In Case of Emergency

Learn how horses naturally respond to various emergency scenarios so you can better understand how to approach and handle your horse if you’re ever in an emergency situation.

If you live a life with horses, you’ll likely encounter emergency situations over the years. Those emergencies can be caused by weather extremes or natural disasters, such as flooding, fires, and tornadoes. Or they can be of our own making, like a trailering emergency or even riding in unknown or tricky terrain. 

Knowing some typical equine reactions to various emergency scenarios, as well as how to approach and handle horses in those situations, may well save you and your horse from injury (or further injury beyond what may have already been incurred) or even death. Here we examine some types of emergency situations that we and our horses may find ourselves in, and give you some pointers for what to do and what not to do.  

Entrapped HorseThe Emergency: A horse may become entrapped by being ridden into a situation where the rider doesn’t realize there’s a hole or mud, or by his own curiosity, playfulness, or inattention in a panic.  Sometimes a horse may try to self-treat for warm hooves (from sickness, founder, arthritis, etc.) and simply be overwhelmed by mud, too deep in a trench to get himself back out. A tornado or windstorm may trap a horse under debris, such as tree limbs, fence wires, or fallen barn parts. Other entrapments involve horse trailers—a horse may fall or collapse inside a trailer and be wedged inside or, in the case of a road accident, may be pinned under other fallen horses.  

If there’s an emergency where you find yourself having to lead more than one horse at a time, for example your friend falls off or horses get loose, it’s good to practice leading horses beforehand. Photo by Rebecca Husted, Ph.D.

Equine Reaction: Most horses will struggle a few times in attempts to self-rescue, then wait and appear very tired and depressed, a state known as tonic immobility. However, when an opportunity presents itself to increase their chances of getting out (such as a human moving a log pinning them in a ditch, building a ramp with a backhoe that allows them to clamber out, etc.), they move fast and put full effort into escaping. With these explosive efforts, anyone in proximity must be very careful—if you’re in your horse’s way, he may trample you in his effort to get free.

Rescue Effort: Generally speaking, if you’re first on the scene, don’t interact with your horse, but do get a photo of the situation. Call 911, a veterinarian (and send your photo to the vet), and someone you trust, such as a neighbor, spouse, friend, or barn manager, to come help. Ultimately, you may need many people on hand for the strength needed to free your horse. 

Provide your horse with hay and water to keep him calm and distracted, and formulate a plan as a team for the extrication. If he’s frantic, try to bring one of his buddies over to him to help keep him calm. All people on the scene must stay calm and avoid standing around a horse until the plan to free him is to be carried out. 

Some situations can be solved most easily by simply cutting or removing the tree limb, boards, or gate entrapping a horse and letting him rise on his own. Other situations require him to be physically assisted in his movement. 

Any pulling pressure should be applied to your horse’s body rather than his head and neck. Animals, including horses, naturally have what’s known as “opposition reflex,” in which they fight against pressure to their heads. Pulling on a horse’s head to move him forward onto his feet is self-defeating because he will be fighting to move the opposite direction. A halter with an attached lead rope on your horse is helpful, not to pull him, but to guide his direction during extrication. 

Sternal recumbency—a horse resting on his sternum with all four feet tucked close to his body—is considered among rescuers as a recovery position. This is the position in which a recumbent horse can breathe most easily and from which he can most easily make an attempt to stand. One of the safest and simplest methods of helping a horse regain his feet from sternal recumbency is called a forward assist, which runs a long stretch of webbing or a rope across his withers down around his ribs to his elbows on both sides and ultimately between his front legs. As many as six or eight people will pull on the rope or webbing ends that come from between his front legs, helping him hoist himself forward onto his feet. 

Avoid attaching mechanical winches or heavy equipment to an entrapped horse—they can crush his body or cause other serious injury. Any use of tools (cutting equipment, chainsaws, jaws of life) must be carefully coordinated to prevent further injury to the horse. Be aware, too, that the horse may have hypothermia or compression injuries to treat once he’s freed.  

Recumbent Horse

The Emergency: A horse may fall or collapse into a recumbent position and be unable to rise on his own. He may slip on a slick floor or muddy surface, he may be geriatric or exhausted, he may have fallen through the floor of a bridge or other raised floor, he may have been knocked off his feet in a trailer by poor driving, or be down due to colic, injury, or a neurological condition (if he’s down for a medical reason, veterinary intervention is required first). 

In a training exercise, the Cherokee Fire Rescue Large Animal Team performs a sideways drag manipulation on a sedated horse that’s on the ground. Photo by Rebecca Husted, Ph.D.

Equine Reaction: A laterally recumbent horse (flat out on his side) with his full weight on the downside lung may be very depressed (lack of animation). Even if he’s down in an enclosed space, such as a stall or trailer, he may still be able to swing his head and legs and injure anyone near him, so stay on his dorsal side, away from his legs. Horses can move much faster than humans and rarely communicate that they are getting ready to struggle.

