Always Expect the Unexpected

Last month, Equine Guelph kicked off its series of emergency response rescue courses with a reception attended by over 50 key stakeholders, including a lecture by special guest, Dr. Rebecca Gimenez. In addition to the reception, Equine Guelph also held an Emergency Preparedness workshop for horse owners and a Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue (TLAER) operations course for first responders that took place September 18 and September 19, 20 and 21, respectively in Ontario.

With a lifetime spent with horses and 20 years participating in technical large animal rescue, Dr. Gimenez shared some amazing stories at all three events. Based in Georgia, USA, Dr. Gimenez is the President of TLAER, Inc. and an international instructor in technical rescue techniques, tactics, and procedures.

The theme for the Emergency Preparedness workshop, held at the University of Guelph, was improving safety during emergency situations for both people and large animals. Dr. Gimenez, who holds a Ph.D. in animal physiology, stressed the fact that large animal rescue is a constant learning process, and “It’s not about a horse in a rescue scenario, it’s about you!”

There needs to be an increased understanding of predatory versus prey tendencies when dealing with horses, she told the group of 32 attendees made up of horse owners, veterinarians and vet techs. “I can’t stress enough the need for proper equipment to be worn by ALL when handling these large animals in emergency situations, including a helmet, gloves, reflective vest on roadways, etc. If you’re not equipped, then stay back.”

Dr. Gimenez went on to ask the question, “Who is your fire department, emergency management and humane society in your community? And if they say, ‘We don’t do large animals’, now is the time to educate them.”

She noted that it is common among some urban emergency responding agencies to lack the understanding and skills required to handle large animals during stressful and emergency-type situations. While they try their best, their lack of large animal training can result in a negative outcome for all involved.

The most difficult TLAER skill to learn is animal handling, so she encouraged participants to speak to their local fire departments and set up an animal handling session. “Many injuries occur because animals just don’t think the same way as us – they’re highly unpredictable,” she says. “Show them [emergency responders] how to properly halter a horse; let them know that containment [through the use of snow fencing or trained herding dogs] is better than capture.”

Horse owners can greatly assist by planning ahead for any potential risks that could occur on their property. This includes inviting a local fire department to visit your property, then developing a pre-plan by mapping out all dwellings and animal barns, type of livestock, ponds, etc., which can be filed with your local Fire Department.


Trailering and Fire Safety

Ministry of Transportation (MTO) representative Darlene Jackson was the next presenter for the one-day workshop and gave an overview of Farm Smart Truck & Farm Vehicle Requirements, as well as discussing the various classes of licenses required for hauling trailers.

Jackson stressed the importance of having an annual inspection for trucks and trailers performed at a motor vehicle inspection station, which raised a lengthy discussion among attendees as to inspections and their related costs.

“I strongly suggest that owners perform a circle check of your truck and trailer before every use,” she said, also advising to double check the trailer hitch before heading off.

Jackson directed the attendees to visit MTO’s website for a complete listing of Farm Truck and Trailer Rules at She noted that they also provide an inspection list for trucks, tractors and towed trailers on their MTO website listed as Schedule 1.

Karen MacDonald, a Fire Prevention Officer at the University of Guelph and volunteer firefighter in Fergus, Ontario, discussed fire safety and fire prevention in barns. As a fire prevention officer, her main duty is to maintain fire and life safety standards and equipment across the University campus.

MacDonald provided everyone with a breakdown of the four classes of fires rated as A, B, C and D, and an in-depth demonstration of the most common types of fire extinguishers and how to properly apply them.

She went on to explain that an incident can initiate an adrenaline rush so that it’s difficult to think in a calm, composed manner. “When an emergency happens, preplanning is key,” she stressed. “Knowing your safety equipment and how to properly use it saves lives.”

Rounding off the presentations were hands-on afternoon activities involving catching and haltering loose horses in a confined area; a barn and farm audit for fire prevention with Wendy Swackhamer, of Wellington County Large Animal Emergency Rescue; and the Horse Health Check during emergency situations, presented by Equine Guelph’s Director Gayle Ecker.


911 – What is Your Emergency?

The Adjala-Tosorontio Fire Department in Loretto, Ontario, played host to the second portion of Equine Guelph’s TLAER workshop, Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue Awareness & Operations Level Course, to a sellout group of 50 students consisting of firefighters, veterinarians, animal care and control professionals, law enforcement and horse owners – some attending from as far as Texas, British Columbia, and Quebec.

