Buddy the Belgian found himself in a precarious situation on an atypically warm day for early December. First, let me tell you a little about Buddy. Buddy is a retired draft horse gelding in his late teens, early twenties with an arthritic right front knee. He is a pasture mate to another horse Blue, both owned by Wayne Christiansen and cared for by Wayne’s son Mike and daughter in law Donna on the old Christiansen homestead north of Fort Collins. Buddy gets around on his arthritic knee fairly well and only occasionally needs a little “bute” to get by.
Buddy was out on pasture and did not come up for his breakfast that warm Saturday morning of December 6th 2003. That worried Donna for that was not like Buddy not to be up for breakfast. Donna went out and found dear Buddy lying in the creek bottom that runs through the pasture, on his side, under a large cottonwood tree unable to get up. The unthinkable thoughts of Buddy possibly colicing or worse, having a broken leg, went through Donna’s mind. That is when Donna called Equine Medical Service and paged myself Dr. Landes, the doctor on call for the weekend. When I arrived Buddy was lying calmly in a marshy area of the creek bottom. Donna, Mike and myself assessed the situation to see what we could do to get Buddy out.
Buddy was on his left side, feet pointing to a high embankment where the cottonwood tree stood. On the other side of Buddy about 10 feet away was a three-foot wide, one-foot deep channel of water and beyond that 20 to 30 yards of expanse of dried cattail marsh. Not much water was flowing in the creek, but enough was soaking in to create a sticky situation where Buddy was lying now. All but his left hind leg could be seen and it was presumed that it was folded underneath Buddy. Having seen many older horses down in the mud before, most just need to be rolled over from one side to the other and prodded to stand up. It seems that when a horse lays for a long period of time on one side that their legs go to sleep much like ours and rolling them onto their other side helps them regain their feet. After several unsuccessful attempts to roll Buddy over, I figured that we just could not break the suction of a 1500-pound horse from the mud. When other mechanical means could not budge him, it was decided that we would have to pull him out of his mired mess.
We attached a rope from Buddy’s front legs and attempted to pull him free with Mike’s truck. All we could do was turn Buddy’s body 90°, but could not free him or “find” his left hind leg. It was time to call for backup, for it was going to take more than the three of us to free Buddy. Dr. Altman was my backup and was soon on the scene. We promptly placed Buddy under general anesthesia, worked to free up Buddy’s left hind limb which was buried about five feet deep in mud. Then with Mike driving his farm tractor, using multiple ropes for assistance we pulled Buddy free across the 30 yards of dried marsh onto the opposite creek bank.
The story of Buddy’s rescue does not end there. Now we must recover the horse from anesthesia and get him to shelter for the next week or two to recuperate. Unfortunately his pen was about ½ a mile away and back across the creek. We would have to follow the creek downstream and away from the pen to cross a bridge and then follow an incline back towards the pen. Having his hind leg buried in the mud for a few hours, possibly longer and having it torqued around getting him un-mired he was sure to suffer some sort of nerve and/or muscle damage. With his already arthritic knee and a possibly useless hind leg, Buddy would be as stable as a three-legged table with one leg missing. After about an hour of attempting to get up Buddy was on all four feet, sort of.
I steadied his head while Mike propped him up on the right side, while Dr. Altman did the same on the left side. Now to move Buddy, I would coax him with a bucket of grain to move his front legs and right hind leg and Dr. Altman would advance his weak and almost paralyzed left hind leg with a rope around his pastern. Once his foot was placed, he could bear a slight amount of weight on it to advance his other feet. Buddy could only move three to four steps that way without having to rest a few minutes.
With perseverance and a lot of encouragement we were able to get Buddy from the creek bottom to his pen within an hour. Buddy was then treated for all his ills and left in good hands to start recuperating from his experience. The next day Buddy’s attitude was great and he was moving around a little bit primarily by dragging his left hind leg. Each day Buddy progressively got better and better. With a little medicine, a lot of good hay and a lot of TLC, Buddy is walking quite well today.
To see Buddy doing this well, reminds me of that Master Card commercial, “Bucket of grain: $1.50, replacing work boots ruined in the mud: $99.95, seeing Buddy walking on his own: priceless.”
Buddy’s Next Big Adventure
When we last visited Buddy, the Belgian, he was standing on all four feet in the pasture, eating away at his hay, recovering nicely from his encounter in the marshy bog. Then in mid January, there came yet another emergency call from Donna Christiansen, Buddy was down again! Donna thought maybe he went through the ice in an irrigation ditch. My first thought was, “Poor Buddy, not again!” I called the office to let Nancy know where I was going, but unfortunately, she thought I was joking. And why wouldn’t she think I was joking? After all, how many times can one horse get into a predicament like this? After much convincing, she finally realized that I was serious – that Buddy was indeed in trouble and I was on my way to see what I could do. Knowing that most irrigation ditches are not very deep, I thought, “How bad can this be?” Then, I remembered that this was Buddy we were talking about.
When I arrived, Donna took me back into the pasture along an embankment next to a large irrigation canal. The canal was 15-20 feet wide and had 7-8 feet high steep banks. Earlier in the week, the canal had some water flowing through it, but with freezing night temperatures and cold days, a strong sheet of ice had formed. There lay Buddy, on a thick sheet of ice, close to the bank where we stood. It looked as if Buddy had stumbled and fell down the steep bank and was now lying on his right side. Unfortunately, this was also the side with the arthritic knee. We were in need of a good plan to get Buddy on his feet and out of the canal. Mike, Donna’s husband, joined us and we developed the plan to roll Buddy over onto his other side and see if he could get up. After a lot of slipping and sliding, we were only getting him further into the middle of the canal. We realized it was time for “Plan B”. We thought it might be possible to slide Buddy 300-400 feet down the canal to a low spot on the bank, and see if we could get him to walk out of the canal. When we had pulled Buddy some 10-15 feet down the ice, out from the middle of the canal and to the jagged and steep bank, we knew we needed a different plan.
In the meantime, Donna sought the help of the Larimer County Search and Rescue. They were already familiar with Buddy, as Donna had talked with them earlier about the prior incident. The members of Search and Rescue told Donna that they had rescued a couple of horses recently in similar dilemmas as Buddy’s. They were willing to come out and help with Buddy in this new predicament. Also, Dr. Altman arrived and agreed that more was going to be needed to get Buddy out of the canal. Search and Rescue members began to arrive and we contemplated the idea of lifting Buddy off of the ice. First, we needed some sort of machinery with an extendable boom that could lift 1500 to 2000 pounds straight up and then rotate Buddy over and place him onto dry ground.
Next, we needed some sort of harness to put on Buddy to safely attach him to the machinery to lift him up. Phone calls started going out to find the two items we needed to save Buddy. Time was becoming critical, because the longer Buddy lay on his side, the more muscle damage would occur. As the ice began to melt under him, the colder he would get, creating a tremendous opportunity for hypothermia to set in. This would create the potential for severe muscle damage and frostbite. We started to cover Buddy with horse blankets and began massaging his shoulders and legs to help with circulation.
Within minutes, we had a sling from Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital, especially made to lift and hold horses up during rescues such as this. Front Range Excavating was sending a backhoe with an extendable boom. When all the necessary equipment had arrived, Buddy was rolled over into the sling, sedated and blindfolded, and then lifted out of his personal ice arena onto solid ground. After touch down, Buddy was un-strapped and walked back to his paddock where he was examined and treated for minor problems. Once again, a successful rescue was achieved. Many thanks go out to all who volunteered their time and resources to help “Buddy”.