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Rescuing an Upside-Down Horse

When the 19-year-old bay horse, Bantry Bay, affectionately called Jay Bird, didn’t show up for his noon feeding last Saturday at Chesterden Farm in Potomac, his grooms went to look for him. Searching the paddock they were not prepared for the sight they discovered.

Jay Bird lay upside-down in a ditch. Four legs in the air, he stared up at his handlers as they looked down in shock. The horse had fallen into a crevice that had eroded from the heavy rains.

No one saw it happen. “Evidently, he had been rolling in the grass and rolled over into the ditch and fell in on his back,” said Holly Chester, owner of the riding school. It was narrow enough for him to be suspended so that he could not move to get out.

It took four hours, a neighbor, three fire and rescue companies, a horse rescue team, a vet and a crane to hoist the 1,200-pound horse to safety.

“We like to think we are pretty much prepared for anything,” said Pete Piringer, County Public Information Officer for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service. “But, this was a bit unusual.” He attributes team effort of everyone and the quick actions of Chester and the people at the farm with saving the horse.

In her lifetime of experience with horses, there is not much to surprise her, said Chester. Calling instructions to her riding students from under a wide-brimmed hat, she wields her no-nonsense style with Auntie Mame flair. But, Saturday took all Chester’s reserves. “It was the worst day of my life, horrible, horrible.”

In the first shocking minutes of discovery, Chester dialed 911. They said they could not help with a horse. She called Animal Control. They did not handle horses. Desperate, she called a neighbor.

Larry Gaddis lives down Stoney Creek Road in a house flanked by eight antique fire trucks. He is a fireman to his roots. Currently the Bethesda Fire Chief, he began volunteer fire fighting as a 10 year old and never quit. As a career fireman, he logged 22 years, is retired but still jolts out the door at the first alert.

Saturday was no different. A call from a friend and he was off. Chester told him the problem and he called his friends at the Cabin John Fire Department Station 30 on Falls Road. Capt. Bob Hough responded and soon the trucks roared into place. “We all love animals and I and all the other guys give what we can in these emergencies,” said Gaddis.

More response from more companies: The Rockville Station 31 at Quince Orchard, Germantown Station 29, River rescue out of station 30, then Days End Horse Rescue in Lisbon, Md., Digging and Rigging Crane Co. and Dr. Pete Radue of Damascus Equine. There were a total of two dozen rescue workers on the scene.

Chester had already sedated the horse while fire and rescue assessed the situation. “I figured we would have to improvise,” said Piringer.

It was a firefighter who thought of Days End Horse Rescue. She had recently attended one of their training sessions for fire and rescue personnel that demonstrate how to handle extreme situations with large animals.

Days End Horse Rescue has been in operation since 1989. Its mission is to rescue horses that have been abused, but in working with the various agencies throughout Maryland they discovered that other emergencies needed their expertise. “Our motto is protection for horses and education for people,” said Allan Schwartz, owner of the farm.

The Days End team arrived with a piece of equipment called an Anderson Sling, which is made for air lifting horses. That proved to be the magic carpet for Jay Bird, that along with the crane. Since fire and rescue have contacts to address most situations, a company with a 40-ton crane was an option.

To accommodate the crane, fire and rescue dismantled the fence and moved dirt to stabilize it. Days End workers and firefighters attached the sling, a giant platform with straps descending, to the horse’s feet and head. “Days End had a level of expertise that was welcomed,” said Piringer. “Once all the prep was done, the rest went smoothly. By 3 p.m. we were ready.”

Dr. Pete Radu, of Damascus Equine, had been standing by administering fluids, an anti-inflammatory and various levels of sedation. For the lift out, he sedated the horse one last time. They hoisted the Jay Bird high above the ground and gently lowered him to the grass.

“He didn’t move a muscle,” said Radu. “Having access to that crane and sling made it much safer. It couldn’t have worked any slicker between Days End and the fire company teams.”

Getting a horse out of tight situation isn’t always the same as saving the horse, Radu said.

“This was straight out of Animal Planet rescues,” said Radu, adding that many of horses that go through traumatic rescues will die soon after. “Here, everyone worked so carefully that the results were positive.”

“When they put him down he appeared to have a grin on his face,” said Peringer. Jay Bird lay there for 10 minutes, got up and ambled off to the barn.

Once in his stall he neighed for his dinner and proceeded to eat. “He is a sweet horse who is smart and wise and sensible,” said Chester. “All these wonderful people, especially Larry [Gaddis] saved his life. Larry is an asset to this community, whether it is Potomac or Stoney Creek Road.”

Jay Bird, a former show jumper, is a ladies’ pleasure horse owned by Deborah Nolan of Bethesda. Nolan was in Florida at the time of the incident.

“He is a pretty laid-back guy,” said Nolan, who groomed him on next day. “If it had to happen to someone, it was better for it to be him. He is doing fine with hardly a scratch.”