Extricating a Horse From Mud

Mud can be a potential hazard to horses, both in the pasture, and when ridden. | Getty Images

Most of the time, a horse in pasture or on the trail is in no danger of getting mired in mud. However, there are times when a horse gets loose and runs helter-skelter around or off the property, unaware of potential hazards. Or, a horse that has lived in a pasture for years suddenly encounters a mud pit due to weather and climate conditions. Further, riders might happen upon a mud or quicksand-like area on the trail and venture forward unknowingly.

Extricating a horse from mud entrapment takes skill and the right approach. At the 2022 American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) Convention held Nov. 18-22 in San Antonio, Texas, Rebecca Husted, PhD, president of TLAER (Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue), discussed how horse owners and veterinarians can deal with this not-uncommon scenario: A horse trapped in mud.

The problem, she said, is with surface area. She described a horse as essentially a 55-gallon drum on toothpicks. Horses (or cattle) actually “float” on top of mud, which many don’t realize. So, when people start digging, they end up burying the horse into much deeper and more dire straits than when they started. At that point, it is far more challenging to secure straps beneath the horse, especially with the density and suction of mud. So, “No digging,” said Husted.

To begin the extraction, responders should pass a pilot line and webbing beneath a horse’s torso. A useful tool for this purpose is a Nikopolis needle, which is a C-shaped metal piece (or black plastic tubing with a circular bend). Husted advised against using vertical lifts to extricate a horse not only because it may be difficult to get close enough with tractors but also because this method requires excellent coordination of personnel and equipment. Instead, heavy equipment is effective for building a ramp and moving heavy things. Husted said a horse should never be attached to heavy equipment and you should never attach a chain or anchor webbing to the head or neck. The halter is only there for head control by the handler. The tail is also not an anchor point – it is possible to separate tail vertebrae and tissue from the body.

Her preference is to use webbing rather than rope. Simple tools such as a Hampshire strop guide (3- inch flat steel that’s 6 feet long with a handle) are also helpful to move straps under a horse. Long-reach tools keep humans out of harm’s way. (More information is available at https://thehorseportal.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/CAP-Sideways-Drag_FINAL.pdf.) If the horse has a saddle on, Husted urges people to leave it on because the girth is useful for pulling webbing into place beneath the horse. Responders can attach a line with webbing to the girth, pull the saddle to the side, and pull the webbing beneath the horse in place of the girth. She cautions that all people working on the extrication should wear helmets and always stay out of the kill zone of any free leg.

A horse immersed in mud and water might need assistance to elevate his head and nostrils above the water level. A PFD (boating life vest) or Styrofoam pool noodle can prop the head to tip up the nose. A horse trapped in mud for more than an hour can lose body heat and become hypothermic.

At times when it seems impossible to break the mud-vacuum suction, low pressure air or water can be injected into the mud – this is called a mud lance, jetting wand, or air knife. Another method is to use a scuba bottle with a regulator and air hose taped to a broomstick and aimed beneath the horse to create a path for straps to pass.

Husted recommends placing straps behind the front legs and in front of the back legs. This then enables a sideways drag/slide by using two loops of 4-inch Hast webbing straps (http://rescue.hastpsc.com/products/products.html). The objective is to pull the horse toward its back, away from the legs, while protecting the legs as he is dragged onto plywood or a firm slide or surface. EMS backboards can also help with leverage. She stressed that a horse cannot jump up out of its predicament onto a slab of plywood, which is usually too slippery. Plywood is helpful for people to use as a support to get as close as possible to help the horse and attach webbing.

Once a horse is freed from the mud and dragged to a firm surface, the horse is tugged into the sternal (on his chest) recovery position with the webbing and can then rise on his own unless medically compromised. She recommended sliding him far enough away, so as he attempts to rise, he doesn’t fall back into the mud. The horse should be given ample time to rest until he is ready to stand up.

Husted stressed the importance of calling 911 early to get sufficient assistance in a life-saving hazard situation. The effort involved for people is sobering – she reports that a 750-pound horse might need 20 people to extricate him.

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