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The Pomfret Fire Department Does More Than Just Fight Fires

By Margie Huoppi

One of the most frightening things a horse owner can experience is discovering one of your horses down on the ground and unable to get up.

It was the last thing we expected to find after returning from Boston on a cold, snowy, slippery January day. Around 6 pm we called our two horses in from the pasture for dinner. Typically, they are already in their stalls waiting for us. Chance wasted no time in making a beeline for his stall. The older horse, Quinn, usually lagged behind, but several minutes passed, and there was no sign of him.

Grabbing a flashlight and heading outside behind the barn, we discovered Quinn lying on his side and making no attempt to get up. While he did have a blanket on, he looked tired, cold, and stiff. We had no idea how long he had been lying there.

Looking at the pattern in the nearby snow, it appeared Quinn had been rolling, as horses like to do, and ended up on a slight incline with his torso on the downhill side. I am sure he tried repeatedly to get his legs underneath him in order to stand up, but was unable to do so because of the snow and slippery conditions. 

Not knowing if there was a medical condition involved, I called my vet’s answering service and waited for a return call. The vet said she couldn’t get there for at least 45 minutes. At that point, panic set in. There was no way the two of us could get the horse up, so we called 911 to get assistance from the Pomfret Fire Department. Within five minutes our driveway was full of trucks with flashing lights.

According to Safety Officer Pat Boyd, the call was “dispatched or ‘paged’ out to firefighters as ‘A horse stuck in the snow,’ with no other details.” Not knowing if the horse was injured or if there were other issues, Pat said they were not sure what to expect.

When Chief Brett Sheldon heard the call, “The first thought was that we needed to get out there to help this poor animal. I grew up with horses, so I knew that when a horse falls and exhausts itself trying to get up, it usually does not end well.”

About 10 to 12 department members responded to the call. “I was shocked to get the response that I saw,” said Brett. “I think everyone in the department felt the same way, as I haven’t seen a turnout that large in quite some time.”

Allyson Colburn, a member of the Muddy Brook Fire Department in Woodstock, was in her pajamas when she got a call from Pomfret firefighter Jason Osburn, asking for her assistance due to her experience with horses. “I have worked with and ridden horses for 20 years and couldn’t say no to helping out with Quinn,” she explained.

Brett and Pat were the first on the scene. “Getting equipment to the location and the fact that it was dark and cold, and the ground was covered with snow and ice, was going to be a challenge,” said Pat. Because our small tractor was not going to be sufficient to lift a horse, Pat called Ryan Vertefuille, who is the lead on grounds at Pomfret School, and asked for assistance. “He brought down the school’s large John Deere tractor, and Dave Misiaszek, another member of the school facilities staff, bought a pickup truck with a plow and sander,” said Pat.

Because Allyson had experience with a handful of downed horse rescues, she tried to keep Quinn as calm as possible and provided guidance to the other responders in terms of how to proceed and not get injured.

“The biggest challenge to me,” said Brett, “was to figure out a way to get the horse on its feet. We had limited access to the pasture, so there was no way to get a truck in there to utilize a winch and pulley system. Thank God Pat Boyd was there and offered up the maintenance crew at Pomfret School. At the time they were working to clear walkways of ice, so they were available to help and brought down a large tractor that was able to life Quinn with ease.”

“Being an agricultural community, we have worked with large animals before,” said Pat. “Years ago we had a horse that could not get up because of ice, and in other cases we have assisted with horses or cows in the road or other people’s yards.” Luckily the department has equipment on their trucks specifically designed for this type of rescue.

After turning Quinn around so his legs were facing the barn, the responders were able to get several large nylon lifting straps under his torso and connect them together to a chain that was attached to the tractor’s bucket. Quinn was clearly overwhelmed by the number of people, the bright lights, and the large tractor looming over him. From where I stood just inside the barn, I could hear everyone calling Quinn by name, urging him to stay calm, and letting him know they were there to help.

After the chains were safely connected, the bucket was slowly lifted, while each of Quinn’s legs were held so they didn’t flail around. Once he was upright and several inches off the ground, the tractor slowly lowered him until his feet touched the snowy surface below.

By this time my vet had arrived and checked Quinn’s heart and other vital signs, all of which were normal. Not knowing how his legs would react, the responders did not untether him from the tractor until they were sure he could support himself. Buckets of sand were thrown on the icy ground, and the tractor slowly moved toward the barn with Quinn walking under his own power. When he reached the barn door, the straps were removed, and he was able to walk into his stall. The relief we felt was indescribable.

While we were thanking the Fire Department members, the vet tended to Quinn, made sure he was hydrated, and gave him some medication for pain. The look in his eyes said how glad he was to be back in his stall after such a frightening ordeal.

I asked Brett if the department had training in how to lift a horse. “The only official training for the department was done years ago,” he responded. “We will definitely be looking for a training refresher class this summer for these types of rescues.” Brett expressed his gratitude to Allyson, a non-member who had this type of training, for coming to assist. “Her help and expertise were invaluable that night.”

While the Pomfret Fire Department is trained to fight fires, most of the calls involve car accidents, medical emergencies, downed wires, and various other incidents. I asked Brett and Pat how lifting a horse compares to those other situations.

“In a small town like Pomfret,” Pat said, “the Volunteer Fire department is the catch-all for emergencies of all types. We are fortunate to have a dedicated and diverse group of men and women who volunteer, as well as valuable nearby resources to assist.”

Brett replied, “At least for me, this situation is just as much of an emergency as the others you mentioned. Any person or animal in need deserves the best care and emergency response we can give. I think many of my members feel the same judging by the turnout.”

We are so grateful for the members of the Fire Department who dropped what they were doing and came out on a cold night to help get Quinn back on his feet. They were professional, worked as a team, and demonstrated genuine concern for Quinn’s comfort and well-being. Allyson was a great comfort to me personally, with her knowledge of horses and calm demeanor. “Helping the Pomfret Fire Department get Quinn safely into his stall was the highlight of my year to date,” Allyson told me. “I would absolutely help again if the need arises.”

According to Pat, the motto of the Volunteer Fire Department is “Neighbors Helping Neighbors.” And that is exactly what happened that night when we called for help.

Epilogue: Quinn was back to his old self the next morning, and both horses were restricted to the small paddock until the ice was gone. Since then, we’ve seen him rolling on the ground several times, but he has been careful to choose flat surfaces without an incline.

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