The following article is reprinted from Endurance News magazine, monthly publication of the nonprofit American Endurance Ride Conference, www.aerc.org, 866-271-2372. The rescue was executed on an incredible endurance ride called Mendocino Magic and is written by the ride manager, with an afterword by Dr. Melissa Ribley.Everything about this rescue has a lesson in it. It is a thoroughly written article with the lessons learned well pointed out.It is always a challenge for us to find the “simple and safe” solution. This is a perfect example of an absolutely great rescue, where all resources all called on, and the simplest solution is found.Thanks very much to Cynthia and AERC news for permission for us all to learn from a job well done!
Lessons Learned in the Dark by Cynthia Ariosta
At this year’s Mendocino Magic ride, experienced horseman and veterinarian Melissa Ribley had the unthinkable happen—a tumble off the trail in the darkness. How Melissa and Sakajawea endured, and what was learned by all present—riders, veterinarians, volunteers and ride manager Cynthia Ariosta—should be required reading for every endurance rider who ventures out after dark.
BY CYNTHIA ARIOSTA
Magic ride, and while we thought we had done everything possible to ensure the safety of riders travelling in the dark, we still were holding our breath for the last rider to cross the finish line.
“Boscoe, Ribley, Ribley and Van Fossen are still on the trail,” Katie Holder, our ride
secretary, told us. Our little gathering of vets and friends agreed with us—these were seasoned riders, and would be adept at navigating the trail despite the pea-soup fog that had settled in on the mountain.
We were sure they would be in any minute, and that a call from Emily Bloom and Steve Paul at the finish line a quarter- mile up the hill would soon confirm the last rider was in.
But the call we received was not what we expected. “Cynthia,” Emily said, “I’m putting Heather Van Fossen on the phone. Melissa Ribley’s horse has fallen off the trail and is 150 feet down in a ravine.” Heather got on the phone and told us that neither Melissa nor her horse had been injured, but they were unable to get the horse up the side of the mountain, and that the horse was precariously standing on a small ledge.
This was not what we had expected. This is the Mendocino Magic Ride, “The Magic,” as we call it. No tragedies can happen here along the coast, 175 miles north of San Francisco. We had covered every detail, gone over the course a million times, hung hundreds of glow sticks, cleared every eye-poking branch, and kept the last loop—the final six miles of the ride—close to camp on open logging roads and newly bulldozed skids with minimal technical trail.
I looked at Lari Shea, part of the group that had gathered with us, and passed along the message. “What ravine?” she said. Lari has been leading riding vacations and trail rides on these trails for over 25 years, and knows them like the proverbial back of her hand. My guess was as good as hers.
Melissa and her horse were both fine, but they were on a 10-foot ledge with drop-offs on three sides.
The scurrying began. We gathered flash- lights, men, women, ropes, first aid supplies. We met Heather as she was riding into camp, and she relayed to us a description of where Melissa was. She told us to drive cautiously, as Robert had his horse tied to a tree on the uphill side of the road.
I hopped on the ATV and headed out of camp with Rich Powers, the husband of our treatment vet, Dr. Jenn Powers, riding along. Lari and Forrest stayed in camp—Lari was the only other person who knew the trails and I knew it would be better if I could call her from the trails to let her know the site. She and Forrest could then rally a group and hopefully drive as close as possible with supplies.
It only took us 10 minutes to get to where Melissa and her horse went off the trail. As Heather had told us, Robert’s horse was tied on the side of the road. I couldn’t believe what had happened. This was a 25-foot wide logging road with a very moderate grade and great footing. We’d driven up it several
times during the day in our pick-up to refill the water troughs we had placed at the top of the mountain. It seemed the most impossible place to go off trail.
But there was Robert scrambling up the side of the mountain, clutching branches and underbrush to make his ascent. He relayed to us that Melissa and her horse were both fine, but that they were on a 10-foot ledge with drop- offs on three sides.
“I’ve been through things like this before,” Robert said, calmly. “We are going to need men, a harness, ropes, hay, water, food for us and the horse, blankets, and some Banamine. But I don’t think we are going to be able to get the horse out without a helicopter.”
