Chip Cook knew something was wrong the moment he looked out his kitchen window. Star, his wife's 20-something Thoroughbred mare, was lying very still in a large mud puddle in the pasture.
"Her legs were stuck out stiff and parallel to the ground," Cook says. "Honestly, I thought she was dead, and as I walked out there I was thinking of the best way to break the news to my wife."
When Cook reached the mare, however, he found she was alive, but exhausted. "The mud puddle is about 10 feet around and about two feet deep," he says. "It's been there for years, and the horses regularly lie down in it to cool off or get a good layer of dirt on to protect themselves from bugs."
This time, apparently, Star had gotten down into the mud but was unable to get up. "She has arthritis, so her mobility is limited, and we'd just gotten a rain so the sides of the puddle were very slick," Cook says. "I could see that she had been thrashing, trying to get up, but she'd pretty much given up by the time I got there."
Cook, a firefighter and part-time farrier, had stopped at home between shoeing appointments last summer just to grab a quick lunch and get a respite from the heat wave that was gripping the Suffolk, Virginia, area. But now he faced a major change of plans.
He encouraged Star to try to get up again, but it was clear she could not, so he ran back into the house and got on the phone: "My first call was the veterinarian, then my wife and finally a few firefighter and horse-minded friends I hoped could come over and help us figure out what to do."
As part of his firefighter training, Cook had taken a Large Animal Technical Rescue course, and although he'd never had to participate in a rescue, regular reviews of the material had kept it fresh in his mind. He was standing out in the mud puddle considering the options for a rescue strategy when the help began arriving, including Tiffany Omler, DVM, of Coastal Equine Veterinary Service.
Stable, but stuck
"I really didn't know what to expect when I headed over," says Omler. "Sometimes, if an older horse has been down for a long time, things can be pretty bad. They can be dehydrated and even in shock."
Even if a horse is not physically injured, the fear and stress of being trapped can cause circulatory shock, a failure of the cardiovascular system that leads to many potential complications as the organs and tissues are deprived of oxygen. Once shock begins, it can trigger a cascade of events that can quickly lead to death.
Exactly how long Star had been down wasn't known, but it could have been anywhere up to the seven and a half hours since she'd been seen at breakfast, at 6 that morning.
Omler waded cautiously into the puddle to check Star's vital signs and do a physical exam as best as she could. Fortunately, she found no signs of shock: "Her heart and respiratory rates were normal and her gums were a healthy pink color." Feeling the mare's legs, Omler also found no obvious injuries or fractures, nor did she see any evidence of colic-like pain or muscle cramping, which could indicate tying up.
Star's good physical condition, says Omler, was probably due in part to where she was stuck: "It was an extremely hot and humid day, but she was in a puddle of water. I'm pretty sure that is what kept her from dangerously overheating."
Another stroke of luck lay in the position of Star's head: "She was too exhausted to even hold her head up, but fortunately, it was resting on the edge of the puddle," says Omler. "Had she been positioned differently, her nose could have ended up in an area deep enough for her to drown."
Although Star wasn't in a physiological crisis, Omler decided some medication might still be helpful. "With her arthritis, an anti-inflammatory like bute made sense to keep any pain or stiffness under control," she says. "I also gave her the corticosteroid dexamethasone, which can be very helpful in cases like this where the entire body is stressed. If she had been dehydrated, we would have needed to give her fluids first, but that wasn't necessary." Once Star's medical needs had been tended to, the focus turned toward how to get her out of the puddle. Omler suggested first rolling the mare onto her other side. "A lot of times when horses are down on one side for a while, simply flipping them over works," she says. "I think they just exhaust a certain set of muscles and rolling them provides a fresh start, so to speak."
Working carefully, Cook and his friends attached ropes to the mare's legs and gently pulled her over. The group stood back and anxiously watched what Star would do, but she only lay still, making no attempt to rise. "She was pretty well done trying," says Omler. "If anything we may have made the situation worse, because her legs were now pointed toward a steeper side of the puddle."
