The author with her beloved draft horse Earl five days after he was pinned under a hay feeder for hours. Photo by Andy Dunaway.
I was already awake with my usual insomnia around 2:30 in the morning on Thursday, Dec. 16, when I heard a loud, frightening bang. It sounded like something hard hitting metal. Then I heard it again. I rushed to the window, threw it open, and looked out into the dark, cold night. Bang! It was coming from my stallion’s pasture.
Hastily I dressed and rushed out into the darkness. I listened carefully as I tripped and stumbled toward the pasture on my horse ranch outside Charleston, South Carolina. Another bang! I turned on my phone’s light and saw the silvery metal roof of the hay feeder on its side. Pinned below it was Earl, a rare Brabant draft horse my husband, Andy, and I — both retired Air Force veterans — care for. He must’ve heard me approaching and thrashed in response.
“Oh God!” I screamed as I ran to him.
He was down on his left side, the weight of the manger resting across his ribs. His neck was twisted up to the right, nose pointing straight in the air, and his head trapped somehow in the frame of the feeder. He was grunting, crying, panicking. He thrashed and kicked futilely.
“Easy baby, easy,” I said.
I fumbled with my phone and tried to call Andy, who was sound asleep when I got up. No answer. I knew I had to act fast, with or without him, so I ran toward the barn to get the tractor. I stumbled, fell, got up, stumbled again. The uneven ground, my terrible balance, the darkness all seemed to thwart my progress. Panting and running, I called Andy again.
“Hello,” he said sleepily.
“Andy, you have to come now, Earl is trapped under the manger!” I managed.
“He’s what?” he asked.
“The hay feeder is on top of him!” I screamed. “He can’t breathe!”
I hung up and started the tractor. I had to get the pallet forks on, so I could lift the manger off Earl. My hands were shaking, making it tough to pull pins, but somehow I got it on. I was pulling up to the feeder with the tractor just as Andy arrived with the Gator. The utility vehicle’s headlights revealed the terrible scene. My heart raced even quicker.
Earl’s head was stuck between two 2-inch square metal pipe frames. One pipe was welded to the body of the feeder, while the other was part of a swivel panel that held the slow feeder net in place. He must have gotten his head around the swivel frame, then pulled back until his jaw locked his head between the two bars. Panicked, he must have continued to pull back with all his might. Being a nearly 1,800-pound horse, he brought the feeder down on top of himself. The bulk of the feeder was resting across Earl’s ribs, crushing his lungs and heart, while the two metal bars clamped tight like vise grips at his throatlatch. The situation was desperate.
It took a few attempts to get the feeder off Earl, though we couldn’t lift it too high because his head was still trapped. At least the weight was off his vital organs.
“Have you called anyone?” Andy asked.
I pulled the phone from my pocket and dialed my neighbor, Carmen.
“What’s wrong?” she said.
“I need your help,” I explained, panting. “Earl is trapped in the hay feeder.”
I hung up and dialed my other neighbor, Terry. No answer. I called her husband, Everette, no answer. I turned back to Andy.
“We need wrenches and saws!” I yelled. “We’ve got to get this frame off to get his head out.”
Andy jumped into the Gator and sped off to the machine shed for tools. I climbed into the manger, where mounds of hay had piled onto Earl when the manger tipped over. I clawed and crawled through the hay in a desperate attempt to get to my dying horse. When I finally made it to his head, the look of panic, despair, and fear in his eyes tore at my heart. He began to thrash again.
“Easy baby, easy,” I soothed, as I stroked his head. “Mommy’s here.”
He moaned, then went limp, unconscious.
“Nooooooo!” I screamed, tears stinging my eyes.
I began to dig at the hay again, throwing it out in armfuls. It was futile. There was too much hay. It was too heavy. I was too weak. I sat back on my heels.
“Please God, save him,” I pleaded. “Help me save him.”
I tried to call Terry again. She answered. It was 3:38 a.m.
“Terry, please come,” I managed through desperate sobs as I stumbled out from the belly of the feeder. “Earl is trapped.”
