Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Backstory Of The Helicoptered Horse

Equine Chronicle

photo Courtesy Lionshadow
By Lisa Kemp
News media around the country reported the story of the horse stranded on a sandbar in Arizona and his dramatic rescue by helicopter. However, what they didn’t report on was the behind-the-scenes preparation that went into the mission.
The smallish bay gelding named Colorado wasn’t tall enough to get through the swiftly-moving waters of the Gila River, and found himself washed up on a sandbar in the midst of rapids, about 35 miles southwest of Phoenix.
Since the horse had access to forage and fresh water and was just cooling his heels on his little ‘island,’ his rescuers felt they had time to plan things out. According to Soleil Dolce, vice president at Arizona Equine Rescue Organization, Inc. (A.E.R.O.) and an experienced large animal first responder, that planning made all the difference.
“People don’t realize that when you do things quickly in a rescue situation, things get missed,” said Dolce. “You’ve got multiple agencies involved, and you might not have the right equipment to do the job safely.” Dolce reported that because the initial assessment showed a stable situation for the horse, they felt it was better to wait and do things the right way.
Colorado had been part of a four-person trail ride, with several dogs tagging along. Although the riders had been through that part of the river recently, a combination of heavier than normal winter rains, early spring melt and run-off from the mountains, and a release of water from upstream dams formed a deadly combination.
The Salt River Project (SRP) power company controls the flow of water in that area of the Gila River; the day before, they’d released water from the dams. “The riders didn’t realize that the water had risen dramatically since the last time they rode across it,” said Dolce.
Once the riders realized the danger, it was too late; they were swept several miles downstream. Dolce indicated that one horse and rider were able to escape and call 911. The other riders were then safely rescued, as were the dogs and another of the horses. One horse came up onto the bank downriver, but had a broken leg and had to be euthanized. And then there was Colorado.
Dolce pointed out that once he reached the sandbar in the river, he calmly settled in. “He’s got Bar N breeding, from the Navajo reservation here. These horses are a Mustang/Quarter Horse cross, and they’re renowned for their sensibility,” said Dolce.
The rescue team’s first action was a call to SRP, to be sure there were no further water releases planned for the week. “They weren’t planning any more, but the next few days were going to be really warm, so there was going to be more melt run-off,” said Dolce. That meant they couldn’t wait for the river wash to empty, a frequent tactic in Arizona where flash floods are common this time of year, but water levels just as quickly diminish.
The next step was organizing an airlift, a complicated matter for a horse rescue. “When you lift a horse with a helicopter, they pick up a static charge, which is a concern because it discharges when you touch them,” said Dolce. She indicated the team tried to locate an ‘Anderson sling’ for the rescue, since it eliminates the static concern and is anti-spin, making it more stable for equine rescues. But, it wasn’t happening quickly enough, so they moved on to Plan B.
“A local equine hospital, Southwest Equine Medical and Surgical, brought over their sling. Since it wasn’t rated for a helicopter and we wanted to be sure he didn’t slip out during the flight, we also used what’s called a vertical lift tie,” reported Dolce.
With a firehose wrapped around Colorado much like a bow on a Christmas package, the dual-sling approach allowed the rescuers to feel they’d done all they could to make the process both safe and comfortable for the horse. “We used the sling as the primary harness, since it was more comfortable as a primary lift point, and we used the vertical lift tie as a secondary lift point. We knew if one failed, the other would be there as a back-up,” said Dolce.
Colorado was mildly sedated prior to the lift, but his good survival skills and common sense helped the entire operation. “He walked right up to the helicopter, and he was calm during the process. He was emotionally drained after the ordeal, but we had his owner right there to reassure him when he touched down,” said Dolce, whose specialty is the type of vertical lift rescue that carried Colorado to safety.
A.E.R.O is renowned for being able to ‘rehab the impossible,’ according to Dolce; they have a specialized equine medical rehabilitation facility to help in that area. However, since 2007 they’ve conducted large animal first response training classes, led by trainers John and Deb Fox from Large Animal Rescue Company in California; the pair also consulted on Colorado’s rescue.
“This rescue shows it’s important to get technical training for large animal rescues. Most of the time when horses are lost in an emergency situation, it’s due to lack of training. We’ve now trained over 80 first responders across the state,” she says.
Following a medical evaluation and instructions to Colorado’s owner to help improve his overall gut sounds and motility, the gelding was able to go home. In terms of rescues, it was picture-perfect.
“I kept telling my crew, we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect scenario and outcome,” says Dolce. Colorado and his owner would probably agree. You can watch the airlift video here, thanks to KPHO-TV in Phoenix.
For more information about A.E.R.O. and large animal first responder training, visit their Web site at

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