Based on past experiences, Dr. Gimenez emphasized to the group how little knowledge fire department personnel and emergency responders really have regarding large animal behaviours and humane rescue, and that attaching ropes to a large animal and trying to pull it out of a tight area by its head, limb or tail is not a safe rescue.

“Often, emergency responders will wait for the vet to arrive and then turn to him or her for guidance,” she said. “However, veterinarians may not have the necessary large animal rescue training or be unsure of the correct incident safety procedures. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking away, lessening the animal’s chance of survival.”

Large animal incidents are not rare or fluke incidents; they can happen anywhere and at any time, and there are preparedness strategies for all of them. She explained that horses seem to be the most often encountered large animal at an emergency incident, while cattle, exotics, and commercial animals do occur.

“TLAER is not about neglect or starvation,” she said. “It’s learning how to safely manage a large animal in an emergency situation, whether it’s a trailer roll over, a barn fire, or a horse that has fallen through the ice or becomes entrapped in a trench or the mud. It’s about humane animal welfare and learning to reduce potential injuries to animals and people. ”

Dr. Gimenez recommended that students refer to the NFPA 1670: the Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents, which is new to Canada, and can be found at under Codes & Standards.


Striving for a Positive Outcome

When it comes to large animals, especially horses, they have instincts of fight or flight under fear and stress and are much more likely to behave in a frantic or aggressive manner during emergency situations.

“If trapped, the biomechanical force used when running is instead transferred to attempts to rise or extricate itself,” Dr. Gimenez said. “Always sedate the animal if there’s any doubt about its temperament, and keep the environmental stimuli to a minimum.”

The safest way to keep a rescue simple is by taking a step back and planning it out for a safe result. It’s important to think out the entire process, including what to do with the animals afterwards. The act of setting up a containment area with something as simple as construction fencing and providing them with hay and water will keep them safe and calm before they can be moved.

Dealing with the “horse-human bond” can also be a challenge for a rescue team. Situations arise where stubborn owners refuse to leave their horse even when their personal safety is at stake, and learning how to handle frantic owners who can escalate an already dangerous situation was also discussed.

With the guidance of Dr. Gimenez and assistant instructors, Justin and Tori McLeod of NC Specialized Mobile Animal Rescue based in North Carolina, the students performed a series of hands-on rescue exercises during the three-day event including extracting a “horse” (a life-sized mannequin rescue training horse) from an overturned trailer, from a ditch, and from being stuck in the mud. Using the Incident Command System (where someone takes control and becomes the leader while the rest follow command), the students worked as a team in various groups using items such as ropes, webbing, rescue straps, hooks to apply the strap with, rescue glides and support plywood, and were trained in methods of successful manipulation of the animal.

Training sessions also took place at a nearby farm where students were instructed in the general rules of manipulation of large animals, including haltering horses with a halter/lead fashioned from a plain rope and catching the horse that did not want to be caught, as well as utilizing webbing placed around the animal in strategic locations with long hooked poles for procedures such as forward assist, sideways drag and backwards drag. In addition to a lengthy discussion on fire safety procedures and fire prevention in barns, students observed firefighters as they took part in a hay bale burning exercise (using an average of 240 litres of water to extinguish just one burning hay bale), as well as training exercises where firefighters escorted large animals out of a special-effect smoke filled barn in a safe manner.


Take Home Message

At the end of the day, Dr. Gimenez emphasized the importance of attendees taking the knowledge and techniques learned from the TLAER workshop back to their industry in order to improve upon the emergency rescue success rate.

“It is really not about the animal in these situations, says Gimenez, “It’s about people and how we interact on scene, how we prepare, train, and equip ourselves and our organizations, and how we network at levels above and below us beforehand that will ultimately make the difference to the animal.”

Dr. Gimenez is scheduled as the guest speaker in Equine Guelph’s next offering of its Horse Behaviour and Safety eWorkshop, February 23 to March 8, 2015. For more information please visit or contact Susan Raymond. For those interested in future TLAER training opportunities with Equine Guelph, please contact Susan Raymond at or 519-824-4120, ext. 54230.

In partnership with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Equine Guelph is developing a ‘Full-Circle-Responsibility’ equine welfare educational initiative, which stands to benefit the welfare of horses in both the racing and non-racing sectors.