You are driving down the highway, trailer loaded with horses, for what promises to be an exciting horse show, overnight camping trip, out-of-town clinic or outing with friends. The miles click by and you marvel at how smoothly the trip is going.
Unexpectedly, the truck jolts and you look out the rearview mirror in time to see the trailer tipping onto its side. Or, you see a plume of smoke and realize it is coming from inside the trailer.
Your adrenaline kicks in.
Time speeds up and moves more slowly all at the same time.
Your stomach lurches as you think of the horses inside.
With only a few seconds to plan a response,it is crucial to make the best decisions to ensure the safety of humans and horses. Considering the worst case scenario and preparing for the worst before ever leaving the barn will keep handlers safe and give the horses the best chance of survival with minimal injuries.
Priority one - get off the road
Pull over and off the road into a safe area. "There is no sense stopping in a spot that will put you in danger," said Dr. Alfredo Romero, DVM, DACVS and co-owner of Syracuse Equine Veterinarian Specialists, PLLC in Manlius, New York.
"Above all stay calm," Ashley Embly, DVM, Associate and Member of Sports Medicine Team at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital, said. Remaining calm can be challenging, especially when one or more the the horses in injured, but "it is imperative you keep a cool head," she stressed.
If your horse trailer overturns ...
Removing horses from an overturned trailer is not a beginner skill. Wait for first responders to arrive on the scene. On average, it takes between 5-7 minutes for the police or fire department to respond.
Assess the situation by looking through windows and doors from outside the trailer. Are the horses inside dead or alive? Are they tied or loose? Are they standing or laying down? On top of one another or side-by-side?
"Don't go running into the trailer, even if it is overturned and the horses are on their sides--they will kick and injure you," said Rebecca Gimenez, co-owner and instructor for Technical Large Animal Rescue (TLAR), "don't open any doors or windows at first. Horses may attempt to come through any opening, even if it is too small for them."
"Horses are amazingly capable of surviving catastrophic trailer wrecks as long as they stay INSIDE the trailer," Gimenez emphasized.
A trapped or down horse may lie quietly for a few minutes. This is not because the horse senses you are there to help, it is because the horse is exhausted and waiting to regain strength to continue fighting. "(to horses) A down horse is a dead horse," she explained.
Do not crawl over a horse's body or stick an arm into the trailer to release a trailer tie. "People have broken arms by sticking an arm in to handle a horse's head," she cautioned.
First responders should use a seatbelt cutter or curved knife attached to a long pole to reach into the trailer while remaining a safe distance away. Serrated knives should be avoided. "The push/pull motion may stimulate the horse to fight and accidentally stab the horse."
Once first responders are prepared to unload the horses, "set up a containment area with cattle panels, parked cars, tarps or even people holding hands to prevent a loose horse," Gimenez suggested.
If the trailer catches on fire ...
Every minute counts when reacting to a trailer fire. First, ensure that everyone is accounted for, out of the vehicle and okay, said Romero.
Once you have confirmed the people are safe, you can turn your attention to the trailer.
"What you do next can depend on what kind of trailer you have," he added, "are there combustibles in the trailer? Is there hay? Propane?" Try to determine if the fire is one that can be extinguished with the one carried in the truck. "If there is any risk to human life by attempting to extinguish the fire, then certainly it should not be attempted," he advised.
"Be very careful not to put yourself in a bad location where you get trapped," said Embly, "but try and get the horse out if it is safe for you to do so."
Horses are instinctively afraid of fire and my be unwilling to walk past an area that is on fire. If needed, blindfold the horse to encourage it to move in needed direction. "Horses can become panicky in these situations," Embly cautioned.
Burn wounds are painful and serious. "True burn victims usually develop hypovolemic shock and will need large volumes of intravenous fluids administered by a veterinarian that are balanced to replace certain electrolytes that are lost through wounds" she explained. Some horses will require intravenous plasma proteins that may have been lost.
An initial round of fluids may be administered trailer side to stabilize the horse, but most burn victims will require transport to a referral center designed to handle such injuries. "There truthfully is not a lot that horse owners can do to provide comfort while waiting on the vet," she noted.
The best is to try and move the horse to an area that is safe, quiet and away from traffic and the fire. Once the veterinarian arrives he or she will assess the situation and safely administer intravenous pain medications that work quickly in addition to administering sedation and fluids as needed.
"I often come across people blowing down the interstate with their horses' windows wide open and a big hay net hanging in front of them. It always concerns me," she said, "Careless drivers throw cigarettes out of a window...then they blow back and with no screen and an open window, land right in that horse's hay net. Boom! Trailer fire."
Based on research conducted in a wind tunnel, trailer fires started by tossed cigarette butts come from the vehicle towing the trailer, not a passing motorist. "It is statistically not possible for a butt thrown from another vehicle to end up in the trailer," Gimenez noted.
Your knowledge of horse first aid is essential
Being prepared is the key to escaping trailering accidents with as few injuries as possible. Pack extra halters, lead ropes towels or blankets. "I think so much of how the situation turns out is a direct reflection of how much preparation has been put into that trip to begin with," Embly said.
Pack a first aid kit that includes the basics such as roll cotton, gauze pads, adhesive leg wraps, scissors, hemostats, exam gloves, digital thermometer, antiseptic scrub solution, flashlight, permanent marker, pliers, white medical tape and a stethoscope. "Stock emergency medical supplies in a bag and then tie the bag shut so that no one is tempted to use anything from it while at a show," Romero suggested.
An owner or handler that is able to take a horse's vital signs can provide critical details to a veterinarian over the phone. "It is helpful if the handler can give an overall basic assessment. All owners should become familiar with how to take a horse's temperature, pulse and respiratory rate." Embly added.
A horse owner that can assess the horse's mucous membranes will be able to provide additional information. This can be done as easily as looking at the horse's gums. "Normally, the mucous membranes of a horse should be pink and moist, and if you depress an area, the color should return back to that area within about two seconds," she explained.
Horse owners unfamiliar with recording a horse's vital signs or interpreting mucous membranes can ask their regular veterinarian to demonstrate each while on a regular farm call.
Preparing begins with prevention
Skipping routine maintenance and overloading trailers are "setting up dangerous situations for the horses being towed," she said, "make sure you have a large enough towing vehicle, an appropriate trailer and don't overload the trailer. People load more weight in the nose of the trailer than in the back where the horses are and that was never the intention of manufacturers."
Resources are available through USRider and Hitch-Up Magazine, which provide pre-trip checklists and safety tips to ensure that every trip with the trailer is a safe trip.
Any type of shipping boot including a proper Pony Club full wrap, a sports medicine boot or Velcro shipping boots protect the horse's legs during transportation. "Horses survive the wreck, it is lower leg injuries with complications that lead to the horse being euthanized," Gimenez said.
Create a map of the route you will be traveling and on the map, have contact information for veterinary hospitals/veterinarians you will pass, as well as one or two stables which might be able to take the horses in on a short term basis, Romero added.
"As for people not involved in the accident, the number one item that they can carry with them is a cell phone," Romero added, "even if you don't stop, calling for help is something that can be done easily from the road with a hands free headset."