Holding on to the round pen rails on a recent Monday morning, the OC Fire Authority’s Urban Search & Rescue Team began their workweek in a very different way this past month, learning how to help community members evacuate horses during natural disasters like wildfires. 

With wildfires becoming a much more direct threat in recent years, horse owners throughout Orange County’s canyon communities have found themselves having to evacuate horses in hurry.

It’s a challenge that public safety officers are also increasingly facing off against.    

As part of a training collaboration with The Shea Center in San Juan Capistrano this past month, over 100 OCFA Firefighters and Urban Search and Rescue Teams from the cities of  Anaheim, Orange, and Huntington Beach participated in a specialized training camp, now going into its second year.  

First responders from OCFA gather to listen to instructions from horse trainers on March 27, 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

While the horses neighed and galloped past the OCFA Urban Search & Rescue Teams Dana Butler Moburg, Shea Center CEO,  introduced them to the power of the large animals. 

“Anyone of these horses can cause great damage, and they don’t do it on purpose, but our goal is so that you can understand more of the nature of the horses, more practicing of what you learned last year,” said Moburg, “if this is your first time with these animals, please enjoy your time with them.” 

Shea Center CEO, Dana Moburg speaks on managing horse behaviors and temperaments on March 27, 2023. Julie Leopo, Voice of OC Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Rescuing horses is a call that rescue teams have to answer, on average, four to six times a year, according to Fire Captain Daniel Goodwin. 

The calls for help can range from a wildfire fire rescue, a horse being placed incorrectly inside a trailer, or just being stuck in a life-threatening situation. 

As was the case for The Shea Center two years ago.

Choco rescue. Credit: The J. F. Shea Therapeutic Riding Center

In July of 2021, Sarah Booth, Communications Director, was left without her horse, Choco, after a bird spooked him while riding through in a San Juan Capistrano open space. 

Booth, who quickly dismounted the horse, was left to look for Choco as he ran away. 

Usually, the horses would run back to the barn after such an experience, but not this time. 

By chance, Booth looked over the ledge and found Choco, who was stuck in between a ledge. 

“Two polarizing emotions,” said Booth. “So happy I found him and so sad in the way I found him,” said Booth, “I can’t get you [Choco] out of this; this is bigger than me.” 

Booth didn’t think Choco would make it, even contemplating euthanization to put Choco out of his misery.

Instead, Booth put a call out to 911, which got rescue teams deployed. 

“I went from hoping to put him out of his misery fast to, oh my gosh, we got our therapy horses back; it was the worst and best day of my life, said Booth.

‘This training came about because we hosted a rescue reunion thanking first responders and the equine community and vets that were on site that were able to help us because it was a string of magical things that happened for this to work out, and it involved the whole community. So when we had that reunion, that’s when we learned they [rescue teams]  only trained the harnessing of the mannequin horse, and we thought, well, we can help each other; we can help you help the equine world and do your job in a much safer way.” 

Firefighters and rescue teams practice on a mannequin horse at The Shea Center in San Juan Capistrano on March 27, 2023. The teams gathered for three days to learn how to rescue and handle horses. Credit: MAXIMO SANTANA, Voice of OC

Their talks spurred an interest in going beyond the Mannequin horse, which ushed in the collaboration, now going on two years.

“Many of us, myself included, prior to the Choco call, which I was on, the only training I had was with a horse mannequin, it doesn’t simulate a real horse at all, like their aura or and they can receive your energy and vice versa,” says Goodwin, who also pointed out members of the team walk out with more confidence when handling a large animal. 

The training offers one-on-one time with the animals, showing rescue teams how to speak, touch and even where to stand when handling a horse. Horses have blind spots or specific behaviors that can put them in flight mode, something that should be avoided when riding a horse, according to Moburg. 

Jake Watson, Engineer Paramedic for Anaheim Urban Search and Rescue team, approaches a tame horse attempting to make contact on March 27, 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
First responders alternated in between four equine training stations at The Shea Center in San Juan Capistrano on March 27, 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
Led by The Shea Center trainers, first responders line up next to their horses while receiving handling instructions. The training was made possible by longtime supporters of the center, Jerry and Jackie Kehle. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

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