He named a few men who were in camp with experience in this type of situation, in- cluding Greg Kimler and ride photographer Bill Gore. I called Lari with our location, and asked her to round up the supplies, Forrest, Greg and Bill, and head out to meet us.
It took no longer than 15 minutes for them to arrive. The course for the second day’s ride was due to ride past where Melissa and her horse were standing 150 feet below, so while Greg and Bill and the others helped get supplies to Melissa and Lari called our local fire department, Emily and I headed out on the ATV to change the ribbons and redirect the course for the next morning.
When we returned, the Fort Bragg Fire Department (FBFD) was on the scene. Na- than Orsi, chief officer on call that evening, assessed the situation and agreed that the only way to get the horse out would be an aerial rescue. But the type of rescue equipment neces- sary was unavail- able in this area.
My heart sunk. Where would we get a helicopter to get Melissa’s horse off of that ledge? The horse was standing on all four legs, eating and drinking and unharmed. We owed it to Sakajawea, and to Melissa, to get her out safely. Greg stepped in. He and Bill would spend the night on the logging road above Melissa and Robert to be there in case they needed anything. In the meantime, he told me that I needed to go back to camp and call the emergency line at U.C. Davis’ veterinary school. “Get in touch with Dr. John Madigan,” he said. “He heads up an emergency response team that does helicopter rescues of horses.” I had no idea that this resource was even
It was 2:30 a.m. by the time I rode back to
camp and called UCD. The operator patched me through to Dr. Madigan immediately. I explained the situation to him. He asked me lots of questions, trying to make an assess- ment over the phone of the best way to assist in this situation.
“Helicopter rescues are risky,” he said. “We want to make a daylight assessment to see if there is another way to get the horse out.” We discussed the terrain, the possibili- ties of cranes, booms, winches and skids. I told him that several experienced people, including the local fire department team, had told me that the helicopter was going to be the only way.
Dr. Madigan said he would be in touch with the FBFD to go over any details I may have missed, and to verify their assessment that an airlift rescue was necessary. Dr. Madigan and I were in contact every half-hour during the very long night.
By 5:30 a.m. he had decided to assemble a U.C. Davis team of vets and students trained in animal rescue, the VERT (Veterinary Emergency Response Team), and had found a private helicopter out of Sacramento that was available to do the rescue. They would be on the road by 8:00 a.m. While I drove back to give Melissa and
Robert the news, Forrest remained in camp, and with the help of several experienced ride managers who had volunteered to help, in- cluding Debbie Boscoe of the Fireworks Ride and Marianne Gerssing of the Chamberlain Creek Ride, got 70 riders out on the trail for Sunday’s events.
At the top of the mountain, Robert, Melissa, Bill and Greg were in good spirits, and relieved to hear that help was on the way. In the meantime, the forester for the property had arrived (responding to my early-morning call) to assess the situation. He too agreed that there were no old skid roads below the ledge on which Melissa’s horse was standing and that it was unlikely that the horse would get out any other way than an aerial lift.
He offered the nearby field that we used as the out vet check as a staging area for the helicopter, and helped me to get accurate GPS coordinates for both the field and Melissa’s horse. I relayed these to Dr. Madigan by text message, as by this time he and the team were on their way. I received a text message back that the VERT team would arrive around noon, with the helicopter not far behind.
Everything was set for the rescue, and Melissa and the “Ledge Team” were replete with food, water, coffee and the supplies necessary to wait for the VERT.
I had just returned to camp when Dr. Madigan called. The VERT was in Lake County, about two hours away. “We just received a call from your fire department,” he said. “Apparently, they are back on the mountain and have brought some men from CDF [California Department of Forestry].
“They have reassessed the situation and are building a trail,” he continued. “They think they will have the horse out within the hour. They’ve told us to turn around, and have called off the helicopter.”
I was stunned. How could this major change of events occur without my knowing? But it didn’t matter—the most important thing was getting Melissa’s horse off the ledge safely, and walking her up a trail was a lot less risky than an aerial lift.
