Large Animal Rescue


Unlike rescuing people during emergency situations, large animals can (and often do) display unpredictable behaviors which more often than not result in aggressive actions that could result in either further injury to the animal or subsequent injuries to the rescuer.

The reason behind this is quite simple, animals, unlike people, are instinctive in nature and as such respond to emergency situations (i.e. falling into a ditch, getting caught in mud, getting their hoof caught in a fence, injury to their legs etc.) by instinctively trying to get themselves out of their predicament through force (Worrell, 2009). Unfortunately such actions often don’t work and this is where the role of the rescuer enters into the picture.

Large animal rescue situations demand not only the removal of the animal from whatever obstacle, object or place that their currently situated in but such an action must take into consideration possible alternatives when it comes to removal due to the possibility of further injury to the animal, the level of agitation it displays, the possible danger a rescue attempt presents to a rescuer as well as the necessity for euthanasia in the event that an animal is far too injured or beyond veterinary intervention (Worrell, 2009).

All too often improper methods of rescue lead to either the death or subsequent physical impairment of a large animal (attaching a wench to a single or two legs, attaching a wench to the tail, improper rigging systems, reckless use of rope etc.) or even the death of the rescuer (ex: being kicked in the head by a horse).

It is based on this that proper evaluation of a situation and the use of tried and tested means of intervention are the most important tools a rescuer needs in their arsenal. This paper will thus explore aspects related to proper methods of rescue and evaluation in order to show what practices and processes are necessary in order to safeguard both the animal and the rescuer in situations involving large animal rescue.

Position, timing, communication

All rescue attempts must be properly planned and timed endeavors with all the participants involved knowing what their roles are, how to communicate and finally the method that will be utilized in order to extricate the large animal from whatever situation they find themselves in.

The reason behind this is quite simple, it has been shown by numerous amateur (involving untrained personnel from either the local community or the owner and a few friends) rescue attempts that improper, ill-planned and uncoordinated rescue attempts often result in not only the possibility of increased agitation of the large animal but could also cause injuries to get worse, would actually cause injuries to occur on the animal or even injure the rescuers themselves due a rescue attempt going horribly out of control (Worrell, 2009).

A proper rescue attempt involves assigning roles to certain individuals in that some will be part of the team that will be beside the animal at all times in order to calm it down and ensure that it isn’t too agitated, the second team will be those responsible for the construction or deconstruction of whatever is necessary to help extricate the large animal from its current situation and lastly the final team will be responsible for helping the animal out of whatever situation it finds itself in through force via either a pulley system or some form of manual assistance in order to help the animal, under its own power, get out. Proper communication must be present between all rescuers involved to ensure that their actions are in conjunction with one another.

This reduces the possibility of one team starting to late or too early which may actually cause a situation to get worse. Lastly, proper timing is needed in order to help a large animal out of a particular emergency situation. The reason behind this is connected to the fact that if there is no method of timing the actions between the rescuers one team might be pulling while the other team may be doing the same action yet on the opposite side of the animal which could result in injuries to either the animals or the rescuer.

All teams involved must ensure that their actions synchronize with each other based on the action that is being performed to ensure that the force applied is in the right direction which would result in the animal successfully getting out of the obstacle it was trapped in.

Large Animal Veterinarian

In certain rescue situations a large animal veterinarian may be called either to assess the current health of the horse or provide medical assistance in the form of sedation, first aid or even euthanize the animal depending on the severity of the case at hand.

In most cases where a large animal such as a horse has been trapped within a ditch or mud for a prolonged period of time a vet is usually called in order to assess whether the horse may be suffering from hypothermia as a result of being exposed to the cold dirt for prolonged periods of time and if so to provide some form of chemical based medication to preserve the health of the animal (Making horse rescues safer, 2009).

Other instances where a vet is called is when a horse or similar large animal has experienced one or several of its limbs being trapped within a hole or fence and has subsequently developed the inability to walk properly. In such cases a large animal veterinarian evaluates whether the animal in question has suffered a debilitating injury or not and if in the case of the latter advise the owner of a proper means of euthanizing the poor creature.

