The Modern Equine Vet
September 2023
Vol 13 Issue 9 2023
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Horse Rescue

Moving the Needle on Horse Rescue

By Landon Gray, September 2023

When rescuing equids from mud, use a Nicopolous needle instead of jumping into the hole yourself, suggested Rebecca Husted, PhD, the primary instructor and president of Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue, in Macon, Ga.

This simple idea—hatched from Dino Nicopolous, DVM, of Shelby, N.C.—calls for a large suture needle attached to a pilot line, passed underneath the stuck animal, to guide webbing beneath the sternal area to precipitate a safe and effective rescue.

“And the best thing is you can make it out of something simple,” Dr. Husted, PhD, said

Mud rescues can be extremely dangerous situations, not just for the animal, but for veterinarians and assisting crew. Dr. Husted advised veterinarians to bring a helmet.

“Part of it comes down to those crazy horse owners that are going to be putting you in this position, they think nothing of it, sending you down into a muddy hole that’s technically a confined space,” she said. “And if you’re a firefighter, they will tell you that this is a really dangerous place to be, and they don’t want you to be there, so don’t go in those kinds of places.”

Mud rescue is essentially a surface area problem, she explained. Due to the weight of the horse and the small size of their hooves, the weight is disproportionately spread and the horse sinks right into the mud.

“I’m more than 200 lbs, but I’m standing on 2 shoes that have more surface area on the bottom of my feet than the 1,000-pound horse,” Dr. Husted explained. Even if the horse has a slightly wider foot, “it still does not compensate for providing that amount of surface area. So, it’s basically a big 55-gallon drum on toothpicks, and it goes right into the mud.”

Digging should be avoided during mud rescues, because it will only exacerbate the problem, according to Dr. Husted. During a mud rescue, digging essentially buries the animal because with most types of muds, digging only refills the hole.

“You’re the veterinarian on scene or the vet tech that’s there, say, ‘Hey, guys, let’s stop doing this. Let’s come up with a better plan.’ And in the end, what we’re going to do is we’re going to use a huge suture needle called a Nicopolis needle.”

After formalizing the rescue plan around the Nicopolis needle, Dr. Husted instructed veterinarians to connect with the animal handler to gain head control. The next piece of advice is to not remove the saddle, as it can be helpful in guiding the webbing underneath the horse to the correct spot around the sternum. Webbing, not rope, around the sternal area prepares the animal for the ‘sideways drag’ out of the hole.

“These are the things I really want you to do: stay away from the fancy stuff, use something simple, get a helmet on, call the fire department and use some of your simple manipulations,” Dr. Husted concluded at the 69th annual convention of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, held in San Antonio, Texas. MeV


  • Assess the situation, call for resources, make a good plan, bring needed resources and personnel to the scene, and prepare for the extrication.
  • Develop a coordinated effort that is safe for horse and human. Communication is key.
  • Get scene lighting by fire/rescue early; they can provide medical rehabilitation, first aid, and heating and cooling resources for both people and animals.
  • Helmets should be worn when working with recumbent animals, especially by the animal handler. Have a lead rope and halter available
  • Control the head so the extricated animal does not get loose after extrication.
    Stay out of the mud!
  • Allow the animal to self-rescue where possible; first, remove obstacles such as trees or debris, but leave the legs, head and neck free to move so that the animal can balance itself and make active efforts to extricate itself.
  • Plywood or other slick substrates are not recommended to be placed in front of the horse
  • Do not attach slings or webbing to the head, neck, tail, or legs to pull. The abdomen and chest are better anchor points for webbing or slings.
  • Do not use the tail as an attachment point for any mechanical manipulations and do not tie it to anything
  • Use blindfolds while horses are recumbent to protect the downside eye and relax the animal.
  • Sedation and/or anesthesia should be carefully evaluated by the practitioner.
  • Use wide, flat webbing with looped ends or continuous loops (instead of ropes) for any type of manipulation.
  • Animals can be rolled laterally onto the ground pads, rescue glide sled, or a tarp for sliding to solid ground.
  • Assists and drags/slides employed by the responder are most effective.
  • Always treat dead and live animals respectfully.

Webbing is safer than rope for pulling a horse out of the mud.

Getting the webbing around the horse.
Images courtesy of Dr. Rebecca (Gimenez) Husted