Sunny, age 35, was stuck in the mud for over an hour before being rescued using techniques taught by Paul Williams and Ed Childers of western Pennsylvania in their equine rescue seminars.
When one of his clients approached him in January 2009 about creating a large animal rescue unit for the local fire department, Paul Williams was understandably intrigued.
The 39-year-old Welsh native, who is a farrier, longtime Standardbred trainer and former steeplechase jockey, starting thinking about how his horsemanship skills could help extricate horses from some of the odd situations they become involved in.
"During my travels I've come across horses that get themselves in some pretty peculiar predicaments," the Canonsburg, Pa. resident and blacksmith for the Pittsburgh Mounted Police, explained. "So when one of my clients, Ed Childers, who was also a firefighter, asked if I would help do some training in horse handling, I didn't really have to think about it because this kind of thing is pretty important and I was very interested in it."
Childers and Williams traveled to Arizona in March 2009 for advanced technical instruction with a large animal rescue unit and when they returned, Williams commenced his training with the local North Strabane Fire Department, whose territory includes The Meadows, to become a certified firefighter.
"In the beginning it was the only the two of us and we didn't even have any equipment," Williams, who relocated to the United States in 1994 after developing a relationship with top reinsman Bruce Ranger, said. "But donations have enabled us to purchase some and we have actually added six people to our department, so now there is always someone available to help the horses. We even have a rapid intervention team which is our back-up."
Childers and Williams have been schooling their colleagues on how to work with horses, which obviously most firefighters have no familiarity with.
Courses for Firefighters
"We have held classes for 10 different fire departments in the Pennsylvania area," Williams said. "It's a three-part course for firefighters and we teach them how to handle horses. We even do things like show them how to make emergency halters. Every firefighter carries a lifeline in his gear and that converts nicely into a halter.
"We haven't been outside of Pennsylvania, but we have been asked for many different places and will probably begin to do that later this year," he continued. "We did a presentation for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) last November and the manager of all the 911 operators throughout the state got up during the meeting and said we were his best asset in the county of Washington. When it is all broken down our special unit is the busiest in Washington County."
The duo also instituted a course for horse owners and/or handlers to learn various safety techniques. Sponsored by the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association, they cost $30 to attend and are four hours long. The last one was in December and will continue again in April after Williams returns from Florida where he is winter training several head.
"We have also been doing a class on barn safety, trailering, trail riding and pasturing procedures which more than 300 people have come through," Williams said. "It's great--the class is sponsored by The Meadows owners' organization and they pay for it if people from the track want to attend. Right now we only cover North Strabane and Washington County, but we hope to reach out to all of western Pennsylvania once we get things figured out.
"In fact, we will be conducting our first technical training class in May and will be training more than 20 or 30 firefighters from neighboring counties," he continued. "They then will take that back to their departments and start their own teams. It's very exciting to get this ball rolling considering we started with nothing."
High Profile Rescue
On December 14, 2009, the North Strabane's Large Animal Rescue Unit received local and national acclaim when Williams rescued Pearl, an Appaloosa mare he had formerly shod, from a barn fire at the Greenmoor Commons Equestrian Center in Cecil Township. The other 13 horses had already been led to safety, but Pearl refused to place a hoof out of the confines of her stall.
"It was really a pretty simple deal," he remembered. "She wanted help and just needed some guidance. She had an open doorway to escape, but what you have to remember is a horse will stay in that barn before they leave it. That stall is their home.
"Even with the open door, it was chaos out there to her," he continued. "The barn was burning down around her and you can only imagine what she was feeling. There were fire trucks and people screaming. It (the Equestrian Center) is a big boarding facility and there were a lot of horse owners that had arrived; it was a very emotional scene."
Luckily, Pearl escaped the blaze with only minor burns across her hind end, which Williams thinks is due to the heavy winter blanket the mare was wearing and the foot of water in her stall.
"Actually I didn't realize at first, but her stall was flooded out from the firefighters throwing water in there," he said. "They were running water through the door around her, because there were flames shooting through the wall as well as over her head and they were trying to douse it.
"Some of the embers and the ceiling were falling around her, but she was saturated, the stall was saturated and her big, thick winter blanket was saturated, so nothing could ignite," Williams continued. "She had some holes in her blanket where the fire had burned through and we were initially very worried, but once we got her to the lower barn, we had her vet checked right away. The burns were not much bigger than the size of a quarter and that blanket saved her big time."
The large animal rescue unit does not exist merely to save horses from fires. In fact, Williams and Childers pulled an older horse from a snow drift he was trapped in and freed a Percheron after the gelding fell through the ice of a 10 foot deep pond in February.
"You don't realize how many horses are around until you start looking," Ed Grim, who is the North Strabane Fire Chief, told the Observer Reporter on February 18. "The team does a good job."
Unfortunately, there is one horse Williams could not save despite his best efforts. Nine days before he led Pearl to safety, a fire at Lebanon Raceway claimed the lives of two men and 43 horses, one of which was Dancing Cassidy, a filly Williams had formerly trained and was attempting to purchase.
"They actually used her for a Hoof Beats cover," he said. "I brought two horses for Hoof Beats to shoot, one was a little roan, red-gold show stopper and the other one was her.
"It was heartbreaking for me to know she was in that fire, because I really liked that mare," Williams continued. "I trained her at The Meadows for about a year and she was a pretty gray horse that was an absolute angel and never put a hoof out of place. Every morning when you went into the barn her head was over the door waiting for you to arrive."
While Williams acknowledges that tragedy will always affect him, he is excited about what the future holds and is thrilled he decided to become a firefighter.
"I never thought I would be a trained firefighter, but I love what I do," he said. "I never realized just how much fire departments do for the community and I work with a great bunch of guys. Right now our organization is at the grassroots level, but we hope to add to our department this year and continue to progress, as well as raise awareness, about large animal safety."