Should the animal merely experience a sprain or an injury that can be mended the veterinarian is also the same person who will administer the cast or necessary medical process in order to ensure that the limb/limbs in question will heal properly. Lastly, a veterinarian can also act as an overruling authority in certain rescue situations (Making horse rescues safer, 2009).

One example of this is in situations where it is better to euthanize a large animal due to either large amounts of pain or impossibility of recovery. While some owners may protest over the death of valuable animal veterinarians that are called to emergency situations can and often do make the “final call” so to speak in determining it would be more humane to end an animal’s life rather than prolong its suffering.

Use of sedatives/tranquilizers in Rescue Situations

One of the main problems when it comes to rescuing large animals is the fact that once they are placed into a situation where they experience considerable pain, discomfort, or lack the ability to move properly they immediately start to display increasing levels of agitation and stress culminating in violent often dangerous behavior since they may wind up injuring themselves or the rescuer.

In such situations it is often the case that rescuers opt to use sedatives or tranquilizers in order to calm the animal however you have to take into consideration the fact that sedating an already agitated animal is easier said than done especially when it comes to actually administering the drug in the first place. One of the recommended methods of using sedatives on a large animal is through an inhaled anesthetic such as Halothane or even Nitros Oxide.

The advantages of using such methods of sedation is that since they are applied via a mask that goes over the horse’s nose there is little additional agitation that is caused as compared to an injection which has been shown to cause severe agitation in trapped large animals. Not only that, such methods of sedation are far easier to administer as compared to an injection since they don’t require the rescuer or the vet to hold down the animal while the injection is being administered.

The second method of sedation is through the use of tranquilizers or local sedatives that need to be injected directly into the proper areas (near the neck or major artery) in order to be effective. As mentioned earlier, there are numerous problems when utilizing such methods the least of which is the fact that a rescuer or a vet actually needs to get up close to an already agitated animal and cause them even more minor discomfort which is incredibly dangerous given the unpredictable actions of nervous large animals.

In such situations additional restraints are often used on the animals legs in and some added pressure is given in order to ensure to that the animal is restrained enough for an injection to be administered effectively. It is at times recommended that a combination of inhaled anesthetics and horse tranquilizers be used in order to first calm the animal down and then put them to sleep.

Do note though that if an animal is in an incredible amount of pain or is severely agitated and afraid larger doses of sedatives/tranquilizers are needed since an most large animals are actually capable of “burning through the sedative” if in a sufficiently aggressive state of mind. Unfortunately increased dosages brings the risk of possible cardiac arrest and as such sedatives/tranquilizers should only be administered by vet or professional that knows exactly what they’re doing.

Containment of large animals

Emergency rope halter

In certain abrupt situations where you need to take control of a wayward horse or large animal it is often the case that you will need to create an emergency rope halter in order to effectively guide the animal and tie them to a particular location until a more effective means of control can be implemented.

An emergency rope halter is created by first starting with a rope and then creating a secure loop at one end which usually consists of a figure 8 knot with a small opening in order to let the other end of the rope through. As soon as you gain control of a wayward horse you then proceed to insert the middle part of the rope you have into the figure 8 loop in order to create a second loop within the rope halter.

After that is done you move the second large loop over the nose of the horse and then tighten the two loops together in order to create an effective temporary emergency halter. The practice of creating an emergency rope halter is actually one of the most well utilized and well drilled practices of animal rescue personnel and shows how important it is to know how to tie a simple knot.

Approach and restraint

When approaching an animal during an emergency situation it is important to make sure that if the animal is lying flat on the ground that you approach it from its back rather than its front. Animals have a tendency to either try to get up when approached or kick with their legs when they’re feeling threatened, as such if you were to approach them from the front more likely than not you will get a face full of hoof and will require immediate medical treatment (Schmidt, 2008).

Aside from approaching a prone animal from the back it is important to speak to any large animal in a calm and reassuring voice in order to lower its level of agitation. It is only once the animal has sufficiently calmed down that you can apply some forms of restraint either by employing an emergency rope halter around its head or some form of leg rope to limit its movement.

