CAA member Candy Thomas sent us this report from a special horse-related training day held recently in Virginia:

Horse trailer accidents; horses stuck in mud, fences, or holes; barn fires. Firefighters are the first responders to these sorts of scenes.

They have the necessary equipment to fight fires and take care of emergencies, but have they ever handled a horse?

Even when first responders can handle emergencies, they often have little or no training in large animal behavior and handling. The James River Driving Association (JRDA) recently gave first responders the opportunity to get up close and personal with their horses. Fifteen firefighters representing seven fire houses in central Virginia attended this event, to participate in hands-on training on equine behavior and handling.

Robbin Widmeyer, the JRDA’s secretary and the event organizer, worked with Dr. Shea Porr and JRDA’s own Dr. Tom Newton, DVM, to stage this event. Dr. Porr is an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech M.A.R.E. (Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension) Center. Her extension program’s focus is on emergency preparedness for large animals, particularly horses. She conducts workshops for emergency responders on horse behavior and handling, holds seminars for horse owners and veterinarians on disaster and emergency preparedness and on how to work with first responders, and coordinates technical large animal emergency rescue training.

The day began with Dr. Porr explaining “Equine Behavior 101,” including such topics as instincts, vision, and body language. She also demonstrated the basic equipment (i.e., halters and lead ropes) and handling considerations. Dr. Newton, DVM, described various veterinary concerns that come into play during an equine emergency. He demonstrated how to check pulse and respiration, and basic first aid needs. The group also discussed a variety of horse trailers and watched demonstrations of how to load and unload horses.

By the end of the day, with assistance from JRDA members and their horses, participants were able to walk into a stall, halter a horse, and lead the horse out of the barn. They learned to walk, halt, turn, and back the horses, and how to approach and halter a loose horse. Participants were also able to practice taking pulses, wrap legs, and lead a horse onto and off of a trailer.

Dr. Porr ended the day’s training by asking the first responders to rate their experience. She later said, “The best indicator of a successful program from this survey is the shift in comfort level. Before we started, several people were uncomfortable. Afterwards, everyone was either somewhat or highly comfortable. It is good to know they feel more comfortable after walking away from the class.”

At the end of the day, each participating fire house was given a halter and lead rope they could keep on hand. Several of the firefighters said they are now planning to take part in large animal emergency rescue training. Mission accomplished!

To learn more about the MARE Center or emergency response training, contact Dr. Shea Porr at 540-687-3521 or