The headlights of the Gator came into view as the first of our neighbors pulled down the long driveway. I stood over Earl’s prone body, nearest the feeder as I could. Andy jumped out and came to stand next to me. He tried to loosen the bolts holding the frames in place, but they were impossibly tight, likely torqued from the fall.
“We need the saw, Andy,” I said. “This isn’t going to work. We’ll have to cut him out.”
Andy went back for the power tools as our neighbors, Carmen and Greg, approached.
“What can we do?” Carmen asked.
“Call the vet,” I suggested.
Greg approached Earl to assess the situation, then grabbed the handsaw from his truck. He climbed into the manger and studied each frame carefully.
“Please hurry!” I yelled, my voice sounding shrill, harsh, too demanding. “Please, he’s dying.”
“I know, Stace,” he said. “But I’m afraid if I cut in the wrong place, something may fall and cause more trauma to him.”
I turned and saw Andy behind me with the reciprocating saw, which he passed to me over Earl’s body.
“Here,” I said to Greg, who was now vigorously hacking away at the frame by hand. “Use this.”
I was surprised to see he’d managed to get a good way through the pipe by hand. He took the Sawzall and started to cut. The blade broke instantly. He passed the tool back to me and began again with the handsaw. Andy handed me another blade to replace the sheared one. With shaking hands, I dropped the blade a couple of times before I could lock it in place.
“Here, Greg,” I said, passing the saw back.
Earl began to thrash again, but not for long. He was tired, frothy with sweat. It was apparent he’d been like this for hours. He had red paint on all four hooves from where they’d banged relentlessly against the feeder. He had raw scuff marks between his legs and had rubbed off his chestnuts — vestigial toe pads — fighting to free himself. He went limp again.
I could feel despair creeping in deeper and sobbed. Carmen grabbed me into a hug.
“I can’t lose him like this, Carmen,” I whimpered over the grinding sound of metal on metal. She whispered something kind and supportive, but I couldn’t hear the words over the constant ringing in my ears.
When I pulled away from Carmen’s shoulder, I looked up to see Terry and Everette approaching.
Greg yelled from inside the feeder, “Carmen! Call 911 and ask for Dorchester County Fire Rescue, Station 3. Tell them we need large-animal rescue!”
Carmen walked away, dialing 911 as she went.
“What do you need us to do?” Terry asked.
“We’re trying to cut him free,” I said, a nonanswer. “We need more saws. Some way to cut him free faster.”
Everette and Terry jumped back in their truck to head to their farm for more tools.
I stood, stuck in place, unmoving, holding my breath, watching the horrific scene in front of me: Earl’s neck at an impossible angle, eyes white with fear; Greg standing over him, hacking away at the metal; Andy alongside Earl, trying to loosen unmoving nuts from torqued bolts.
“Do you have any sedation?” asked Carmen, who was now on the phone with Charleston Equine Clinic.
“Yes!” I said, turning at a run toward the barn.
I grabbed my stash of Dormosedan gel, ran back, climbed into the manger behind Greg, who was still sawing, and administered the drug under Earl’s tongue. I stepped out of the manger.
They’re going to need to know what happened, a voice in my head whispered. To treat him, they’ll need to see this. I pulled out my phone and recorded the gruesome scene: a snippet of his head trapped between the bars, the manger on its side, Earl lying prone and seemingly lifeless. I’d not documented such horror since my time as a combat photographer in Iraq. I had hoped those days were behind me.
I stopped recording to call my friend, Dr. Hernando Plata. It was now 4:02 a.m.
“Hello,” he said. “Stacy? What’s going on?”
I explained the situation as calmly as I could manage. I knew deep down he couldn’t do anything from Kentucky, but hearing his sage, unwavering voice steeled me for what was to come.
I hung up the phone and turned back to Earl, where Greg was making the final cut that would free him. The blade jammed from the pressure. He wiggled and wrenched it free, then cut again. The bar came apart and Earl’s head fell limply to the ground. I rushed over to him, embracing his neck. The manger was still hoisted precariously over us, held up by the tractor. Andy jerked me back in case it fell.
