Large Animal Rescue: Is Your Department Ready?


If your department is located in horse or cattle country or serves an area where large animals pass through, it’s only a matter of time until you experience a large animal rescue (LAR). It could be a horse trapped on ice or in mud; cattle loose from a pasture; or, worse yet, animals caught in a fire or trailering accident.

Assisting with an LAR might not be your first choice of duty, but the facts that property conservation is second to life safety and firefighters are all-hazards responders mean LAR is quite possibly within the scope of your department’s responsibilities. And although a 1,000-pound horse loose and looking for security might intimidate the toughest of firefighters, adding a few LAR techniques to your repertoire of skills isn’t as complicated as you might think. Better yet, 90 percent of the items needed for efficient LAR already exist on standard firefighting and rescue apparatus.

1. First responders, working with equipment owners and local horse owners, learn the basics of a short-term lift before applying it to a horse. (Photos by Carolina Sampson, Upper Pond Stables, unless otherwise noted.)

It helps to realize that an animal incident is a human incident. If we as responders do not mitigate the incident, then well-intentioned citizens will certainly venture in. Stay tuned for the next alarm. You’ll soon be responding to a human needing rescuing from an attempt to help an animal. Suffice to assume that when no human lives are overtly threatened by your LAR incident, property conservation, public perception, and the fact that you’re called to help will serve as the driving forces for your involvement.

Figure 1.

As with all incidents, response variables and scene size-up set the stage for success or failure. Being in proximity of a large animal in an emergency situation puts you in an immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) environment. Always have a safety officer, and follow proper incident command and company operation protocol.


• Be Calm. Ensure responder safety. The basic rules for rescuing large animals differ little from rescuing humans. One standard rule: The calmer you are, the calmer most animals will be. Reduce the noise, sirens, and flashing light as much as possible, and you automatically improve your chances for a more positive outcome. A small handful of cotton gauze from your rescue placed gently in the ears of most large animals will also help desensitize them to the noise and chaos of an emergency incident. Note, too, that most large animals are prey species and their lives are dictated by rules of “fight or flight.” Recall the cold, warm, and hot zones of hazardous materials response. With large animals, these zones relate to action, alertness, and awareness. Negative threats within an animal’s action zone, essentially its bite and kick range, are as dangerous as working in the hot zone of a hazmat incident. The warm zone, or alert zone, requires attention and considerations of impending threats. In the cold zone, a large animal, especially a horse, might be aware of the threat and cognizant of its movement but will rarely respond negatively unless something begins to impact its alert or action zone. This pattern of action for hot, alert for warm, and awareness for cold is synonymous with all prey animals.

• Restraint and Containment. If you use restraint methods, make sure they are properly applied and strong enough to hold the animal. As a general rule, large animals will not struggle unless they sense freedom, and “sheltering in place” until a secure containment area is in place is paramount. Containment areas are as simple as apparatus bumper to bumper or with ladders placed between the bumpers to create a visual barrier. Animals want the basic needs of safety, food, water, and security. Set up a containment area, get a nice bale of hay, and you’ve got a good chance of keeping most domestic animals comfortable. Obtaining the owner’s permission to administer care needs to be considered, especially if the level of care requires the expertise of a veterinarian. Note, too, that most states require the owner’s permission to euthanize an animal, even if it is suffering. If the owner is not known, is unavailable, or is incapacitated, your options may be limited. This is where preplanning and standard operating procedures come in handy. Identify your region’s large animal characteristics and consider response variables. Do you have veterinarians who will respond, and will dispatchers summon them for you? Look for a “note to responders” form that may be posted in barns, trailers, and other areas. These standard prepermission forms, as well as cell phone “ICE Veterinarian” numbers, are popular for animal owners and are promoted by insurance companies and animal-based organizations.