Forward assist

The forward assist method of large animal rescue operations involves the use of a form of webbing or harness that goes over the front of a horse and in between its legs in order to help drag it out of steep embankments or when its trapped in mud.

When examining the forward assist method you have to take into account the fact that instead of tying the webbing around the front legs of the horse careful care and attention is done to ensure that it goes around the front of the horse and encapsulates the body (Emergency services protocol for horses, 2007).

The reason behind this is due to the fact that tying the webbing or harness around the neck or legs of the horse and attempting to pull it out through this method actually results in significant strain and pain on the animal and actually increases the likelihood of strangulation, the breaking of bones or even removal of limbs in the worst case scenario. As such, the forward assist method is considered the safest and most “humane” way of animal rescue.

Do note though that the frontal assist method does have certain limitations, for example: if a horse is on its side and is trapped within a trailer the forward assist method would be ineffective since you would need to cut out the front of the trailer just to drag the horse out. In such instances it is the backwards drag method that is often used instead.

Backwards drag

The backwards drag method of rescue assistance involves placing webbing or a harness on the hind quarters of the large animal wherein it encapsulates the rear end while passing in between the animals legs.

Similar to the procedure utilized in the forward assist method this procedure ensures that the force is evenly distributed along the rear end of the main body to reduce the strains on the more fragile parts of a large animal’s body (i.e. the legs). The main difference though between the two methods is that this method is often used in instances when a horse is on its side and trapped under a trailer or debris (Emergency services protocol for horses, 2007).

Since this particular method doesn’t encourage a large animal to escape using its own strength and due to the fact its unnatural movement actually agitates animals to a certain extent it is usually the case that large animals where this particular method is to be utilized are usually sedated in order to prevent them from acting out violently which may hinder the rescue effort by either injuring the animal or injuring the rescuers who are trying to help.

Placement of leg ropes/hobbles

Leg ropes/hobbles are usually used as a means of limiting a large animal’s movement during either a rescue attempt or in instances where they have to be examined.

In such cases the rope is not placed above the knee, nor directly below it rather it is placed almost directly above the hoof in a slight 50 degree angle. This is to due to the fact that this is one of the more “sturdy” parts of a large animal’s leg (especially in horses) and the rope is less likely to cause injuries or chaffing if placed in such a position.

Do note though that while this does restrict an animal’s movements to a certain extent it isn’t as bad as it may seem since it still allows animals to somewhat movement around unlike other means of movement constraints (i.e. tying ropes to bind legs together) which can cause significant agitation in even the calmest horses.

Cast animals

In situations where rescue operations go awry and one part of the animal gets broken or bruised it is often necessary to apply some form of cast on the affected area (Furst et al., 2008). These are usually apply by veterinarians and don’t differ too much from the cast used on humans except that they allow for more flexibility and movement on the part of the animal.

Do note that an animal, unlike a human, doesn’t quite understand the meaning of action of restraint and at times will attempt to move despite the fact that its leg is broken or sprained. In such cases it is often necessary to implement additional methods of restrain such as a leg rope in order to limit their movements to ensure that their injury heals properly (Emergency services protocol for horses, 2007).

Humane Destruction

There are unfortunately instances where a large animal is beyond saving even after a rescue attempt has been attempted. This may be due to any number of circumstances such as severe damage to their legs, irreparable damage to their hind quarters or other such injuries that would prevent the animal from doing their regular routines.

While it is unfortunate what must be understood is that the worth of most large domesticated animals is dictated by how well they do their jobs. For example, if a race horse becomes lame (meaning that they can no longer walk nor run properly) this in effect makes it worthless since racing is the main value attributed to it (Furst et al., 2008).

In cases where an animal is rescued or is being rescued and it has been determined that it can no longer function properly even with sufficient medical attention then it should be put down as a “humane” alternative to it living its life either disabled or in pain. There are also other instances where an animal evidently in so much pain with no means of immediate rescue available that law enforcement and rescue personnel have to do what is “humane” and euthanize the animal in order to end its suffering.

Methods of Euthanizing a Large Animal

It is usually the case that a combination of Suomulose and Tributame is utilized in conjunction with one another in order to induce both sedation and then a subsequent cardiac arrest in large animals such as horses.

