Cold water rescues are a regular part of ongoing training for departments in northern tier states; but on Tuesday, March 16, the Johnson Creek Fire and EMS Department was called to a through-the-ice cold water rescue that was a 'horse of a different color.'
The mid-afternoon page directed the department volunteers to a scene north of the village of Johnson Creek, Wisconsin where a horse named Katie had fallen through the ice covering a farm pond. And Katie isn't just any horse. She is a Percheron draft horse weighing in at a little over 1800 pounds and measuring just shy of six feet at the shoulders. To top it off, Katie was pregnant.
About 20 fire and EMS personnel arrived and treated the incident like the cold water rescue they train to do...for humans. But they immediately did as departments do on the majority of calls, adapted and modified efforts to accommodate the situation.
Horse owners Gary and Connie Milbrath speculated that the horse could have been in the water - with her head above the ice - for up to an hour. With water temperatures about as cold as it can get while still remaining liquid, even a large horse is subject to the effects of hypothermia.
Efforts were hampered when it was found that the land immediately surrounding the pond was extremely soft and too muddy for any apparatus to get close. So a harness of sorts was fashioned to be a part of lines placed behind the horse's hind legs. The strategy was to chop through the several inches of ice and bring the hole closer to the shoreline then help pull her out.
Katie did start to show signs of hypothermia, and with her eyes rolling back and head beginning to sway it became important to get her out quickly so that it could happen partially under her own power. With no apparatus to pull out or winch a line, about a dozen firefighters grabbed the lines and hauled away while verbally encouraging the mare to start climbing out.
The combined efforts worked as a last surge of equine strength along with a joint effort by the firefighters helped four hooves to step out on to the shore.
Katie stayed on her feet and walked back to her pen with one of her owners. Checking back later that evening owner Gary Milbrath said that Katie was shivering on and off for about an hour after getting out of the frigid water, but was eating hay immediately and that there were no signs that it had an impact on the horse's pregnancy.
He noted that their veterinarian indicated the horse's core temperature had dropped about two degrees. "The fire department was just awesome. I can't say enough to thank them." Milbrath said of the Johnson Creek Fire and EMS volunteers.
Department chief Tim Whitham pointed out "The biggest effort was to keep fresh people out there in order to keep chopping through the ice with axes and sledge hammers." It was an interesting and unique call, but Whitham noted that it shouldn't overshadow that the department and all fire departments are faced with protecting and saving human lives every day.