CULPEPER — Enticed by piles of fresh food, a horse on a farm near Luray this past week pushed her way into a barn and trotted up the stairs to the hayloft for a prolonged breakfast.
Getting Holly — a 12-year-old Welsh Percheron cross — down would prove much more challenging, requiring heavy equipment and the assistance of Culpeper County’s own Little Fork Volunteer Fire & Rescue Large Animal Rescue Team — the only volunteer team of its type in all of Virginia.
The four-hour rescue ended successfully, but only after careful planning and maneuvering.
“It’s a challenge to rescue an animal that could possibly harm or kill you. It’s just totally different from anything else that we do,” said Little Fork Fire Chief Doug Monaco, one of four from the local company who responded o Monday’s call, about an hour away.
“For us to come up on an animal that’s trapped or trapped and injured, they’re under duress, they’re not going to act like they do when they’re just standing there.”
The call for help came into the Rixeyville station around 9:40 a.m. The horse’s owner, who prefers to remain anonymous, learned about the large animal rescue team by searching Google, calling to seek their assistance after Holly spent the night in the loft, her “she-shed,” Monaco joked.
“Every once in a while, she would make horse noises because she missed her buddies,” he said.
But traversing the narrow steps back down seemed nearly impossible and certainly unsafe. According to Monaco, horses have poor depth perception, making it a dangerous proposition.
According to Science Focus, an online magazine of the BBC, it is widely believed that horses and cows cannot walk down steeply sloped stairs. That’s because the animals cannot easily see the ground right at their feet and the design of their hips and knees makes it hard to shift their weight backwards to stop them tumbling head first down the steps. In the case of shallower stairs, horses have been known to traverse them without trouble, the magazine stated.
For Holly, the barn steps in question, in addition to being steep, had a 90-degree turn in them.
A few strategies to get Holly back on ground level were considered, including leading her down the stairs or taking the wall out and building a ramp to slide her down onto the ground, which would have taken a lot of time, Monaco said.
At this point, members of the Luray Fire Department, who were assisting on the scene, said that a neighbor was willing to lend his telehandler boom lift to hoist Holly from a porch on the front of the barn.
The neighbor, Garrett Moyer, posted on Facebook the next day, “I’ve unloaded a lot of things with this machine, but this was my first horse.”
Before Holly was unloaded, a porch railing had to be removed, and she was sedated by a local veterinarian prior to being outfitted with lifting straps and a head protector. The animal was moved under the bucket and the slings were attached to a spreader bar. The crucial moment approached as Holly was lifted about four feet off the porch, after which a tagline was attached to the rigging and dropped down to the ground crew, Monaco described.
“Holly seemed apprehensive when she was moved off the porch and found herself 20 feet off the ground, but she remained calm and was slowly lowered,” he said.
Once on the ground, the slings were removed and the horse walked away, completing another successful rescue led by Little Fork. Monaco said the company’s Facebook post about the operation has since gone viral, reaching thousands.
“It’s such an oddity, it really is, to have a horse in a hayloft,” he said.
Luray Fire Department Chief Mark Lancaster said it was the first time they had responded to such a call, describing the scene as strange and different. What is not uncommon, he added, is for fire companies to collaborate. Lancaster said he was glad to see the horse placed safely on the ground, noting the crew from Little Fork “did a fine job.”
It was not the first time Little Fork had conducted such a rescue. Two years ago, they similarly helped a sedated horse stuck upstairs in a barn in Botetourt County by sliding the horse on a blanket down a much wider set of steps.
Little Fork Fire & Rescue is strictly volunteer and operates from donations. For more information, visit littleforkvfrc.org.