Plan B was to physically pull Star from the puddle. "Pulling a horse can be very dangerous for the horse and the human," says Omler. "It's not something just anyone can attempt. You have to have proper training and equipment. Thankfully, this entire group had it."
Cook retrieved rescue gear from his truck, and carefully they threaded the heavy-duty straps around Star's barrel and between her front legs so the mare could be pulled straight forward. "You can't pull horses by the tail or the legs or the neck," says Cook. "The only safe way to do it is to pull them by the body."
A group of firefighters and horsemen lined up along the rope and, at the count of three, pulled together. The recent rain, however, had made the ground around the puddle slippery, and they could get no traction. "It quickly became clear that we weren't going to be able to do it," says Cook.
The wet conditions also ruled out the use of Cook's truck to pull the mare out. "It was just too soft to get the truck close enough to her," says Cook. "A tractor could have done it, but we don't have one." The group pondered the situation for several minutes, trying to think of any other means they might have to pull Star from the mud. Then Omler had an idea: "What about Ed?"
A mighty pull
Ed is the 15-year-old Belgian who shares Star's pasture. Throughout the commotion, he had been keeping his distance and grazing, "pretty much uninterested in what was going on," says Cook.
Cook thought the big horse might have just the skills they needed. "I have a part-time carriage business during the holiday season," he says. "During the summer, Ed's just a fun trail mount, but in the winter, he spends his weekends pulling wagons." Maybe he could drag Star from the puddle.
Cook went to the barn to retrieve Ed's harness while Omler rechecked the mare's vital signs. They were still strong and Star was relaxed, despite her exhaustion. "I'm not sure if she knew we were trying to help her," says Omler. "But she was very cooperative."
Once the big horse was harnessed, Cook led him to the puddle and attached the straps that were around Star. Everyone stood back as Cook asked Ed to walk forward. "He moved right out, but he's used to a wagon immediately rolling behind him," says Cook. "When he felt tension on the rope, he got confused and stopped."
Pulling a rolling cart and dragging something with resistance are two different skills, and Ed had never done the latter. Cook asked him to pull a second time, and once again, the big horse stopped when he felt the tension in the line.
"He was just sort of baffled, so I kept encouraging him," says Cook. Finally, after a few false starts, Ed seemed to get the idea. He hunkered down and pulled against the weight of Star. After four powerful strides, the mare was lying on solid ground. "It was really smooth and easy once Ed figured it out," Cook adds. "It worked just like it was supposed to."
Star was quickly unhooked from Ed and the harness straps removed from her body. The mare lay still for about 90 seconds then, in one swift motion, climbed to her feet. "She was maybe a little shaky at first," says Omler, "but she was standing on all four limbs
with no obvious injuries."
Seconds later Star---ever the alpha mare---lunged toward Ed with her ears pinned. "That might have seemed a little ungrateful," says Cook, "but it was nice to know she was feeling good enough to boss him around like normal."
Omler once again checked Star's vital signs and found them strong. A thick layer of mud on her coat was the only evidence of her ordeal. Since the mare's head and eyes were also crusted with dirt, says Omler, "I clean-ed them off and checked her corneas for scratches. But her eyes seemed fine as well."
By the time the veterinarian was finished with the exam, both Star and Ed were back to grazing as if nothing had happened, and Omler went on her way. "I told them to continue the bute for a day or two, if she seemed like she needed it, and call me if she developed any problems," she says. "Then I drove home and marveled at how well everything had worked out."
Cook was similarly thankful for their good fortune: "If I hadn't come home for lunch that day, or if I had not had the rescue training and harness on hand, or if she had gotten injured struggling…. I'm sorry this happened, but if it had to, everything turned out just the way you'd want it to."
And everyone, of course, gives full credit to Ed for the role he played that day. Says Cook, "It's a great story and I'm glad he gets to be the hero of it."
As for the mud puddle, it's still there, but Cook reports that Star no longer goes anywhere near it.