Saving Fred Astaire

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Photo © Joey Nickischer

BY ANN JAMIESON

I wasn’t looking for a horse when Tucker (Fred Astaire) appeared in my life. I still had my first horse, Odie, and my show horse, Nicky. But when my friend, top breeder Linda Mancini called and told me there was a horse I had to come see, I went. She said, “He’s just your type.” And she knew my type.

Tucker had fractured his knee on the track. While so many trainers would have put him down without a second thought, his trainer didn’t. “He’s too special a horse,” she said. “He gives you everything he has.”

When I went to see him, he was still lame from the injury. But he was spectacular. Gorgeous and spunky.

Not knowing if he would recover fully, I went home without him.

Apparently, that wasn’t an option. He knew he was supposed to get on the trailer and come home with me. I tried to ignore the feeling. But I kept picturing him, his beautiful face and kind eye peering out of the stall.

I called Linda.

“Is he any better?”

“Come look at him,” she answered, knowing full well that if I came again he would go home with me.

He was not 100%, but he was better.

I left, but this time he was on my trailer.

And he recovered 100 %. He recovered so well that we competed at Devon, won a Zone Award (third place) in the Adult Amateur Hunters, and qualified for the Adult Amateur Dressage Championships. A spectacular mover (hence the name Fred Astaire), he caught…and held judges’ eyes. And, like his race trainer said, he always gave his all. 

But life loves to throw us challenges, and during a year of challenges, it sent another one my way. I was at home one early evening when I got a text from Francine, my partial boarder. She and her husband Duncan were at Wonder Lake Park in Patterson, New York, where they had gone for a trail ride, accompanied by their dog Whiskey.

Francine texted that Tucker was stuck in the water. I pictured him standing with a few inches of water around his ankles. “So what’s the problem? Just lead him out,” I thought.

Then she sent the photo. Tucker was in the lake, up to his chest. And it wasn’t just water. It was mud, deep, sucking mud.

Francine had pulled Tucker up by the edge of the lake to wait for Duncan. Whiskey, meanwhile, thought that the lake looked inviting. He splashed in.

Tucker, seeing his buddy having fun, followed. The second they were in the water Francine realized they were in trouble. Although the bottom looked sandy, it wasn’t. Francine immediately tried to turn Tucker around and get him out, but he was already sinking in the mud. She jumped off, and tried to lead him out.

But she was stuck. Duncan managed to extricate her, then they both attempted to rescue Tucker. They nearly succeeded. They tried for 40 minutes but couldn’t quite get him on dry land.

They needed help, but how could they get it when they didn’t even know where they were? On a trail somewhere?

They called 911. The call went out: a horse stuck in the mud in Wonder Lake.

Photo © Joey Nickischer

The rescuers began arriving. Five fire department/rescue teams raced to the scene: Patterson Fire Department (lead), Putnam Lake FD, Westchester County Technical Rescue Team, Carmel FD, and Pawling FD.

I dropped the phone, grabbed his heavy cooler, and broke speed limits as I raced to the lake. I counted myself lucky that no cops were in sight.

The scene was surreal. Literally, it looked like the response to 9/11.  Flashing lights lit up the night; fire trucks, rescue vehicles, and ambulances were so numerous I couldn’t see the end of them. 

I later found out there were over 40 people involved!

But where was Tucker? I didn’t realize that we were down on a plain below the park, which rose steeply up through heavily forested areas to the lake. I stopped a rescue worker; he directed me to Chief Greg Galiardo of Putnam Lakes FD, the Incident Commander at this level.

Francine had alerted me that they needed a halter, as they couldn’t pull him out with his bridle.  I approached the chief, carrying Tucker’s halter and cooler, and introduced myself.

He first let me know that they had summoned the local vet group, New England Equine Practice, and asked me if that was okay. “Absolutely,” I replied. It was the end of December and my horse risked hypothermia in the frigid water. I was so thankful that they had called them!

At this point, I was beginning to realize how bad things were. But I did know one thing. Tucker is a fighter, just like his granddaddy Secretariat, and I knew he would fight to survive.

