Risking death to rescue horses

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Dr. Michael R. Privett swam alongside a skittish pregnant mare by the light of his rescue team’s boat.

He had gotten into the water with the horse after she fought, bucked, and turned back twice when pulled behind the aluminum johnboat earlier in the night. Both times, the mare started fighting about 100 yards from the barn where she and others had fled after the team had tried to catch them in flooded pastures.

Each time, the mare had pulled the boat back to the barn, where the water was up to Dr. Privett’s shoulders and to the withers of a 1,000-pound horse.

“When you get fatigued, you start making dumb decisions, and I made a couple that night,” he said.

Dr. Privett, of Hopkins, South Carolina, which is near Columbia, is leader of Richland County’s large animal rescue team. He, his wife, and four other team members had been called that evening to rescue horses from this riverside farm, where water from Hurricane Joaquin was rising.

They found the farm about 9 p.m., several hours after the call, by following barking from two dogs standing on high ground, Dr. Privett said. All familiar landmarks were underwater, and phone calls to the farm owner and manager went unanswered, although both were safe, he said.

Information from the South Carolina Emergency Management Division indicates the team found the dogs on the only high ground around, about 300 yards from the horse barn. Dr. Privett said the team was able to deliver two horses to that ground before trying to pull the pregnant mare.

After two attempts at pulling that mare, Dr. Privett said he found a bridle in the barn and used it to ride the horse, slipping off her side when she had to swim. The horse again tried to turn back 100 yards from the barn, and Dr. Privett was able to hold her to a straight line until she started thrashing.

Ryan Truluck and Dr. Michael R. Privett (in reflective vest) rescue horses during a return trip to a farm the morning after a late-night rescue attempt. The mare shown in back had fought three attempts to move her to high ground. (Photo by Lauren Privett)

Tired from struggling through water against the weight of his boots and the drag from his ankle-length rain slicker, Dr. Privett said he used all his remaining strength to escape from the thrashing horse. By the time he was a safe distance from the animal, he realized, “Not only can I not swim, I don’t even have the ability to tread water and keep my head up.”

The boat was at least 50 feet away when he yelled, “Help!” He went under two, maybe three times and yelled “hurry.” He had water in his nose and mouth.

“And I thought, ‘That’s it, I’m done,’” he said.

He also felt too fatigued to care.

“I would have told you, until that moment, that I would never accept death,” he said.

He didn’t know his wife and another team member already had been swimming to him until they pulled him up moments later. All he could see through the water was light from the boat.

They helped him back into the boat. It was now about 1:30 a.m.

The team left the horse in the barn and removed the bridle and halter, returning about 9 a.m. to pull her and the other remaining horses to a hay barn where the water was only up to the horses’ stomachs. The horses, dogs, and donkey survived, he said.

“To my knowledge, none of the horses have any residual problems,” he said. “They did lose the sheep, and, last I heard, the guy still didn’t know where his cows were.”

Dr. Privett, an instructor on horse handling, thinks the mare was just ill-mannered. He suggests that those who like their horses train them before emergencies.

He also said he could teach a course on things he did wrong that night alone, one of those things being keeping team members out until they are fatigued.