Denton County Firefighter Jonathan Tsakonas works alongside fellow firefighters to dig out 22-year-old Bella, the white Belgian draft horse stuck in the mud Aug. 7, 2022, in Copper Canyon, Texas. Denton County Emergency Services District #1 photo.
When Denton County firefighters arrived at the Texas mud pit, they met Bella, a huge Belgian draft horse sinking into the muck.
It was just after dawn on Sunday, Aug. 7, at Copper Canyon's Unbridled Horse Therapy. Denton County Emergency Services District No. 1 Engine 513's Capt. Stephen Forrest told Coffee or Die Magazine poor Bella “was a white horse, but it looked like a brown horse.”
“If it wasn't for his neck and head, I mean, the whole thing was covered in mud,” he said.
They figured the 22-year-old mare must’ve been struggling in the mire all night. Forrest said Bella’s owner was trying to keep the animal calm by putting her body weight on the horse’s head and neck, but it wasn’t working.
A veterinarian was on the way to sedate the animal, but that took 20 minutes, and after the first shot, Bella kept “flipping out,” Forrest said. So she got another jolt of tranquilizer, and Forrest’s crew went to work.
Jonathan Tsakonas works alongside fellow firefighters to dig out 22-year-old Bella, a white Belgian draft horse stuck in the mud Sunday, Aug. 7, 2022, in Copper Canyon, Texas. Denton County Emergency Services District No. 1 photo.
First, they started digging out the muck.
“Its belly was even below the mud a little bit,” Forrest said. “Its legs were fully submerged but beneath the mud along with most of its belly. And she was not happy.”
Forrest realized he needed “all hands on deck,” so he called Engine 511 to assist. They even borrowed a homeowner’s garden spade, which Forrest conceded “worked the best, actually.”
“Even with all the straps and ropes, we didn’t have the equipment to really, to actually pull it out,” Forrest said. “A lot of the time, she was just chilling and would just, you know, be curious about us and what we were doing there, and then times we're agitating her she would just start wiggling out and flailing her head around and slamming her face in the mud. She was pretty pissed.”
Firefighters work with Unbridled Horse Therapy personnel on Sunday, Aug. 7, 2022, in Copper Canyon, Texas, to free a horse from the mud. Denton County Emergency Services District No. 1 photo.
They dug trenches on both sides of the mare. At one point, Engine 513 firefighter Jonathan Tsakona was waist-deep in the mud with Bella.
“Dude, I’m so glad I have you here, because nobody else was willing to do this,” Forrest remembered thinking.
They looped straps underneath the horse and used ropes from their Swiftwater rescue throw bag to hook to a tractor that a neighbor brought over.
“And we started pulling,” Forrest said, but “that snapped the rope pretty fast.”
A female draft horse can weigh more than 1,500 pounds, and Bella wasn’t skinny. She usually served as a therapy mount for a disabled child, helping the kid get exercise.
Denton County Emergency Services District No. 1 firefighters work with Unbridled Horse Therapy personnel on Sunday, Aug. 7, 2022, in Copper Canyon, Texas, to free Bella, a huge Belgian draft horse that got stuck in the mud. Denton County Emergency Services District No. 1 photo.
So Forrest rang the “the neighboring department,” Flower Mound’s Double Oak Volunteer Fire Department.
The volunteers brought their Ford F-550 brush truck with the winch attachment. Then they broke out the chains and tie ropes, and everyone began to budge the huge horse out of the pit.
It took Forrest and nine firefighters, the neighbor, the horse’s owner, a trainer, and a veterinarian to break Bella free, but she was finally out.
“It was cool, just a big collaborative effort,” Forrest said.
Belgian draft mares can weigh more than 1,500 pounds. These cowboys are harnessing Belgian draft horses for the Milk River wagon train in Phillips County, Montana, on Sept. 1, 1979. Photo by Michael Crummett, now in the Library of Congress thanks to a donation from Kay Young.
The vet placed a collar on Bella’s head and ropes on her tail.
The mare rested under a tent as the sedatives wore off. Forrest told Coffee or Die the horse looked “exhausted from when we first pulled it out.”
Megan Reynolds, the county emergency services spokesperson, told Coffee or Die the department was grateful “to rescue her from the mud and helped give the veterinarian a chance to treat Bella.”
Later that night, Bella died near where she got trapped.
Authorities suspect the stress of trying to heave herself out of the mire overnight took its toll.
Bella, a 22-year-old Belgian draft horse, rests Sunday, Aug. 7, 2022, after struggling to free herself from a mud pit in Copper Canyon, Texas. Denton County Emergency Services District No. 1 photo.
Texas has a lot of horses, but Forrest said his crews don’t get many chances to rescue them.
He recalled an incident when a horse got its head stuck in a fence, and another time they transported a trainer who got bucked.
There isn’t a formal class to teach firefighters about saving horses, but he’s always glad to be one of the first responders on the scene.
“Every once in a while, we'll get calls like this, especially just because where we're at. There are so many horses and people doing equestrian and all sorts of stuff like that,” Forrest said. “But there's not really any training. We just kind of wing it.”
Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.
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