Their usage in most cases involving euthanasia is due to the fact that when administered large animals don’t even know that they’re dying rather after they are sedated they just never wake up again (Furst et al., 2008). While their use is considered controversial by most animal groups due to the supposed right to life for most animals the fact remains that they are widely accepted methods of preventing further pain or discomfort to an animal.

On the other hand it must be noted that such substances are of course under heavy control and only authorized rescue personnel or vets can even have access let alone administer such substances. In the event that Suomulose, Tributame or other chemically based means of euthanizing the animal is unavailable it thus in the hands of law enforcement officials to apply “other” means of “humane” treatment.

One possible alternative that has been seen in various cases has been for law enforcement personnel to shoot the large animal in the cleanest and quickest way possible in order to prevent further suffering. It is often the case that a line is drawn between the eyes of the large animal and the shot is made at point blank range directly above the line. The reason this is done is due to the fact that from that particular angle the brain is immediately penetrated thus resulting in the instant death of the animal.

If other areas of the body were aimed at such as the heart, lungs or other vital organs the musculature of the horse would get in the way and would only result in more pain. It must be noted though that most law enforcement officials don’t have sufficient training in properly euthanizing large animals and as such it is at times left up to the rescuer to properly coordinate an effective method of euthanizing an animal with the law enforcement officer on call.

Of particular interest to an issue of this nature is the supposed rights of the owner over the life of the horse or large animal in question wherein they at times argue against euthanizing an animal despite evidence that it is in a considerable amount of pain.

While in some instances there is a sufficient degree of reasoning behind preventing an animal from being euthanized it must be noted that aside from rescuing an animal rescuers and law enforcement personnel are under the ethical obligation to put an animal down when necessary if it has shown sufficient evidence of being extreme duress without any means of immediate resolution.

Not only that, instances where an animal cannot be rescued at all in time due to external emergency circumstances should be euthanized as well. For example, when the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear reactor in Japan was affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami the resulting leakage of radiation affected not only the plants in the surrounding area but the animals as well.

Cows and horses that were within a 5 to 10 mile radius of the site were euthanized due to evidence of radiation contamination. From this particular example it can be seen that not all animals can be rescued and as such it is often better to ethically euthanize them in order to prevent more pain rather than let them continue living in constant suffering.

Dos and don’ts of winches

First and foremost a winch should NEVER (emphasis on “NEVER”) be used to pull a large animal that is trapped either in a trailer or in the mud via any of its limbs, extremities, or head.

The problem with this is that the mechanical force exerted by most mechanical winches (especially those on some trucks) can produce a considerable degree of force which can quite literally “rip” a limb out of its socket or the tail off a course should its position cause a considerable degree of weight to be placed on that particular area.

In several unfortunate cases where winches were used to remove a large animal that was trapped in the mud the result was either the animal suffered a broken leg or died as a direct result of struggling against the pull of the winch.

Winches should only be used in conjunction with either a body harness or several smaller harnesses that are distributed throughout the body of a large animal and then used to slowly pull the entire animal along with assistance of several other rescuers in order to enable the animal, as much as possible, escape under its own power.

It must also be noted that some winches when used in conjunction with a pulley system can actually lift an animal out of the mud or give it sufficient traction so that rescuers can push it out. Again this particular application should NEVER be applied to individual body parts and should only be used in conjunction with the proper harnesses and safety apparatus under the guidance of a professional rescuer.

Mud rescue

Mud rescues are among the most difficult to accomplish since not only does the mud limit the ability of rescuers to access the horse but it also complicates the ability of rescuers to actually get the animal out due to the “pull” of the mud itself. A mud rescue usually occurs when a large animal has become trapped in 5 feet or more of mud resulting in it being unable to get itself out under its own power. This normally occurs after storm or if a river floods resulting mud flows that can trap even the biggest domesticated large animal.

What must be understood is that in such cases there are additional complications in the form of the mud hardening or the large animal in question developing hypothermia after being submerged in the mud for long periods of time. Once an animal gets trapped in mud its constant struggle to get itself out actually makes the situation worse since it sinks even deeper in the ground.