When I asked how I could get to Tucker, the chief replied “You can’t go up there. There are too many people.”

I was incredulous. Of course I was going up there!

I thought, “This man must not have any pets!” I needed to be with Tucker, and he needed me to be there.

When I tried again and he still denied me, I decided I would get there myself.  Watching others to see where they were going, I noticed people heading to the left, toward a small trail. I started to follow, but was called back.

Photo © Joey Nickischer

The rescuers at the lake, headed by  Chief of Operations Joey Nickischer of the Patterson FD, knew I was coming with a halter and radioed down to find out if I was there. I was escorted to a four-wheeler for a wild ride. The trail was so twisted and steep (and even forded a river) that we had to lean out the side of the vehicle to keep it from flipping over. 

When I tried to bring Tucker’s cooler, they wouldn’t let me. I insisted that Tucker needed it; they insisted that there wasn’t enough room in the four wheeler, and there was a pile of blankets up top. It turned out there weren’t any blankets. But there were angels.

Neither Francine nor I had ever ridden to Wonder Lake Park before. Bored with the lack of places to ride on the farm where Tucker lived, we had decided to roam further afield.  So when Francine asked if she could ride Tucker to the park, I said yes.

But something inside me said “Say no.”

The scene at the top was, again, surreal. Dozens of rescuers were at work. The intense beams of light emanating from their helmets lit up the area, lit up my horse.

All I could see was his head. He was resting it on a branch. Chief Nickisher had placed it there to keep him from drowning. I looked into his beautiful soft eye and whispered to him, “I love you Tucker.” I would have said that everything was going to be okay, but I was terrified, seeing him like that. 

Fifteen years ago, Joey Nickischer lived in New York City. He took a class in horse rescue, the Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue, taught by Rebecca Gimenez (www.tlaer.com), figuring it was something he would never need. Now the chief of the Patterson Fire Department, Joey has since participated in three horse rescues. 

The 911 call first came in to Patterson where Joey was the assistant chief, as well as a team leader for the Westchester Technical Rescue team. The call could not have landed with a more capable, prepared, person.

Immediately, Joey made his way over to the scene. Once he had surveyed the site and the situation, he began planning. What resources did he need, how many men?

Joey not only had to assemble men, he had to assemble all the equipment he might need not only to extricate Tucker from the lake, but to get him to New England Equine afterwards. 

At the site, he found Tucker embedded in mud up to his chest. He knew immediately that this would be a tricky operation, and one that would take time. A delicate balance had to be maintained to release Tucker from the strong suction of the mud without injuring him severely in the attempt. 

The rescuers replaced Tucker’s bridle with the halter. Then they tried pulling him out, encouraging him with “Come on Tucker, Tucker you can do it.” Tucker tried, tried hard, but he was stuck. 

The only way to get him out was to release him from the mud. Zachary Mulkins, from the Patterson FD, donned an ice suit, and went into the water. Zachary literally risked his life for my horse. Tucker could have struggled and knocked him out, or kicked him inadvertently in an attempt to free himself. But Zachary never hesitated. 

          Others grabbed Tucker’s saddle, and by rocking him back and forth helped free him from the engulfing mud. Then those on shore handed sheets of plywood to Zachary.  He got it under Tucker’s feet, so that my horse could avoid sinking back into the mud, and had something to push against to get out.

Several times they tried to release Tucker; several times they were unsuccessful. Sometimes I just sank to my knees and burst into tears, fearing that they would never get him back on land. 

Luckily, the rescuers did not fall prey to this thinking. In fact, when I later talked to Joey, he said, “Oh we were going to get him out. There was no question.  

If one method didn’t work, we just moved on to the next. If Plan A hadn’t worked, I would have gone to Plan B, and if that hadn’t worked, there would be Plan C.”

Joey had endless plans in his head; failure was not an option.

He also had praise for Tucker, who remained calm and cooperative.

Hours now had passed and we knew Tucker was at severe risk of hypothermia. Time was crucial.

