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Horse rescued after snowy ordeal, with an intro by our Director

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

We rescue, were are not supposed to be rescued.

They day started like any other winter morning, cold and blanketed with snow. I had had a late night the evening before up at town hall, as I also sit on the town's Zoning Board of Review. Those meetings can be brutal and all I wanted was to get the volunteers started and make one more cup of coffee.

I didn't get one. Two hours later, I was pinned between Johnny and a fence, trying to keep him from cutting his face and hitting his head. There were moments it felt like him or me and I chose him. I knew I was the only one that could keep him calm...especially with chainsaws buzzing inches from his ears.

Four hours later, I had the feeling that I lost a boxing match, a cracked iPhone screen, toes that felt like they were truly frozen, and we were left with sixteen feet of missing fencing, a dismantled wildlife hutch, a broken halter, a horse that now needs one-hour checks every day, and that was all with the help of six firefighters, five volunteers and the town ACO.

I practiced law for twenty years. That was so easy compared to this.

The ACO made a point of telling me I did a good job keeping it together. I knew that I could - what I couldn’t handle was how helpless I felt. I’ve handled everything Johnny has ever needed, finding the right balance of supplements, shots, wound care, his hoof care, etc. and I’ve gotten him up off the ground dozens of times over the years when has had trouble but I couldn’t help him this time. And I didn’t need to burden just one person, I had to rely on a dozen. That’s frightens me. It makes me think. I weigh 100 pounds soaking wet and I just turned 50. And my volunteers think I’m super woman. A rock star. Totally kick-ass.

I am none of those things. I'm just me. I just hope that is always good enough.

-Wendy Taylor

Video by Elysia Rodriguez

By Bruce Burdett

TIVERTON — Thursday got off to a bad start for Just Johnny (Johnny for short), West Place Animal Shelter’s oldest (at 32) and longest-term (12 years) resident.

Apparently when he went to get up in the morning, his legs went out from under him on the wooden barn floor, and no amount of struggling would get him to his feet. The fact that navicular syndrome has left him a bit lame in a lower leg and hoof probably didn’t help.

And that’s where a sanctuary volunteer found him at around 9 a.m. on his side, his face bloodied thanks to slamming his head against a feed box in his efforts to stand.

The volunteer alerted sanctuary owner Wendy Taylor, and together they and others, Ms. Taylor’s husband Tom among them, spent the next hour trying to help Johnny to his feet.

“He did seem like he was in some discomfort and he was getting tired,” Ms. Taylor said, who added that the eyebrow cuts seemed minor.

“A few times he almost made it up, but every time he stumbled forward a few feet and back to the ground.”

Lunge by lunge, he worked his way out a side door and into the snow.

“We actually thought that being outside the barn would help him gain his footing, and it might have, except there was just enough ice under the snow that it didn’t work,” Ms. Taylor said.

Each attempt took Johnny, who weighs nearly 1,000 pounds, a bit further down the slight slope outside the barn, until he found himself wedged in a corner between two fences and a wildlife hutch.

“He kept flailing, and I was afraid he would get his legs stuck between fence railings or in the screening.”

“That’s when it really hit us that he was in a bad spot. We tried to keep a blanket under him for warmth, but it was hard to see how he was getting out of it.”

“We’re pretty savvy about these things, we have experience, we have a tractor, a backhoe, but we needed more.”

At 10:07 a.m., Ms. Taylor called the Tiverton Fire Department, and within minutes a crew had arrived in several vehicles.

There was talk about using a sedative, but with no veterinarian immediately available, they opted against that. Instead, a veterinarian offered advice to the rescuers by phone.

All involved soon agreed that the only way to get Johnny out of this fix was to remove the obstructions — take apart the fence and the almost brand new wildlife hutch that had been built to shelter spring’s rescued and orphaned wildlife.

Even with chainsaw and pry bars, that took an hour and a half; the effort was slowed a bit by the need to avoid frightening or injuring the stuck horse.

At one point, Ms. Taylor said she became quite worried about the horse. “He was exhausted, wet and cold, he wasn’t moving, his eyes were closing.” But she gave him a peppermint to see the response “and he perked right up again.” She gave him another.

The obstructions out of the way, they put ropes around Johnny’s legs, rolled him over into a better position, and, with Ms. Taylor holding his lead and others supporting him as best they could, he struggled to his feet.

“He faltered a little, but with everyone helping, he made it up. You could tell his back legs were very unsteady,” Ms. Taylor said.

“Then, just like that, he gingerly walked back up to the barn. He started eating and drinking right away.”

That afternoon, they dried him with a hair dryer, covered him in warm blankets and let him rest.

Ms. Taylor said she felt “like I went through a couple rounds of a boxing match with bruises to the shoulders, jaw, ribs, neck and probably more places I’ll find later.”

She said she is most grateful to the firefighters without whose help, “I don’t know how this would have turned out.”

“Here we are, an animal rescue, and we needed rescue today.”

Horse training paid off

Fire Department Lt. Andrew Kettle, captain of that morning’s shift, said that when they arrived it was evident that Johnny was indeed in a bad spot.

“He was jammed up in the corner on a slope with his feet pointed uphill, so there was no way he could get his feet under him.”

But “some of the tips and tricks” learned in a Massachusetts SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) training exercise a few years ago at Seapowet Stables on East Road proved valuable. That training happened not long after firefighters worked hours to free a horse named Whiskey who had become stuck in a manner quite similar to Johnny’s situation — In Whiskey’s case, his legs were stuck between fence railings at Seapowet Stables.

Part of that training focused on the need to keep the big animal keep as calm as possible. In this instance, Johnny was quite agitated at first, but “seemed to settle” thanks to the efforts of Ms. Taylor and the firefighters, Lt. Kettle said. “Part of the training was learning how not to spook them.”

“Once we got him rolled the right way, he was able to get up pretty quickly with some help.” Lt. Kettle said he’s been involved in a number of animal rescues over the years, including a few horses. It’s all part of the job in a town like Tiverton, he said. Fire engines, it turns out, carry a number of items that are most helpful in rescues of large animals — fire hose can serve as strong and relatively soft sling and and rope, and engines also have winches to help with pulling, cutting tools, backboards and more.

Other firefighters involved in the rescue were Acting Chief Bruce Reimels, Lt. Robert Gagnon, firefighter TJ Gagnon, firefighter Richard Silva, and firefighter Jason Sargent.


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