Rescue Effort: A horse that’s down for reasons other than entrapment, such as a fall, colic, geriatric, or neurological reasons, should be assessed by a veterinarian as soon as possible while he’s down. If he’s struggling to get up, keep him from thrashing around so he doesn’t injure himself as you wait for a vet. 

To most safely keep a laterally recumbent horse from thrashing around, apply pressure at the top of his neck just behind his ear. An older method is to place your knee at that position on his neck, but it’s been found that you’ll have better leverage and be able to apply more of your weight to the job if you remain standing and use your foot instead of your knee. You’ll also be safer because you can get away from him quicker if needed than if you were to kneel next to him. 

Once a veterinarian has judged that the laterally recumbent horse should be able to stand, you must first roll him into sternal recumbency, which can be done with multiple pairs of hands. This will enable him to breathe more easily and is considered the “rescue position.” Once he’s sternal, don’t force him to his feet. Allow him to rest in the sternal position until he seems ready to make an attempt to rise. At that stage, the forward assist method mentioned earlier may be used to help him. 

Being able to practice on a mannequin can help you feel more prepared if you ever have an emergency that requires you to keep a horse down safely or use a webbing to move weight. Photo by Rebecca Husted, Ph.D.

If he’s laterally recumbent in a precarious place, such as on mud, ice, or a riverbank, you’ll need a team of about 12 people to execute what’s called a sideways drag. With two webbings or ropes looped around his body, one just behind his front legs and the other just in front of his hind legs, you’ll drag him to safer ground with his back facing the direction of movement and his legs trailing. A safer place could be just a matter of a few feet away where he can achieve a sternal position, and ultimately stand up. A “flossing” method can be used to get webbing or rope under him, starting at his hind end and inching it under him with back-and-forth movements. 

For the forward assist or sideways drag, webbing, such as a tow strap about four inches wide, is preferable to rope, which can more easily cut into the horse’s flesh. Webbing de-signed for equine rescue, made of heavy-duty nylon at four inches wide and 20 feet long with loops at the ends for holding or fastening attachments, is available online through Häst Large Animal Rescue Equipment. 

With veterinarians present, a sedated horse is being manipulated using a forward assist after a trailer accident. Photo by Tori McLeod

Loose Horse

The Emergency: Horses often get loose, and it may end well, or it may lead to injury or even death. This scenario could be at a home barn, a show or event venue, or even out on a trail or roadside. All it takes is an open gate or an untied lead rope for some horses to run loose. It could involve just one horse or, complicating matters, multiple horses. If there’s no secondary fencing or gates at a road that can be closed, the risk escalates dramatically. 

Equine Reaction: Horses often get excited or nervous in new environments or with newfound freedom, even if it’s on their home property, and their excitement or panic at being loose makes them difficult to catch. They commonly feed off the reaction of the people involved, so staying slow, measured, and calm in your efforts is key. Remember, too, that a loose horse can run over a person, slam into a vehicle or other solid object, or fall into a ditch. Usually, loose horses stick together, but occasionally one horse will simply fail to connect with the rest and go off on his own. 

Rescue Effort: This is another situation best served by teamwork and a plan. If the loose horse is out on a public road, call 911 to ask for law enforcement to slow or divert traffic. If at a show venue, ask the announcer to try to slow people down and ask them not pursue the horse(s). Do not run after a loose horse—it will only excite or scare him, and he will always outrun and outmaneuver you. Using another horse to pursue him will also only incite him to run faster and farther. If possible, though, use a horse under a rider or in hand as incentive for the loose horse(s) to follow, and lead that horse away from the loose horse(s). Shaking a bucket of grain or using other feed as an attractant may also help.  

For most horses, containment is more useful than attempted catching. Containment could be a backyard, a pasture with fencing, or a trap made out of cattle panels where the loose horse(s) can be allowed to calm down then be caught. Keep loose horses together as they are caught individually, as sometimes an entire group can be led by a few that are under control. Young or unhandled horses should be handled and loaded as a group to get them back to safety.

Be Prepared

All these emergencies can be frightening and dangerous, but are, in large part, preventable with preparation. With education and planning, horse people can become more resilient—learning how to respond in emergencies and disasters, having a network of helpers, and knowing which tools could be useful. 

When horses are involved in an emergency, remember, human safety first, then coordinate for a plan to extricate the horse safely. You can’t save your horse if you’re injured or killed trying to help him.

Make Emergencies More Manageable

  • Own a chainsaw to cut trees taken down by a wind event
  • Have a flashlight with batteries in case of a nighttime trailering problem
  • Install a gate to prevent loose horses from entering a roadway
  • Stay on a trail instead of taking a shortcut across a boggy area 
  • Learn to drive and back a trailer more safely and effectively
  • Keep geriatric horses in flatter, easier-to-negotiate pastures
  • Roughen concrete floors to prevent horses from slipping
  • Put a reflective address sign at the road so emergency services can find you more easily
  • Plan and practicing a barn fire evacuation with boarders and staff
  • Ensure your driveway can accommodate fire vehicles 
  • Take your trailer to a maintenance facility for a full safety check of tires, floor, brakes,
    and electrical systems 
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