Gaston firefighters are called to Laurelwood

In his 40 years as a firefighter, Gaston Fire Chief Roger Mesenbrink has pulled horses out of wells and untangled them from fences, but he'd never rescued a horse from a creek until last month, when he and a crew of five volunteers pulled a trapped Paint from a flooded stream bed near Laurelwood.

The unit was first called to Dana Huntly's small farm west of Gaston to help her free a horse that had its legs tangled it its wet blanket.

After a few minutes of careful cutting, Mesenbrink had loosened the thick, wet blanket from the horse's legs and freed the animal, without injury to himself, or the steed.

'It was just a matter of getting up to it and calming it down, because once the feet get free you're kind of opening yourself up to get whacked,' Mesenbrink said.

As the crew began to pack up, Huntly mentioned that another horse might be missing.

The firefighters told Huntly to let them know if the horse failed to show and headed back to the station. As soon as the crew pulled back into town, they got the call.

'I'd barely opened the door on my vehicle when they called the direct office line and said they found the other horse - in a creek,' Mesenbrink said.

The missing horse, three-year-old Tuffy, stood shivering in the frigid water, her blanket tangled in blackberry brambles.

'When you see a horse shaking like that, you're in somewhat of a time crunch,' Mesenbrink said.

He strapped on a life vest with a lifeline and waded into the creek.

By that time, Tuffy's owner, Darla Huntly had arrived at her sister-in-law's farm to see to her trapped horse.

'I thought we had lost her at that point because she just didn't seem to have any fight left,' Huntly said.

'With all those rains a small creek that you'd normally be able to hop across was up to my neck when I got into it,' Mesenbrink said.

The crew ran a ladder into the creek to create a bridge and slowly turned the horse around so it would head toward the shallowest bank once freed.

But once Mesenbrink got next to Tuffy, he saw her feet were caught in blackberry vines, hidden by the deep water. A few minutes more of careful cutting and the horse was free, but it took an hour of coaxing to bring it to the bank.

'It took several tries,' Mesenbrink said. 'The horse had lost some of its energy so it wasn't just going to hop up on that bank.'

With one firefighter hanging off the ladder and the others on the bank orchestrating the animal's exit, Mesenbrink held the horse's head above water and carefully led it out of the creek.

Veterinarian Aletha Carson examined the horse once it was free and, except for its below-average body temperature, the animal was fine.

Carson said that a horse in that situation can suffer anything from hypothermia to a leg fracture, and that many ailments can be fatal.

'The adage that a horse that breaks its leg is a dead horse isn't necessarily true these days,' she said. 'We do have ways to treat some fractures but horses don't normally have health insurance and the treatments are very expensive.'

Mesenbrink said that requests for animal rescues and other public-service calls are pretty rare in Gaston, as most members of the rural community are thoroughly self-sufficient.

Calls like Huntly's take a backseat to emergency calls like the two-alarm house fire that occupied the crew later that day, he said, but the firefighters are happy to help when they can.

'It's nice to see we give it a little college try and everybody benefits,' Mesenbrink said. 'It's certainly nothing that the horse could have done on its own.'

Darla Huntly is less restrained with her praise for the fire crew, saying, 'There's no way the horse would have lived without the fire department.'

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