This horse is loaded in the correct side of a two-horse trailer.
Photos courtesy of Dr. Rebecca Gimenez, Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue.
We take for granted every time the truck is hitched to the trailer and the horses are loaded that the road trip will go exactly as planned.
What if you are driving down the highway, trailer loaded with horses, and the truck unexpectedly jolts? You look at the rearview mirror in time to see a trailer tire bouncing down the road, no longer attached to the axle, or you see the trailer tipping onto its side. Maybe you see a plume of smoke and realize it's coming from inside the trailer.
What if you are driving down the highway in a personal vehicle and you see a truck and trailer suddenly careen out of control or become engulfed in flames?
Adrenaline takes over. Time blurs. Your heart is in your throat and your mind races, thinking of the horses inside.
With only moments to plan a response, it is crucial to make the best decisions to ensure the safety of humans first and horses second.
Pull off the road into a safe area. "There is no sense stopping in a spot that will put you in danger," said Dr. Alfredo Romero, co-owner of Syracuse Equine Veterinary Specialists, PLLC in Manlius, N.Y.
"Above all, stay calm," advised Dr. Ashley Embly, associate and member of the Sports Medicine team at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital. Staying calm can be challenging, especially when horses are injured, but she stressed, "It is imperative you keep a cool head."
Fourteen horses were involved in this accident in Georgia last year. The responders did a super job, and the vet arrived within minutes. Only one horse died as a result of the accident.
First responders are trained to handle emergency situations. Yield to the first responders who have jurisdiction - that may be the local police, state troopers, local firefighters and/or EMTs.
"It is the responsibility of the authorities to handle the situation," noted Dr. Rebecca Gimenez, co-owner and instructor for Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue (TLAER).
As tempting as it is to rush to help an injured horse, wait for instructions from emergency personnel. "Don't go running into the trailer, even if it is overturned and the horses are on their sides; they will kick and injure you," she said. "Don't open any doors or windows at first. Horses may attempt to come through any opening, even if it is too small for them."
Do not remove horses from an overturned trailer. Removing horses from an overturned trailer is not a skill beginners should tackle. Wait for first responders to arrive on the scene.
Assess the situation by looking through windows and doors from outside the trailer.
"Horses are amazingly capable of surviving catastrophic trailer wrecks as long as they stay inside the trailer," Gimenez emphasized.
A trapped or down horse may lie quietly for a few minutes. This is not because the horse senses you are there to help; it is because the horse is exhausted and waiting to regain strength to continue fighting. "[In a horse's mind] a down horse is a dead horse," she explained.
This horse survived a head injury during an accident and is going home from the vet hospital.
Use trailer ties or lead ropes that can easily be cut in an emergency. Ties made of bungee materials are difficult to cut. One alternative is to use a piece of baling twine to attach the trailer tie to the tie ring inside the trailer.
"The push/pull motion of a [serrated knife] may stimulate the horse to fight and accidentally stab the horse," she added. Instead, use a seat belt cutter or curved knife attached to a long pole to free the horse(s).
Create an area where horses can safely be removed from the trailer. "Set up a containment area with cattle panels, parked cars, tarps or even people holding hands to prevent a loose horse," Gimenez suggested.
When a trailer catches fire, every second matters. First, make sure all passengers are accounted for, out of the vehicle and uninjured.
"What you do next can depend on what kind of trailer you have," said Romero. "Are there combustibles in the trailer? Is there hay? Propane?" Try to determine if the fire is one that can be put out with the fire extinguisher carried in the truck. "If there is any risk to human life by attempting to extinguish the fire, then certainly it should not be attempted," he added.
Burn wounds are painful and serious. "True burn victims usually develop hypovolemic shock and will need large volumes of intravenous fluids administered by a veterinarian that are balanced to replace certain electrolytes that are lost through wounds," Embly explained. Some horses will require intravenous plasma proteins that may have been lost.
An initial round of fluids may be administered at the site of the fire to stabilize the horse, but most burn victims will require transport to a referral center designed to handle such injuries.
Move the horse to an area that is safe, quiet and away from traffic and the fire and wait for the vet to arrive. "There truthfully is not a lot that horse owners can do to provide comfort while waiting on the vet," Embly noted.
Pack extra halters, lead ropes and towels or blankets. "I think so much of how the situation turns out is a direct reflection of how much preparation has been put into that trip to begin with," Embly said.
Create a first aid kit that includes rolled cotton, gauze pads, adhesive leg wraps, scissors, hemostats, exam gloves, a digital thermometer, antiseptic scrub solution, a flashlight, a permanent marker, pliers, white medical tape and a stethoscope.
"Stock emergency medical supplies in a bag, and then tie the bag shut so that no one is tempted to use anything from it while at a show," Romero suggested.
An owner or handler who is able to take a horse's vital signs can provide critical details to a veterinarian over the phone. "It is helpful if the handler can give an overall basic assessment. All owners should become familiar with how to take a horse's temperature, pulse and respiratory rate," Embly added.
A horse owner who can assess the animal's mucous membranes will be able to provide additional information. This can be done easily by looking at the horse's gums. "Normally, the mucous membranes of a horse should be pink and moist, and if you depress an area, the color should return back to that area within about two seconds," she explained.
Ask your regular veterinarian to demonstrate how to read your horse's vital signs and mucous membranes.
Prevention is key
Minimize your chances of having an accident and take safety precautions before leaving the barn.
- Perform routine maintenance on trucks and trailers.
- Avoid overloading trailers.
- Conduct inspections before every trip. Resources such as USRider and Hitch Up! magazine have checklists available.
- Use shipping boots or proper Pony Club wraps to protect legs.
- Create a map of the route you will be traveling and have contact information for veterinarians, stables, etc.
"As for people not involved in the accident, the number one item that they can carry with them is a cellphone," Romero added. "Even if you don't stop, calling for help is something that can be done easily from the road with a hands-free headset."
Katie Navarra is a freelance contributor based in Clifton Park, N.Y., and writes about agriculture and the equine industry regularly.