We’ve covered our share of incredible rescue stories lately (see links at end of article), following the plight of horses and ponies trapped in terrifying and traumatic situations. The stories we’ve chosen to share with readers all end in a shaken but happy-to-be-alive animal.
We felt it was time to shine a spotlight on the education and training that these men and women who do the heavy lifting (often literally) in a horse rescue operation must complete in order to save equine lives.
Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue (TLAER), is an American organization, owned and operated by Dr. Rebecca (Gimenez) Husted, a professional emergency response educator, whose sole purpose is offering courses to first responders, vets and even horse owners around the world, including Canada.
The TLAER acronym “does not refer to ‘salvage/rescue’ of neglected, starving or abused animals, although many of the techniques may be utilized on those types of scenes or in rehabilitation facilities. It is instead, the practical considerations, behavioral understanding, specialty equipment, techniques, methodologies and tactics behind the safe extrication of a live large animal from entrapments (trailer wrecks, ditches, mud, barn fires, water, etc.) in local emergencies and disaster areas.”
And keep in mind that this training isn’t just for horses, but any large animal from farm to zoo.
Dr. Husted has over 25 years’ experience instructing people in every aspect of disaster and emergency preparedness, and according to her Linkedin profile, she also has 28 years of military experience including active duty. Husted has taught her course as part of Equine Guelph’s continuing education program, a course that is still offered and was given virtually in March. The course is designed for first responders, pre-service, law enforcement, animal control officers, veterinarians, vet techs, emergency animal response teams, horse owners, livestock producers and association.
Basically, anyone who wants or needs to learn can sign up. It’s a skill many horse owners could use; over the course of our lives many of us will be in situations where an animal is in distress and we feel useless to help. This course can change how you handle an emergency and perhaps change the outcome for the animal.
For insight into large animal rescue training we spoke with Dr. Marisa Markey, an Ontario veterinarian with McKee-Pownall Equine Services, who has participated in hands-on training and also the recent virtual course from Equine Guelph.
HC: Was this the first time you did large animal rescue training?
Dr. Marisa Markey: I was able to do the abbreviated TLAER course with hands-on training at the International Society of Equitation Science annual conference when it was hosted at the University of Guelph in 2019. When this opportunity came up for our entire team to be able to do some virtual training, I felt strongly that it was important to do. I really hope that when COVID risks are reduced we can do more hands-on training with our staff because it is so beneficial to practice with the dummy and equipment in a low-stress training scenario. This is the kind of training that you hope that you never need to use, but you are certainly happy that you have it when the situations arise.
HC: What did you learn that surprised you, or was new in terms of handling an animal in this type of distress?
DMM: This type of training isn’t widely available anywhere else. We don’t learn it as vet students, veterinary technician students, or in pony club. I think the most important lessons are about working within a group of first responders and all of the tools we can use to keep the humans safe while still helping the animal. The training helps veterinary teams to learn how to integrate into the rescue team seamlessly. If we can do this quickly and efficiently then the animal can be assessed and rescued as quickly as possible.
HC: How closely do vets work with the fire department and other rescue teams when helping a large animal?
DMM: A big part of this training for veterinary teams is how to work within the organization structure of first responders. Who is in charge, who you report to before and after, and what are their priorities? In any situation first responders ensure that all human lives are safe and the horses aren’t in immediate danger; then they will generally wait for veterinary approval to start a rescue operation. Nobody wants to be inflicting unnecessary pain or struggling to rescue an animal that is in medical distress ‒ those issues need to be addressed first.
While many of our local first responders have had the opportunity to be a part of this training, they often aren’t naturally horse people, so they look to the veterinary team to help them predict the animal’s behaviour and to decide the best way to handle the situation.
HC: Do you make the decisions on how to approach the rescue, or is it a joint decision with rescue crews?
DMM: In situations when they can wait for you, the veterinarian gets to make the decision on whether the animal is safe to begin with a rescue. From there a discussion is had about the best approach based on the situation, the help available, and the equipment available. The veterinary team really works within the organization structure of the first responders as part of a team.
HC: Are all rescue crews from the fire/police? Or is there a separate entity?
DMM: In most situations the fire/police/EMS responders will be involved, especially when traffic or public safety is involved. There are also some private companies with training and equipment who are available to help with rescue situations.
HC: What is a veterinarian’s role during a rescue?
DMM: The vet’s role depends on the situation, their training, and the training of the other responders. In fire situations the vet is usually stationed a safe distance from the fire and brought horses to examine and triage as needed. In other rescue situations the vet is responsible for assessing the animal before moving it, helping to create a rescue plan, advising crews on aspects of behaviour to help keep everyone safe, and then evaluating the animal’s health afterwards.
HC: Have you ever personally been involved in such a rescue?
DMM: I have been involved in a large barn fire, an overturned trailer rescue, rescue of a horse stuck on a fence, and the rescue of a horse stuck in a swamp. Each time I was so impressed with the efficient and organized teamwork of both the first responders and the other vets on site.
When multiple vets arrive to help, such as with a large barn fire, we are well trained to work within a team, even if we are all from separate clinics. A plan can quickly be made to cover all areas and communicate with each other. In the case of the fire we were able to establish a communication chain amongst ourselves and a triage system to check every horse that came out of the barn and treat them accordingly.
Although we lost some horses to the fire that night, I think overall it could have been much worse and the survivors all received prompt and appropriate care. I have been fortunate that all of the rescue operations that I’ve been involved in have been successful with positive outcomes for the animals.
For more information, visit the TLAER Facebook page which offers insight into what the organization does as well as firsthand experiences and even tips on what every stable should have in its first aid kit.
Rescue Me: First Responders Save Horses in Peril
Rescue Me, Part Two: More Tales of Lucky (Unlucky) Horses
Rescue Me Part 3: More Happy Endings for Hapless Horses