A former racehorse owes her life to some diligent firefighters and a hair dryer. Ronnie Jo Howard, a 24-year-old retired trotter, wandered out of her pad on a farm north of West Montrose and fell into a water-filled cistern last Sunday afternoon.
The two-foot square opening was covered with plywood that broke under the horse’s weight, causing her to tumble into the tank rear-end first.
Property-owner Steven Skarda found the horse shortly after 3 p.m. with just her head and front feet sticking out of six feet of freezing water.
“She was in the corner and they had her tied off to the tree,” said Skarda, referring to rescue efforts by Centre Wellington, Elora, Fergus and Maryhill firefighters who received the public assist call at about 3:30 p.m.
Centre Wellington fire chief Ken Boys oversaw the efforts to free Ronnie Jo, which involved trying to cut the horse out of the irrigation tank.
“The problem was we were trying to cut an access hole in the concrete lid and that took a long time because we were cutting through three inches of concrete,” Boys said.
After more than two hours in the tank, Ronnie Jo wasn’t fairing well and firefighters, who had been taking turns holding the horse’s head up, were getting tired.
“She kept slipping down on us and we kept trying to keep her head up, but an 1,100-pound horse, the firefighters held her for an hour and a half and they were getting tired too and at some point you’ve got to keep your plan going and get her out of there,” said Boys.
Both Boys and Skarda were skeptical about Ronnie’s chances for survival.
“They were just about done and she started to give up and she started to slide and they said we have to get her out right now,” said Skarda.
The quick-thinking rescue crew put the horse’s head and feet in a sling and pulled her out of the water.
“When we pulled her out she was very hypothermic and in shock and she was getting really weak,” Boys said.
Ronnie Jo was unable to walk, but the crew put her on a truck and took her to a converted pig barn on the Skarda property.
Mary Jane Skarda covered the horse in blankets trying to restore heat and get her dry. While rubbing the horse down Skarda couldn’t help but notice how cold the horse’s wet hair was and then she had a thought.
“Like anybody else, if your hair is wet you’re not going to be able to get warm,” she said. Skarda sent her husband into the house for the hair dryer. At first she tried creating a blanket of warm air by running the dryer between layers of blankets, but then took to using the hair dryer on a low heat directly on the horse.
“I thought, ‘if I can get the coat dry, that’s a start,’” she said.
The Skarda’s efforts lasted until 10 p.m. Sunday evening when they left Ronnie Jo in the barn for the night. They were unsure what they would find Monday morning.
“She was so feisty she wouldn’t be kept in the barn,” said Skarda who was greeted by the animal as soon as she opened the door. After treatment for shock and some antibiotics Ronnie Jo seems to be on the way to making a full recovery.
“The horse is 24 years old, a healthy horse, but it’s pretty miraculous,” said Boys, who was amazed the horse only suffered minor abrasions. “The Fergus, Elora and the Maryhill fire department was a great help to us. They really assisted us well and I’m glad they were there. All the firefighters were determined to have a good outcome and they worked hard at it and they were glad that it wasn’t something more serious.”
Skarda had the tank filled in on Wednesday afternoon. He was not aware of its existence on the property until about five years ago and is glad nothing more dangerous happened during the time it was open.
“It could have been my daughter,” said Skarda.
The improvements will continue, with an electrified fence set to be repaired as well. The fence was not working and allowed the horses to escape in the first place.
The Skardas look after three ponies and two former race horses on the hobby farm. Ronnie Jo has only been on the farm for about eight months.