In the seven years since the Santa Clara County Fire Department’s El Monte Fire Station crew first assembled its cache of large-animal rescue equipment, firefighters have employed it for jobs ranging from extracting a deer from a fence to helping an immobile horse with cancer access medical treatment. On Easter, however, firefighters faced their most challenging animal rescue operation to date: liberating an upside-down, 900-pound Arabian mare from a drainage ditch.
“For us to get this horse out alive with just a couple of scratches was truly amazing,” said firefighter engineer Jeff Brown.
Brown and Capt. Matthew Maxson are among the El Monte Fire Station firefighters credited with helping to save the horse. They related their experience in a Town Crier interview conducted last week.
The emergency call came at approximately 6:15 p.m. April 1: A 16-year-old horse missing from Indian Hills Ranch in Milpitas for eight hours had been located in a 5-foot-deep ditch at the bottom of a fenced-in pasture, the firefighters said. A recent rainstorm caused erosion around the hole, and the animal was pinned beneath a 300-pound cement ball that once anchored a fence post near the drain. CAL FIRE crews on scene requested mutual aid from partner agencies with large-animal rescue experience, and a five-person team from the El Monte station and representatives from Santa Clara County Animal Care & Control, the Santa Clara County Large Animal Evacuation Team and the Spring Valley Volunteer Fire Department responded.
Moving quickly but carefully was critical; rescuers were cognizant of both the dwindling sunlight and the horse’s labored breathing.
“The longer they’re upside down, their bowels stop moving and they start generating a lot of methane in their bowels,” Maxson said. “And if it gets to be too much, the weight of their organs on their aorta begins to slow their blood flow and then the gas expansion in their digestive track will actually compress their diaphragm and make it so they can’t breathe.”
After cutting and hinging the fence post to reposition the cement ball, the rescuers tied a fire hose with a 6,500-pound rating around the horse’s hindquarters. The wide diameter of the hose would keep it from digging into the animal’s body. Spreading the load would prevent torqueing and twisting of the spine.
An eight-person haul team led by rescue specialist Brown righted the horse, and then the group set about removing it from the hole. They covered exposed roots and debris to guard the horse from injury and chiseled away at the embankment to create a ramp intended to help it walk out. But after at least three hours spent upside down, the animal was exhausted; it couldn’t hold its head up and buried its nose into the soft earth. Rescuers positioned broad straps over the horse’s withers and through its front legs and used a mechanical advantage system and plastic, sheet-sized slides to ease it out of the ditch. Once a veterinarian administered a medical cocktail injection, the horse perked up and walked back to the stables. The rescue operation concluded at approximately 10 p.m.
Maxson described the reunion between horse and owner as tearful and emotional. The woman declined to speak to reporters but told Santa Clara County Fire Department representatives the next day that her pet was doing well.
“It was just absolutely amazing that the animal survived given the extent of the entrapment and the duration of the event,” Maxson said. “I attribute it to everyone working hard and working well together.”