April showers bring May flowers. And lots of mud. Almost weekly, a horse makes the news when it has to be rescued from a mudhole. Although the situation appears to be one that an owner could solve himself with a strap and a tractor, it is much more complicated, said Dr. Rebecca Gimenez, who trains large-animal rescuers through her Georgia-based TLAER Inc. Gimenez formerly served as a first responder through the American Veterinary Medical Association's VMAT program, which provides care for animals during disasters and emergencies.
We've covered the broad strokes of equine rescue before, noting the unusual variety of situations horses wind up in, from finding themselves stuck in pools to falling into sinkholes or wandering into ponds in racetrack infields. Mud might seem a relatively easy conundrum by comparison, but it presents unique challenges to the horse's health.
Gimenez said if you find a horse stuck in a mudhole, call the local fire-and-rescue unit immediately. Time is of the essence because the force of the mud can hamper the horse's breathing and the temperature of the mud can induce hypothermia — both life-threatening conditions.
Anyone who has lost a boot in the mud knows suction makes it difficult to pull it out. The same is true of a horse's body. Unless air or water is pumped into the mud around the horse to loosen the suction, not only is the extrication difficult, but the animal also could be injured by the force needed to drag it out.
Fire-and-rescue units have the equipment to force air or water around the horse, either via a pumper truck or a compressed-air cylinder.
“We've actually duct-taped an air line to a broom handle and pushed it down next to the leg,” Gimenez said.
Getting a strap around the horse to enable it to be pulled sideways out of the mud is a challenge, so Gimenez's team had to come up with a solution. Dr. Dino Nicopoulos, a colleague from Clemson University, suggested they use a C-shaped piece of metal that eventually was named the Nicopoulos needle.
“There is no way that any human being can get down in the mud and push their arm all the way around the body of a horse. It's physically impossible,” Gimenez said. “That's why people end up pulling on the tail or the head or the legs, because they can't get anything around the body.
“The Nicopoulos needle has the option of pushing either air or water through it, depending on what you have available. It works like a charm, and we have modified it a lot from our first version, which was literally a piece of electrical conduit bent carefully around a tree. Now it is stainless steel with rings and hose attachments to allow water to flow through it and minimize the friction of the mud.”
Gimenez emphasized a horse should be pulled sideways out of the mud, not forward or backward, and it should be dragged far enough from the mudhole before it is allowed to stand so it can't fall back into the mudhole.
“The sideways drag actually puts pressure on the chest and the abdomen, and it tends to have a physical sedative effect,” she said. “The animal won't struggle as long as you have pressure on the pieces of webbing. One piece of webbing should be around the chest right behind the armpit and another piece of webbing right in front of the stifle. Then, pull to the side and get the horse's body on the surface of the mud, and then keep pulling until you have him to a place where he can stand.”
Gimenez said it is possible for a horseman with a large tractor to attempt to get the horse unstuck, but the attempt is usually unsuccessful. And in the time it takes to realize the fire-and-rescue unit is needed, the horse can be in real trouble. Its breathing is compromised, its body temperature drops, it may have ingested and inhaled mud, and it may be exhausted from fighting to get out of the mud.
“That's why we encourage people to call 911,” she said. “You aren't going to get a tax or a bill. That's their job, so get their help because they are the experts in extrication and they have all the equipment.”
Gimenez emphasized the importance of having a veterinarian at the scene to monitor the horse during the extrication and to treat it after it is pulled from the mud. Some horses that panic during the ordeal may need a bit of tranquilizer, but with the horse's physical condition already compromised, even a typical dose of tranquilizer could be dangerous.
She also warned that the horse, by its nature as a prey animal, will act fine even when it is hurt or sick, just to deceive predators.
“It's going to graze and act like it feels great,” she said. “And that's when all the complications of the stress, dehydration, and hypothermia set in.
“Why are you pulling it out of the hole if you're not going to call a vet, because it may die overnight from hypothermia or complications from hypothermia? It's $150 for a vet to come do an emergency call, and to me that's cheap insurance after I've gone to all the effort of getting out the fire department and all my neighbors to get this horse out,” Gimenez said.
One final caveat: Fence off mudholes or ponds where a horse might get stuck. Even during a drought, a pond may dry up enough that the surface looks like solid ground and a horse may try to cross and get stuck in soft ground underneath.
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