Everette jumped on the tractor and deftly lifted the hay feeder upright. He and Andy moved the feeder out of the way as Greg and I began to render aid to Earl. I knelt again over his neck and head, talking softly to him. His breaths were shallow, fast, erratic. His gums were pale and dry. My hands fluttered over his head and down his neck. My hand came away warm and wet: blood. It was pouring from a 2-inch puncture wound at his throatlatch, just behind his right jaw. It drilled all the way to the spine and was dangerously close to a major artery.
“He’s bleeding!” I yelled. “Is the vet coming?”
“Dr. Sally is on her way, Stace,” said Carmen. “But she’s an hour away.”
Greg — a trained EMT — rushed over and immediately started treatment.
“I need my thermometer, pain meds, and blankets,” I said to no one in particular.
Carmen and Terry turned and ran to the barn as Greg applied pressure to the wound. Earl lay panting, nostrils flaring. Steam from his overexerted body rose in the cold night air like smoke from a brush fire. He was fevered, fatigued, in shock. He was dying.
I stepped back and called Dr. Sally Banner, who was in her truck, on the road. I explained the traumas and told her of the neck wound and bleeding we’d found.
“Do you think you can get him on his feet?” she asked. “It may help slow the bleeding.”
“I don’t know, doc,” I replied. “He’s been down a long time. I don’t know if he has nerve damage. He’s moved his legs. I’ve seen him trashing. Whether he can stand unassisted, I don’t know.”
Greg overheard my dialogue with Dr. Sally and asked Carmen and Terry, who were approaching with blankets and pain meds, how far out Dorchester Fire Rescue were. After all, they had the tools and ability to lift Earl from the ground should he not be able to do it himself.
“They should be here soon,” replied Carmen. She turned to me, palms up with a syringe and bottle in hand. “I’ve got drugs.”
I measured a full dose of Banamine pain medication and administered it to Earl. Red and blue lights strobed across the pasture as the fire truck rolled up. A flood of lights from the ladder bathed the scene. Three firefighters approached, ready to lend a hand. They gave Greg gauze for Earl’s wound and strategized next steps. I took Earl’s temperature, and it was well over 103.
“Can we start an IV?” one of the firefighters asked.
“It’s too dangerous,” Carmen replied. “You have to know what you’re doing. If you hit the wrong vein, you can kill him.”
Resigned, I knelt beside Earl, wrapped my body around his head and wept. Terry embraced me, and together we hugged Earl and cried. Carmen laid her hand on mine.
“Pray with me, Carmen,” I cried.
She sprinkled holy water over Earl’s head, and I did the same over his heart, making the sign of the cross, knowing for certain my sweet, gentle boy would not live to see his third birthday. Together we prayed and offered Earl the grace of last rites. He’s an innocent creature with no sins to repent, but I needed to absolve myself from guilt that gripped me deep within. Should I have known this could have happened? Would I have gotten to him sooner? Could I have done something different? Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve. I am still grappling with those questions.
Praying over him, I whispered to him to not give up. I would move heaven and earth to make him whole.
Around 5 a.m., Dr. Sally arrived. Earl was still down on his side, barely alive. I tried to find a heartbeat, but it was so weak I couldn’t hear it through a stethoscope. Dr. Sally inserted a catheter and started Earl on IV fluids. She assessed the neck wound, shaving, cleaning, flushing, packing, and wrapping it. The first bag of fluids drained quickly and gave Earl the lift he needed to try and sit up. He tried, then fell flat once more.
“Andy, can you get a bale of straw?” I asked. “That way we can wedge him upright next time he tries.”
After looking Earl over, Dr. Sally prepared a second bag of fluids, spiking it with a strong anti-inflammatory and other supportive meds. Earl rolled up once more, and we wedged the straw bale in place. He was fighting to live, and a glimmer of hope penetrated the darkness that engulfed me.
“Is animal rescue on the way?” Dr. Sally asked the firefighters.