As the mud slowly begins to settle and water evaporates the result is a sticky and often times quick sand like concoction that makes rescue attempts incredibly difficult to accomplish. Not only that, the temperature of mud is usually much lower than that of most large animals and as such it at times “sucks” the heat out of the animal leading to the possibility of hypothermia and death should night fall and the animal be left to the mercy of the elements.

It must also be noted that mud rescues need to take into account the fact that merely pulling or pushing on a particular area of the horse won’t work since the surrounding mud both in front, behind and to the sides of the animal actually work against most harness systems and actually increases the likelihood of injury should the rescuers pull the animal at an odd angle resulting in the possibility of a leg getting trapped and broken.

In most mud rescues it is actually recommended that rescuers attempt to get the animal to extricate itself via its own power. This is done by the creation of a “ramp” within the mud wherein the animal can slowly pull itself out and walk out of the mud.

This is usually done in conjunction with a variety of front harnesses placed below the legs of the horse and around its main body in order to give a certain degree of support to the horse’s attempts to get free. Other possible solutions come in the form of vertical harnesses or being air lifted from a helicopter however either method is only done in the worst possible situation wherein all other attempts have been subsequently exhausted.

The one method that isn’t recommended for this particular type of situation is the back harness wherein a large animal is dragged from the back via a harness that is placed around its hind quarters. While useable in “some” situations the inherent problem with this method is the relatively unnatural means of movement which would definitely startle any large animal and could cause possible complications during the rescue attempt.

As mentioned earlier, of particular concern in this type of rescue is the fact that the longer the horse stays within the mud the more likely it is that it will develop hypothermia. Based on this mud rescue attempts are often racing against the clock before night which would result in temperature drops.

In such cases though where a large animal isn’t rescued before night falls it is often the case that warm blankets are used in order to keep the animal warm during the night while rescue crews labor to develop some way of developing an alternative to merely pulling out the animal by force which would result in possible injury to not only the animal but the rescuers themselves.

Night Search and Rescue Operations 2-3 hours starting after sunset

Night search and rescue operations that occur 2 – 3 hours after sunset are often incredibly dangerous to rescuers and passing motorists alike since the low range of visibility at this time of the day results in the possibility of unforeseen collisions occurring.

Various reports investigating the occurrence of night time accidents between motorists and large domesticated accidents often cite that the main cause of accidents is that both the motorist and the large animal in question often don’t see each other (which is especially the case in far flung country roads) the end result is either the death of the animal at the scene or even the death of the motorist as a direct result of a head on collision (Barnett, 2011).

In some instances amateur rescue workers that have attempted to fix a trailer that has been turned on its side have experienced being hit by cars due to the low level of visibility and as such this shows how dangerous this type of rescue attempt is.

For professional rescue workers it is recommended that they wear bright reflective clothing as well as place reflective tape around the scene of the accident in order to give sufficient warning to approaching motorists of the accident that is directly ahead of them. Other instances involving night searches require rescuers to find animals that have left upturned trailers or during the aftermath of a natural disaster.

The inherent problem with doing a search at night is that some animals are usually quite agitated immediately after a particular accident or disaster and as such it is at times unwise to surprise them. On the other hand it must be noted that in most cases involve night search rescues immediately after an accident has occurred most large animals actually have a habit of staying within close proximity to the area of the accident and as such it shouldn’t be too hard to find them.

The only problem with this situation is that if the accident occurred near a major road this actually increases the possibility of a large animal crossing the road just as a speeding car is coming down the road at the same time. It is due to possibilities such as this that it is often recommended that prior to night time transportation the owners of large domesticated animals should place some form of luminescent strip or collar around the animals just in case an accident should occur.

This enables motorists to spot them from far away resulting in the likelihood that they would be able to stop in time before hitting the animal in question. Other problems that occur during nigh search operations is the fact that should an animal be sufficiently scared off after being involved in an accident or some sort of incident they may actually run quite a distance away (unless they’re cows) and would make it especially difficult to find them.