• Animal Behavior.Large animals, especially horses, associate safety with familiarity. They have always known their barn to be safe and will run back into their barn even when it’s on fire. If a horse is rescued from a burning barn and no safe pasture is handy, tie it securely with a quick-release knot to a tree or a trailer that is attached to a truck. Never tie a horse to a trailer that is not hooked to a truck, as a panicking horse, especially a draft, can pull a trailer over onto itself. Blindfolding the tied horse with a long sleeved shirt to reduce its senses often helps keep it calm. The sense-safety theory is also the reason horses involved in a bad trailering accident will often calmly walk into a trailer arriving on-scene to contain them. They do not associate the threat with the trailer, but they might never stand still if the sound of screeching brakes and crunching metal happens near them again.

2. Using a pike pole or closet hook wrapped with elastic bandaging or duct tape to reach around an animal’s legs keeps responders safer. A rescue buddy should always be nearby, should there be a need to escape from the immediately dangerous to life and health environment. Photo by author..

• Moving Large Animals. If you need to move a downed horse or other large animal, it is best to drag it using the large muscle groups. If conditions allow, use a LAR rescue glide (a flat lightweight platform with built-in hand points). Slings, or wide tow straps, are easily made by tying ends of 1¾-inch hoseline with a water knot, and they will drag or lift a horse or other large animal more safely and efficiently than ropes. Fold the line in half; from its center, drape it over the shoulders or rump and between the hind or front legs depending on the direction of tow. Use closet hooks or pike poles with the hook end lightly wrapped with padding and duct tape to help hold a leg steady or to maneuver lines through an animal’s legs and feet to protect from possible kicks. Using mechanical advantage also enables a safer rescue. Never drag a trapped horse or large animal with an electrical winch or by its hooves or neck. Many a successful rescue has turned horrific when the animal later had to be euthanized because of severe damage to the trachea or the delicate tendons, muscles, and tissues of the animal’s lower legs. If you are called to an incident where a horse, or any animal, may be deceased or euthanized on-scene; secure the dignity of the creature by covering it with a tarp or blanket. The owner and others on-scene will appreciate the kindness.

3. Firefighters in LAR training trap themselves in mud to practice with a mud rescue kit and best learn how to free animals. One sure technique is to turn the air on slightly before pushing the tubes into the mud alongside the victim. This prevents a rush of air from erupting suddenly when additional air is supplied.

• Mud, Wet Terrain Entrapment. For an animal trapped in mud, whether moose in the wild, trail riders on coastal mud flats, or anything trapped in wet terrain it can’t handle, the basic rescue technique is the same. Mud traps by surface tension. We change an element of fuel, heat, or oxygen to fight fire; with the same science, change an element of dirt, water, or air to change the surface tension of mud, and the victim will be released. Water and air are carried on most fire apparatus. Air should be your first choice. A portable SCBA air bottle fitted with simple gauges, air tubes, and valves is a kit that can be easily carried off road if needed. Attach a halter and rope to the animal if possible, and remember to set up a containment area before freeing the animal. If the animal is not overly fatigued, once loosened, it will quite possibly walk out of the mud on its own. Otherwise, have ready a short-term lift or mechanical advantage drags to use in coordination with adding air for a successful mud rescue.

4. A portable and inexpensive mud rescue kit is easily designed from PVC pipe, air hose, a manifold, and gauges. Using air to release the surface tension of mud is often a first choice for rescuers. (Photo by author.)

• Lighting.If the incident is at night or in heavy fog, bring out the thermal imaging camera instead of flashlights. Animals are heat producing and leave heat signatures of their whereabouts. In addition, most prey species interpret the moving light of responders’ flashlights as an unidentifiable predator. Remember, too, the majority of animals have better night vision than humans. Set up gentle scene lighting; if possible, use food to lure the animals to an established lighted and secure safe area where they can be more easily handled.