The ranking firefighter called in for a status report. Just then, Earl tried to stand. His front legs were stuck underneath him, and he struggled weakly to unfold them. When he gave up, we reached in and pulled his legs free, stretching them out in front of him. After some time, he tried again and fell. Once again, we straightened his legs and positioned ourselves to help him when he was ready. We waited, watched, and prayed.
Well into his second bag of fluids, he swayed, rocked, sat up onto his butt, took a deep breath, then heaved himself up. The firefighters, Andy, and I supported him as he swayed on weak, sleepy legs. He teetered, threatening to fall, but didn’t. He shifted his weight on his back legs — left, right, left, right. It was 7:03 a.m., and I’d just witnessed a miracle. Praise be to God, and Earl.
The firefighters’ shift was over, and they bid farewell, promising to come back and check on him. They kept that promise, stopping by two days later.
Dr. Sally had another call to attend and said she would come back to take X-rays and reassess Earl in the afternoon. Greg and Carmen’s daughter was graduating from Clemson that day, so they too departed for the long ride upstate. Terry and Everette’s kids had school and they needed to get them ready. Even though they all had huge life events, they had answered my call: true friends indeed. I am so very thankful to have them in our lives. I found out later it was Terry’s birthday. What a helluva way to celebrate it.
Earl had managed to walk a little, so Andy and I got him to the barn. When he finally urinated, it was dark as chocolate from his muscles breaking down. His kidneys were taking a hit. His fever didn’t break, and he cried in pain. Andy and I bedded down the stall, enticing him to rest. He made three or four attempts to lie down, but faltered, cried, and gave up. Finally, out of sheer exhaustion he went down and slept. I never left his side.
Dr. Sally came back in the late afternoon and performed X-rays and explored the wound. His neck was fractured, and he needed urgent care — more than her clinic could offer. She called Tryon Equine Hospital, three hours away, and informed them we’d be coming at first light. I slept for two hours, then gave Earl his IV fluids. I did this all night until dawn. His urine was still dark, and he was still in a lot of pain. I worried he wouldn’t make it through the ride.
Andy needed to stay and watch the farm, so Terry volunteered to ride with me. It was nerve-wracking. I thought of all the things that could happen to him inside that trailer. I thought of him dying before I got him there. We made it.
The doctors were there to greet us and treat him right away. They loaded him with sedation, opioids, and fluids. They did more X-rays, labs, and an ultrasound.
“I can’t give you a prognosis,” explained Dr. McDonald. “He has a lot of critical traumas happening all at once. His neck is fractured at C1. He is blind in the right eye. There’s apparent neurological trauma. He’s developed pneumonia, and his kidneys are really taking a hit. At best, I’d say recovery is guarded.”
It’s been five days, and Earl is still fighting. He’s not out of the woods. He has a long, uphill battle that will require months if not years of treatment — if he survives this battle. But Earl is our baby, and Andy and I will not stop giving all we can to support him as long as he fights and his quality of life is not in jeopardy.
We will not stop fighting for our baby. Please pray for his healing. Please pray for his recovery.
Stacy Pearsall and her husband, Andy Dunaway, are both decorated Air Force veterans who completed multiple combat tours with the Air Force’s elite 1st Combat Camera Squadron. Pearsall is the only woman to win the National Press Photographers Association’s Military Photographer of the Year award twice. Read Coffee or Die Magazine’s James Crawley Award-winning feature about her here.
Stacy Pearsall, a Nikon Ambassador, is the producer and host of the upcoming PBS series “After Action,” founder of the acclaimed Veterans Portrait Project, and is the host of the “EVERYTHING Stacy” podcast. She has documented stories in over 40 countries while serving as an aerial combat photojournalist in the Air Force. She was named Military Photographer of the Year twice. Combat disabled, and with her service dog Charlie by her side, she continues to work worldwide as a photographer, author, educator, military consultant, and public speaker. Her work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, the National Veterans Memorial and Museum, the Women in Military Service for America at Arlington National Cemetery, among others. She was recognized by President Barack Obama as a White House Champion of Change and is a Jefferson Award recipient.