“We are going to hold here in Lake County until we hear from you,” Dr. Madigan added. “Go back out there and call me. When you tell me to turn around, I will do so, but we’re not leaving Lake County until we get the word from you.”
Off I went. When I arrived on the moun- tain, there was a team of several men, includ-
ing Robert and Greg, Linwood Gil (the property’s forester) and a few volunteers from CDF and the fire department, building a trail.
It was amazing. Almost as soon as I arrived, we were making a “human wall” on the edge of the trail to help walk Melissa and her horse to safety. There were cheers and laughter and tears and hugs of joy as they walked up onto the logging road off of which they had fallen 13 hours before. There wasn’t a scratch on either Melissa or Sakajawea.
“I want to walk her to camp, walk her across the finish line,” Melissa said.
It was a jubilant moment, one I wanted to share with her. We had been connected by the night’s events. And so the three of us walked the last three miles back to camp, crossing the finish line safely, with a horse that looked like she hadn’t even been ridden. It was a “Magical” ending.
What I’ve learned:
1.It’s not over until… As a ride manager, your job is not done until your last rider crosses the finish line. That means no wine with ride dinner and no heading to bed until everyone is in safely. You have to be able to think clearly in a crisis situation, and you need to be around and available to everyone. Even when the situation is under control, you do not rest until that rider and horse are back in camp.
2. Trust the experts. If a rider goes off trail, find the people in camp who know how to deal with the situation, and listen
to their advice. In this instance, the riders involved knew more than we did. It makes no sense to have people trying to help out who aren’t experienced. Hasty decisions can lead to errors that can jeopardize the horse and rider. It was the collective experience of Melissa, Robert, Greg and Bill—and lots of patience—that helped to give this story a happy ending.
3. Search engine-less. It occurred to me, after the fact, that Melissa could have been riding alone and could have been the last rider out there. If she was overtime, we would have gone looking for her, but we would have taken the ATV. If that had been the situation, we would not have found her. There was no evidence on the road where she’d gone off trail, and her voice would never have carried up to the road to be heard over the engine. She wouldn’t have left her horse standing unattended on that ledge to climb up. If you are looking for a missing rider, you might be better off using a horse or going on foot.
4. Track your riders. Keep tracking sheets and know which riders, in all distanc- es, are still on the trail. Our tracking sheets would have been instrumental in knowing she was missing and where she may have been on the trail if she had been alone.
5. Emergency? Call the fire department. These men and women have been trained for emergencies, and may be able to offer assistance, despite their poten- tial lack of experience in large animal rescue.
In the end, the Fort Bragg Fire Department was instrumental in not only facilitating the U.C. Davis rescue team, but also in coordinat- ing efforts with VERT. They ultimately took responsibility for making the trail that got the horse and rider to safety.
6. Be forthright. You can’t keep the stories from spreading around camp and alarming other riders. Be honest and don’t try to hide what is happening from the guests at your ride. Things happen with horses—we all know and accept that as riders. Shrouding the truth in mystery just perpetuates fear. With knowledge there is power.
7. Know your rescue options.
Forrest and I did not know that U.C. Davis’ VERT existed. Luckily Greg Kimler did. While, in the end, VERT did not need to perform the aerial rescue, their cooperation with the Fort Bragg Fire Department and the Mendocino Magic ride management helped to ensure the successful outcome of this crisis. Knowing that VERT was available if all other options were ruled out gave those of us involved the confidence and security that the horse and rider would be brought to safety.
Cynthia Ariosta and Forrest Tancer, a West Region
regional director, manage the Mendocino Magic and Cooley Ranch rides in Northern California.
The Veterinary Emergency Response Team (VERT) had its beginnings in 1991, after John Madigan, DVM, MS, Diplomate ACVIM; Richard Morgan, a UCD veterinary technichian, and Charlie Anderson, a welder friend, created an improved sling for rescuing large animals.
Their first rescue came after they were called to assist in rescuing six mules and riders stranded on an October pack trip at 7000 feet in early Sierra Mountain snow. Since then, VERT has assisted in over 30 airlift rescues.