Use of Helicopters in Large Animal Rescue

The Problem with Using Helicopters

First and foremost it must be noted that unlike the other methods of rescue noted within this paper the use of helicopters is more often than not considered one of the last resorts in any form of large animal rescue (Gimenez et al., 2004). What you have to understand is that while large animals such as horses are used to and are often friendly to most people helicopters terrify them since most large animals don’t interact with helicopters in their natural environments on a daily basis.

The unnatural sound and appearance of a helicopter often results in greater levels of agitation for an animal as noted by increased movement of its hind quarters and head, rapid eye movements as well as subsequent erratic noises made by the animal itself (Gimenez et al., 2004). This makes the rescue attempt all the more dangerous since an agitated large animal is dangerous especially when taking into consideration their instinctual predilection to respond to moments of agitation with either panic or considerable aggression.

Proper Means of Rescue

When it comes to rescuing large animals with helicopters what must first be taken into consideration is the fact that helicopters are often used as a means to assist an animal out of an embankment by pulling them forward or by lifting them up (in cases where they’re stuck in mud, an obstacle etc.). As such ordinary harnesses and straps cannot and should not be used in such instances due to the greater degree of force a helicopter can exert as compared to either a group of people pulling or a winch (Gimenez et al., 2004).

It has been seen in various unfortunate instances involving animal rescue attempts that improper use of rigging in the form of placement on the hind legs, head or even the tail has resulted in either the limb being broken due the sheer pulling power of the helicopter or the death of the animal as seen in instances where improper harness placement around the head resulted in the neck breaking or in even more severe circumstances where limbs have actually been severed.

Taking such gruesome situations into consideration it is thus important to evenly distribute the force exerted by a helicopter throughout the body of animal and in areas where the “pull” exerted doesn’t result in subsequent injury.

Equine rescue slings that go around the midsection of the horse (and in some case the head and rear end as well) were specially developed for rescues involving helicopters (examples of the various types of rescue slings can be seen at These particular types of rescue slings not only evenly distribute the force exerted by a helicopter but they protect the sides of the horse as well from various scratches and injuries that may result from extraction (Gimenez et al., 2004).

Using the Equine Rescue Sling

The Equine rescue sling is actually pretty simple to use, the harness goes around the belly of the horse (in some cases the head and rear end as well) with th four ends of the sling being attached to a hook mechanism on the legs of the helicopter. One the sling is around the body of the horse and the hook is attached it is actually a rather simple matter of coordinating with the pilot to slowly lift the horse up or assist the horse in getting out with enough force.

Do note though that during this entire experience the large animal in question will become extremely agitated since being lifted up and slightly flown is not a normal state of affairs for any large animal (especially horses) and more often than not the animal will struggle which has the possibility of offsetting the balance of the helicopter.

Methods of resolving this particular dilemma involve the use of tranquilizers prior to lifting the animal up or calming the animal down through the help of a familiar face to the animal. Both methods of varying degrees of effectiveness but given the short amount of time necessary to lift an animal up either method will suffice based on the rescuers judgment of the situation.

Reference List

Barnett, C. (2011). Animal rescue in the New Forest. Farmers Weekly, 154(3), 68.

Emergency services protocol for horses. (2007). Veterinary Record: Journal of the British Veterinary Association, 160(26), 888-889.

Schmidt, V. (2008). Large Animal Rescue: Is Your Department Ready?. Fire Engineering, 161(9), 117.

Furst, A. E., Keller, R., Kummer, M., Manera, C., von Salis, B., Auer, J., & Bettschart- Wolfensberger, R. (2008). Evaluation of a new full-body animal rescue and transportation sling in horses: 181 horses (1998–2006). Journal Of Veterinary Emergency & Critical Care, 18(6), 619-625

Gimenez, R. ., Gimenez, T., & Baker, J. (2004). Equine abstracts helicopter rescue – to fly or not to fly. Journal Of Veterinary Emergency & Critical Care, 14, 13.

Making horse rescues safer. (2009). Veterinary Record: Journal of the British Veterinary Association, 164(6), 162.

Worrell, M. B. (2009). Technical large animal emergency rescue. Journal Of Mammalogy, 90(5), 1270.