Steamboat Springs Firefighters, veterinarians and others conducted a complex rescue effort to save a horse stuck at the bottom of a ravine as snow fell heavily Wednesday night south of Steamboat Springs.
The rescue of the horse, which owners found tangled in brush and immobilized by snow up to its chest, provided a successful test for crews responding to large-animal situations and could spur more training for such events in the future.
Dr. Courtney Diehl, a local veterinarian, said she got a call at about 5:40 p.m. Wednesday from a resident of the rural Whitewood subdivision off Routt County Road 35. The resident had noticed a Palomino quarter horse was missing, then saw the paddock was broken — “like something violent had happened in the paddock,” Diehl said — and found the horse at the bottom of a ravine. Diehl speculated that the 15-year-old horse could have had a seizure. Steamboat Springs Fire Chief Ron Lindroth speculated the horse simply got spooked.
Whatever the cause, the result was a very tense situation.
“When (an owner) initially found the horse, the horse was wrapped around a bush,” Diehl said. “His head was caught in the V the bush made. The owner said (the horse) could not breathe at that point.”
The horse’s owners declined to be named for this story and asked their horse not be named, either, to preserve that anonymity.
After finding the horse as skies darkened Wednesday, an owner worked to free the horse’s head while his wife called Diehl.
Steamboat Springs Fire Chief Ron Lindroth said he got a call at about 6:30 p.m. Diehl said crews considered whether to fully anesthetize the horse and drag it to safer ground with a truck and heavy winch. But medication to temporarily put the horse to sleep, she said, could induce additional seizure activity.
“I didn’t dare do that,” Diehl said. “So we decided we’d do it the hard way and walk him up and out. … So everybody got shovels.”
The group dug a trench about 40 feet in length, through deep snow, down the hill to the horse.
“It’s happening in the pitch black and the snow was coming down like crazy,” Diehl said, recalling the effort. A fire truck got stuck at one point and had to be winched out, she said. Conditions were slick.
“Everybody’s falling on their butts,” she said.
Vets calmed the horse with medication and attached a system of ropes and straps, using the fire truck and winch. Diehl said the horse only needed help for about 10 steps.
“Finally, the horse realized he could move, and he just barreled up the hill and got himself out. It was incredible,” Diehl said.
Lindroth said the horse was out and safe by about 8:15 p.m., less than three hours after the initial call. He said until a change in protocol implemented last month, large-animal rescue calls to Routt County Communications didn’t always lead to responses from emergency crews. Now, they do.
“Livestock has life, and it has value. If it’s in a tough situation, people should feel free to call us and get assistance,” Lindroth said.
He added that public safety also is a concern in large-animal rescues. He said studies have shown that 85 percent of people would risk their lives to save an animal.
“I look at animal emergencies as actually being human emergencies in the making,” Lindroth said.
He said Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue could receive large-animal rescue training in summer. Lindroth said his goal would be to create a countywide team for those situations.
Lindroth clarified that Fire Rescue does not respond to wildlife calls.
His wife, Racquel, is a veterinarian and helped with Wednesday’s rescue.
“My wife and I have really delved into the subject,” Lindroth said. “It’s something that merges both of our interests in a great way.”
— To reach Mike Lawrence, call 970-871-4233 or e-mail mlawrence@SteamboatToday.com