A horse trapped in a ditch or overturned trailer is a horrendous sight. No-one expects the worst to happen to them but would you know what to do in the event that it did? You could be the first and only person on the scene and that animal's life could depend on your prompt and correct actions.
The first, and most important rule, is NEVER put yourself in danger. Every year many horse owners and well-meaning volunteers are injured, some seriously, during attempts to help trapped horses. A trapped horse will struggle and thrash around in an attempt to free himself and whilst this is undoubtedly very distressing for those watching, do not be tempted to rush in. You are no use to anyone if you become a casualty yourself.
Don't panic! Call the emergency services immediately. These days all fire and rescue service personnel, especially those whose territory encompasses rural areas, are highly trained in animal rescue techniques and they have the necessary lifting gear and other specialist equipment for the purpose. Calmly and coherently give them all the information they will need; your name and location, the circumstances of your emergency, whether anyone is injured and may require an ambulance, if the road is blocked etc.
If you are at or near home, call your own vet. If you are travelling outside of your area, the local fire service will have a list of British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) vets who will be able to assist in an emergency. Very often in situations like this the horse may require sedation, or even a general anesthetic, before a rescue can be made. The fire service will not attempt a rescue unless a vet is in attendance. You should always have your mobile phone with you when hacking out and when travelling away from home with your horse. Make sure you have your vet's number stored in your mobile. This will save you valuable time in an emergency.
Once the emergency services and vet have been contacted and are on their way, concentrate on the trapped horse. Remember to put the safety of yourself and other would-be rescuers first. Always approach the horse from the spinal side away from kicking and thrashing limbs and the head and neck area, all of which could cause you injury. If the horse is trapped in a ditch, be aware of the underfoot conditions and do not risk slipping and falling in. You could finish up trapped yourself; underneath the horse.
If the horse is in an overturned trailer on a public road, make sure you have somewhere safe to lead him to if you are able to safely release him yourself. Many accidents are caused by loose horses panicking once freed and careering straight into oncoming traffic.
A trapped horse is actually rarely in imminent danger and many will stop struggling as soon as they realise they are unable to free themselves. If you can do so safely, position yourself near the horse's head so that you can speak to him calmly and try to reassure him. If you can, get a head collar and lead rope on him. Loud noises act as a stimulant to a trapped animal so try to keep others at the scene as quiet as possible.
Do not panic. Wait until trained experts arrive and allow them to work out the safest and best approach to the situation. This can take time but careful planning is essential for a successful and happy outcome. Once a course of action has been decided upon, do not interfere or get in the way unless you are specifically asked to help by the incident commander. Let the professionals do their job.
Free at last!
When the horse has been freed, the vet will carry out a thorough examination. Any wounds or other injuries may require treatment at the scene before the horse can be transported home. If the horse has sustained serious injuries it may be necessary for him to be admitted to a specialist veterinary hospital for emergency treatment.
It is important to understand that unfortunately some injuries are not treatable and it may be necessary for the horse to be humanely put to sleep. If a rider is trapped beneath the horse, priority is always given to them – even if that means that the horse must be humanely destroyed.