Students at Davis who are part of VERT get training with Sacramento Metro Fire helicopter service as part of Sac Metro fire training. This past year, VERT received a grant from CAL-EMA called “Animals
in Disasters: Train- ing for Emergency Responders.” This is the first Depart- ment of Homeland Security program to train firemen, animal services, police and sheriff ’s department personnel in safe emergency response to horse accidents.
VERT is training these emergency re- sponders in rescues related to roadway accidents with horse trailers as well as loose livestock in public places.
In addition, the VERT team is preparing a course to be offered nationally to emergency respond- ers in when and how to do equine emer- gency airlifts.
The goal of the VERT team is to train others. Many airlifts of horses go on each year now using VERT’s protocols. Currently, if a call comes in to the VERT team, they will consider aiding the coordination.
VERT has had direct consultation airlift assistance in many different states, including Idaho and Nevada, as well as internationally.
For more information about VERT, or to help bring VERT training to your community, contact Dr. John Madigan directly at the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California-Davis, Davis, CA 95616 or by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
U.C. Davis’ Veterinary Emergency Response Team
**My note to you: Charlie Andersen isn’t just a welder… he created the Andersen Sling and also has created an incredible Equine Ambulance.
WHAT THE VET HAD TO SAY:
BY MELISSA RIBLEY, DVM
Endurance riding is a sport that continues to impress me with its ability to provide me with learning opportunities whether I participate as a rider, ride manager or ride veterinarian. It seems as though there have been points in my career as an endurance rider where I begin to imagine that surely by now I must have this down pat. Then along comes a humbling experience that I like to look at as a “learning opportunity.” Some lessons are learned the hard way but by sharing these lessons we can help make the learning curve easier for others.
My most recent lesson occurred in the darkness of a 75-mile ride. This was a well-run, well-marked ride with very organized management. The riding conditions at night were such that there was little moonlight, heavy tree cover and fog. This combination culmi- nated in very little to no available light in which to ride by. I was carrying a flashlight but was not using it as I believed my horse Sakajawea could see the trail. She apparently could not, as she went off the soft edge of the road down a steep embankment where she fortunately landed on a ledge and was brought to safety the next morning.
Horses can and do see well in the dark, much better than people due to the anatomy of their eye which is very different than that of humans. Horses, as do many other animals, have a layer of tissue at the back of the eye called the tapetum lucidum which reflects light back through the eye increasing the available light. This improves vision in low-light conditions and contributes to the superior night vision of horses. For the tapetum to op- erate, however, there must be some degree of available light, even if faint. In complete and total darkness, the tapetum cannot operate and vision for the horse is impaired.
Many nighttime endurance rides will have some degree of light provided through moonlight or reflective light from nearby structures, etc. However, when conditions are such that there is virtually no available light, I was reminded of the fact that even horses that would otherwise see well during nighttime riding cannot see at all.
So here are the lessons I learned from my nighttime adventure with my horse:
1. Carry and use a headlamp when riding conditions are such that it is com- pletely dark with no visibility. Horses can see well even when we humans consider it to be too dark to see and we should take advantage of that, but in using a headlamp what I am referring to is the degree of darkness where you cannot see your horse’s head in front of you while riding. Horses do not adapt quickly from lightness to dark (or from darkness to light) so be cautious in turning your headlamp off and on as this will impair the horse’s vision. Also be courteous of other riders and horses that may be blinded by your light.
2. Value and support ride managers who demonstrate their ability to handle the toughest emergencies. A well-organized and prepared ride manager is invaluable to the rider in need.
3. Keep a calm and positive attitude when faced with an emergency on the trail.
Your clear thinking will help you come up with a solution to getting out of a tough situ- ation and your calm attitude will help keep your horse relaxed and safe during a crisis.
Nighttime riding on a 75- or 100-mile ride can be a beautiful and memorable expe- rience and is part of the allure of what makes the longer distance rides unique. With proper preparation it can be done safely. I hope to see you (and I mean this literally) on the nighttime trail!
November 2011 Endurance News