Emergency personnel and local volunteers came together in Marion Tuesday to perform what is being described as a miracle, saving the life of a horse that had been submerged up to its head in icy water for hours.
The 20-year-old quarter horse gelding, Henry, is expected to make a full recovery, but his rescue was a harrowing ordeal that took nearly 20 rescuers more than seven hours to complete with the help of three fire trucks, two county animal control officers and heavy equipment from Montana Rockworks and Murphy’s Excavating.
Kim Hanson, who has owned Henry since 2005, said everything seemed fine Monday evening when she fed Henry his usual evening meal at 6 p.m. When she returned to feed him again at 2 p.m. Tuesday, Henry was nowhere to be seen.
“I yelled for him, and I heard him whinny, which is not normal. He is usually the first one there eating. Then I saw him, with just his head and part of his neck out of the water,” Hanson said. “I just panicked. He is the most important thing in my life right now and I felt like I had just killed him. I just burst into tears because it would have torn me up to lose him. It was scary.”
Not sure exactly what to do, Hanson quickly called her sister, Shawna Stickney, who set to work making calls asking for help. The response was quick, not only from the fire department, but also from friends, family and strangers from around the Marion area who were determined to do whatever it took to save the horse.
“People just kept showing up to help. There were people in wetsuits in the water bailing it out. There was heavy equipment that showed up,” Hanson said. “It was a lot of good people giving a lot of good help. It was amazing.”
While the help came quickly, it did not look good for the horse that was nearly fully submerged in a swampy, water-filled area near the Little Bitterroot River.
“He was pretty much dead when we got there. He was in really rough shape, there is no doubt about that,” Marion Fire Department Chief Katie Mast said. “There were points when I think everyone thought it was a futile effort, but we just kept at it.”
The rescue efforts began even before the fire department arrived, as family friend George Bryant showed up with a Jeep, battling the snow and cold while using a winch in the hopes of freeing Henry from the ice. When that didn’t work, the fire department and volunteers set to work trying to break up the ice around the trapped horse and bailing out the freezing water.
Nearly two hours into the rescue, with the help of a loader from Montana Rockworks and an excavator from Murphy’s Excavating, Henry was finally pulled from the water, but the danger was far from over. Exhausted from struggling hours in the water, Henry was unable to stand, and the horse trailer that could transport him to safety sat nearly 200 yards away across icy, uneven ground.
When LaSalle Equine Clinic’s Dr. Robert Genovese arrived on scene, the situation was bleak.
“He was extremely hypothermic and weak and unable to stand on his own. He was in shock and we had big hurdle to overcome in order to save him,” Genovese said.
Genovese and others quickly covered the horse in heated blankets and began massaging his fatigued muscles, hoping to help him reach his feet. As they worked, Genovese checked Henry’s vital signs, finding that his temperature would not even register on his field thermometer.
Undaunted, the crews continued to work, finally getting Henry on his feet with the help of the heavy equipment. Finally, Henry was able to hold his own weight and slowly made his way up the hill to the horse trailer, where he collapsed once again before being able to get inside.
After another round of blankets and massages, Henry was finally helped into the trailer and was transported to the Marion Fire Hall, roughly five hours after being freed from the ice.
Once at the fire hall, Henry received 40 liters of warm intravenous fluid over a six-hour period, which finally raised his core temperature above 90 degrees by morning - below the usual 99, but on the rise.
After spending Wednesday at the LaSalle Equine Clinic, Henry is still suffering from severe muscle myopathy, reduced kidney function and a cough from having water in his lungs, but is expected make a full recovery.
“The muscles should heal well on their own and we were able to treat the kidneys in a timely enough fashion that I think we will be able to reverse the kidney dysfunction. At this point, I would give him a good prognosis,” Genovese said. “It was a nothing short of a miracle. I can’t believe we were able to get him out of there and that he survived. I can’t say that I have ever dealt with an animal before that was in this kind of condition and was able to pull through.”
Genovese credits the positive outcome to the quick and determined response of the Marion Fire Department and volunteers as well as Henry’s unbelievable will to survive.
“The Marion Fire Department showed a lot of courage and they were all very empathetic. What they were able to accomplish with the help of everyone that showed up was incredible,” he said. “Henry had an incredible will to live. Most horses in his position would have given up, but you could see the bond between him and Kim and I really think her being there the whole time really helped him keep going.”
As for Mast and the Marion Fire Department, they were glad to be able to help.
“It became more than a horse rescue for us. It became a story of hope and healing. Emergency responders throughout the Flathead Valley are known for their dedication and strength, and will respond day and night when people are dealing with their worse moments and situations,” Mast said. “Sometimes the outcomes are out of our hands no matter how hard we work to change that. No matter how strong and dedicated, these stories still take a toll on the responders. On Monday, the thought of ever giving up on Henry was not anywhere on our minds. We had one thing in mind and that was getting Henry warm and dry to give his owner the peace of mind that he would be OK.”
Reporter Jeremy Weber may be reached at 758-4446.