Palm Beach County Fire Rescue crews knew they had their hands full as they drove up to a barn at Gulfstream Polo Club in suburban Lake Worth on a spring afternoon in 2013.
The building was completely engulfed in fire — “not one inch” was spared from the blaze, the club’s president told The Palm Beach Post at the time.
That March 9 fire nearly five years ago at what was the oldest polo club in Florida killed seven horses and wounded four others. It also posed a unique challenge for Fire Rescue crews who train primarily to rescue humans, not horses.
But saving horses is part of the training.
Palm Beach County Fire Rescue crews in the western communities use a combination of their own knowledge of horses, training and operations to determine the best way to rescue a horse, whether from a barn fire, pond, mud or pool, District Chief William Rowley said. Rowley oversees Fire Rescue Battalion 2, which includes Wellington, Royal Palm Beach, The Acreage and Loxahatchee Groves.
“If you look at the demographics of where our stations are, especially in this battalion, it’s not unlikely you have a horse person on a crew,” he said. “You have people who have some familiarity.”
In 2016 fire at the South Florida Trotting Center, trainers were able to rescue 11 horses from 30-foot flames that leapt from the barn. Twelve horses died.
A challenge in barn fires is the dry hay that help fuel fires into raging infernos.
“No matter how immaculate you keep a barn, you still have lots of bales of hay to start with, you have bedding that can burn,” Rowley said. “It really all depends on what started the fire and how soon it’s detected.”
The most common types of equine rescues, though they remain few and far between, are horses stuck in unusual positions, like an April 2017 incident when a horse in The Acreage got stuck in the mud. Or a horse that unwittingly moseyed onto the aging concrete lid of a septic tank and fell in.
“You end up lifting them with a wrecker,” he said, describing a pulley system attached to a Sisters Towing truck that lets a crew gently raise a 1,500-pound animal.
Battalion Chief Kenny Wooldridge was with Special Operations in 2006 when his crew responded to a call of a horse stuck in mud in suburban Boynton Beach. The 32-year-old, 2,000-pound Palomino named Cyboy was up to his belly when crews arrived.
“The primary challenge in equine rescue is not injuring the animal in the process,” Wooldridge said. “We didn’t know if the horse would survive the rescue attempt, but he ended up doing great.”
A Palm Beach Post file photo shows Wooldridge shaking hands and smiling with Cyboy’s owner, Ronald Armstrong, as the horse looks on. Wooldridge and his team won that year’s Red Cross Animal Rescue Award for their efforts to free Cyboy.
“I’m proud of watching the personnel over there do these calls,” Rowley said. “It’s normally a really good outcome.”
Wooldridge attributes some of his skills to a three-day equine rescue course he took several years ago. Fire Rescue crews were taught how to get horses out of ponds and mud, and how to put a lead and blinders on a horse. They also were shown ways to right an overturned horse trailer, when the horse still is inside.
“You really can’t remove the horse from the trailer safely, so you have to right the trailer with the horse inside,” Wooldridge said. “They show you a whole rope system on how to do that.”
Fire Rescue calls in veterinarians to assist on equine rescues to give the horses a mild sedative to make it easier for crews to maneuver straps and ropes around the massive animals.
Such rescues have an effect on the responding crews, Rowley said, and they take care with making sure they do the work with care.
“There’s a lot of compassion when it comes down to dealing with the animals,” he said.