• “Tranquilizing” Techniques.The use of “low-tech tranquilizers” is not wasted on animals. We know the value of a teddy bear to an injured or nervous child; food and a calming voice tend to work as well for animals. Pebbles in a can will mimic the sound of grain for many loose domestic animals, but be prepared if they come toward you. Containing animals is often safer than trying to catch them; but if catching them is an option, fashion an emergency halter from the rescue rope or webbing carried in your firefighter hitch gear. Another tip: Most large animals are gregarious creatures, and the comfort of “one of their own” is often enough to lure a wayward animal to safety.


For an incident of extreme nature, such as a horse trapped on ice or in swift water, there is rarely a better option than to summon the expertise of a technical rescue crew—preferably a rescue company that’s trained in LAR techniques and has the appropriate equipment. Many fire departments that experience LARs frequently have trained units that specialize in LAR response. Primary training is available in many parts of the United States. Fire Departments such as Poland (ME) Fire Rescue and the Los Angeles County (CA) Fire Department train their companies and outfit their responders with specialized glides, strapping, lifts, and other equipment designed especially for LAR response. In addition, annual training and continuing education programs combine operations with jurisdictional animal-control agencies.

5. One standard rule for LAR: Hooves are not handles. A variety of wraps can often be found around horse trailers and farms; more often, cotton and elastic bandaging from our rescue unit are available. If using standard horse wraps, be careful of self-closing strips. The sound can be threatening to a sedated horse or one not used to humans or traveling. (Photo by author.)

Considering how your department might respond to the most common LARs is the first step in becoming more prepared. If a horse or other large animal is trapped in water, and assuming it can be done safely, use a flotation device or rescue noodle to keep the animal’s head above water until technical crews arrive. To maintain core temperatures, apply heat or cold packs to the areas where large blood vessels travel near the surface of the skin. On large animals, they are located, as in humans, along the jaw, groin, and underarm areas. In addition, common asphalt roofing paper placed under an animal’s hooves and along a path often has provided an animal trapped on a slick surface enough grip to stand and make its way to safety.

Toxic and excessive heat environments call for quick mitigation. For large animals that nature designed to depend on speed for survival, the effects of heat and noxious fumes are extremely damaging to their highly efficient air-exchanging lungs. As conditions allow, use positive pressure and rehab equipment to secure fresh air and cooling temperatures and moist cloths to cover and filter air entering the animal’s nose. If the animals have been covered by ash or other debris, use the fine mist from a fog spray to “decon” them as soon as possible. Ideally, use mild soap, as ash and other chemicals can be buried in an animal’s hair and burn the skin for hours after it has landed.

6. Rescue webbing or rope, often carried in firefighter PPE, makes a handy temporary emergency halter. Tie a figure 8 on a bight on one end and drape it over the animal’s neck, push the working end through the knot as a loop, and loop it over the animal’s nose. Although not designed for tying an animal, it will allow a calm animal to be caught and held or led to a safe location.

If your LAR requires trailer extrication, be aware that power tools and the sounds of cutting metal will aggravate an already stressed animal. Power tools also add to the possibility of fire if hay and other combustibles are present.

As a final note, always recommend to owners that animals involved in any type of trauma be seen by a veterinarian as soon as the incident is mitigated.


As with any training, the more members of your department who have the skills needed for a particular incident, the better the chance of positive mitigation. But even if one responder on your crew knows LAR techniques, his knowledge will help guide a company in the operations. LAR training may not be as traditional as search and rescue classes, but it’s growing in popularity. Several organizations work with fire and rescue training programs to bring these courses to local areas. Many times, farms and stables will sponsor the training for local departments though, sadly, only after an animal has been lost or suffered considerably because of the unavailability of LAR skills.


Large animals in our society run the gamut from economic stability for agricultural producers to once-in-a-lifetime athletic champions. They are often creatures whose lives and value cannot be replaced in the owner’s life. As protectors of life and property, a basic awareness of LAR skills for responders may tip the balance toward a successful rescue for your department.

VICKI SCHMIDT is owner and manager of Troika Drafts, a 100-acre working draft horse farm in western Maine. She is also a Maine state fire instructor II and a call firefighter for the Buckfield Fire Department.

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