Canada’s west coast suffered through severe weather last week. Climate scientists refer to the extreme rain event as an atmospheric river made possible by extreme drought and this past summer’s intense heat dome, which caused a severe wildfire season. Considered a “once in a lifetime” flood event, it claimed the lives of four people and stranded close to 12,000.

And where there are people, there are often horses. Most of us are well aware that even walking through a puddle can be too much for some horses, let alone swimming across floodwaters. But that’s what a herd of horses was asked to do in order to be rescued after being trapped in floodwater overnight for 12 hours in their field in Merritt, BC.

“We’ve always had a little bit of flooding in our pastures, but nothing like this,” owners Connie Joe and Jerry McCauley told Global News.  “When we got there, it was shocking at first. Then, when we saw our horses out there, in the middle of what looked like a lake, standing all huddled together, I felt we needed to help them.”

Local resident, animal lover and cowboy Henry Chillihitzia jumped into action. The machine loader/operator and former bull rider used a motorboat to herd all 29 horses through the swift currents of the floodwaters to dry land. “My heart would’ve been shattered into pieces if we lost one horse,” he told Global News. “My throat was knotted up all day. I was tired, cold, hungry, thirsty, but I wasn’t going to have anything to eat until (they) were on dry land.”

It took Chillihitzia, dubbed by the CBC as a “boat-riding cowboy”, and other volunteers four hours to encourage the horses to move to safety. In the end it was a mare who took the leap of faith with her foal and the rest followed.

The owner’s daughter, Jeanette McCauley, posted a similar video on Facebook and announced that all the horses were accounted for and safe.

Kim Cardinal’s horse Winter rigged up and ready to fly. (Photo courtesy Kim Cardinal)

As if that wasn’t harrowing enough, Kim Cardinal and her husband were trapped by raging floodwaters at their home in Spences Bridge, a tiny community that sits at the confluence of the Thompson and Nicola Rivers. The couple had no cell service and they felt it was the end for them and a lone Mountie who was on his way home when the highways were washed away. They lit a fire in the hope it would be spotted from the air.

Kim used her phone to film a video diary of what she thought would be the end of her life and that of her animals. The couple kept a horse and two miniature horses on their property, along with several dogs and a litter of puppies.

In the heartbreaking video a tearful Kim can be heard explaining that she has to let the horses free, because “she knows they [help] won’t come and get them out of here.” Thankfully, her worst fear was proven wrong.

When a hydro crew spotted the smoke from a helicopter, help arrived. And not just for the humans. Horse Council BC’s Animal Disaster Relief Fund was contacted and the non-profit rose to the occasion and facilitated a daring rescue of the three horses. After assessing the area, it was determined that the severity of the storm caused a massive highway collapse on both sides of the residences and farms. This meant the only way out for these horses was via helicopter.

With the aid of a fast-acting Vancouver flight crew, HCBC was able to get rescue equipment to the area, including the Anderson Sling, the only equipment capable of this type of large animal rescue. Volunteers were on scene to harness the sedated horses into the sling and ensure the journey was as stress-free as possible. Thankfully, all three horses were flown to safety and are currently at the Sageview Rescue in Kamloops.

Unfortunately for the Cardinals, their home was destroyed, and insurance will not cover the loss. But at least they, their new Mountie friend, and their beloved animals made it out alive.

The Horse Council BC Animal Disaster Relief Fund was established to help supply volunteers that are housing displaced horses and other livestock, due to the current emergency. Donations can be made here.