and decision making under pressure, and it will make a big difference in an emergency. Just shaking a bag at you horse a few times doesn't do it. He needs to be able to deal with noise, power tools, ropes, plastic and energy above, below and behind him. You can't do this work enough.
Can you ground drive your horse? Why would this be important in an emergency? I was immediately struck by the number of rescue techniques that required ropes, straps and web slings to move the horse in ways that mimicked what you would do in ground driving. The rescue worker might be 10-20 feet away, for safety reasons, holding straps and applying pressure to get the horse to move. There may be straps all around the horse's body. This is exactly what we do when we teach a horse to ground drive, and a horse that is comfortable with it will be much easier to handle and safer for the rescue team.
Is your horse comfortable in both eyes? I'm still amazed at the number of horses that get nervous or excited when you do anything in their off eye, usually the right side. Imagine if your horse is in an emergency situation where you can ONLY work in his off eye? No owner should let their horse go through life without being trained to handle real life on both sides of his body.
Can you blindfold your horse? The eye of the horse is amazing — it is the largest eye of any land mammal, made up of mostly motion sensors and very sensitive. In a heavy smoke situation it will literally seal itself shut and cannot be reopened without being flushed. Given this, it is entirely possible that you may have to blindfold your horse to protect his eyes from smoke or possibly sparks from a tool being used to free him. I have worked with a number of blind horses and have helped people learn to blindfold their horses for certain competitive events. This is great training for you and your horse even if you never have to do it. I suggest doing this in small steps, using old fly masks. It is very simple to sew on material that will make each old mask darker, and maybe have three to four masks that go from normal vision in the mask to no vision. The horse is already comfortable in a fly mask, so this approach works much better for training.
The second step of this is probably the most important. After you blindfold your horse, you need to be able to do something with him. So, as you try each different mask on him, each decreasing his vision a bit more, make sure you do some ground work with him. Ask him to back, walk over a tarp, over ground poles, maybe step in or out of your trailer. This is a great place to add some verbal cues that will mean something when he has no vision at all. Don't move to a darker mask until you and your horse are comfortable working together at the previous level. Just blindfolding the horse and having him stand will not help — many can do this but simply freeze, or explode, when asked to move.
All of this is about a disaster or emergency with a large flight animal, a situation that comes with lots of energy, anxiety, fear and risk for you, your animal and the people who have come to help. Whatever steps you can take to help your horse be better prepared to deal with such a high-stress situation, the more likely the outcome will be a happy ending. Even if you never face such an event, you'll have a better horse for your efforts.
Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship.
He can be reached with comments or questions
at firstname.lastname@example.org or (575) 388-1830.