I thought of the torturous and twisty trail that I had come up on in the four wheeler. How would we ever get Tucker out, and to the vet clinic where he urgently needed to be to survive?

Luckily, there was a house with a barn right near the lake. The owners, Michael and Andrea Werlau, alerted by the brilliant lamps lighting up the night, came over to see what had happened. It turned out they had a private dirt road that ran down off the hill and to the paved streets that ran to the clinic. They offered us the use of the road. In addition they brought a chainsaw to cut the branch blocking his exit from the lake.

I had looked for the many blankets promised me when I was told I could not bring Tucker’s cooler with me. The “blankets” turned out to be sheets! On a frigid December night! Always remember to trust your own instincts, I thought to myself. 

Andrea took care of that as well, loaning us one of her blankets to wrap Tucker in.

As terrified as I was for my horse, I was aware of all the angels that were appearing. The quick response of so many fire departments, the Westchester Technical Rescue squad coming on the scene, Andrea appearing with the road we needed and a blanket, New England Equine being just a couple of miles down the road, with their vets right there on the scene. Despite my fear, everything seemed to appear out of nowhere to make Tucker’s rescue possible.

Tucker was now unstuck, with a solid surface underneath him. It was time to try again. Again it didn’t work, and I didn’t think I could stand it.

But on the next try, he emerged from the mud and they pulled him onto a

plywood sheet. I grabbed one of the sheets (they did come in handy here) and started rubbing to dry him and get his circulation going. The rescue crew grabbed sheets, too, and we all rubbed the mud off, getting him as dry as possible.

The crew formed a path of plywood sheets along the muddy shoreline, enabling them to pull Tucker (on the piece of plywood he lay on) over the other sheets and to the trailer. We laid Andrea’s blanket on top of him.

As we were rubbing him I mentioned that he is a grandson of Secretariat. One of the firemen replied, “Wow I didn’t know we were rescuing royalty!”

Since Tucker was too exhausted to stand, a landscaping trailer had been brought to the scene. He was hauled up the ramp still on the plywood sheet. He had been sedated by the vets, Dr. Jeremy Frederick and Dr. Christine Whalin. Joey had high praise for them. In addition they gave him antibiotics to prevent infection from the filthy mud and water he’d been submerged in.

It was a long slow trip to the vets, first down the dirt road, and then out onto the paved roads where emergency vehicles forged a path, and protected Tucker and the trailer from behind. The vets and several rescue workers walked on either side of the trailer to be sure Tucker didn’t struggle or try to get up.

At New England, Tucker was placed in a sling, carried along a track and then gently lowered into a stall.

We were out of the water, but by no means out of the woods. The vets went to work to raise his temperature; he was literally on the border between life and death. Would he die of hypothermia? Would he be able to stand, or had one of his legs been critically injured? Would his kidneys work? Would he develop an infection?

He was given fluids, antibiotics, and covered with an inflatable blanket warmed with a heat pump.  

His temperature was taken, then later taken again. Then…it was rising! Soon his temperature was rebounding and he was no longer critical!

Photo © Joey Nickischer

In what seemed to me an incredibly short time, the vets wanted him to stand. I know that horses cannot be down for too long, but this seemed so soon after his ordeal. Attaching a pulley to his sling, they gently raised him to his feet. But Tucker refused  

to stand. He was holding one of his hind feet awkwardly, was it broken? Or were the tendons and ligaments destroyed by the cloying mud? I tried not to think about it.

The vets took Tucker’s legs and tried to make him stand. He jerked his legs up. I almost laughed, although I was of course worried. What happened the last time he put his feet down? He got stuck for hours! He was too smart to do that again!

Eventually, gingerly, he did. He put one down and jerked it up, and then, realizing that he was now reaching for solid ground, put it down again. Then the others, and finally that hind leg I was so worried about. He stood on it.

Another milestone passed!

Francine and I stayed overnight in the clinic. Everyone was so caring. There were sofas we could sleep on, abundant food and beverages in the fridge. 

And we had the best vet tech ever, Sasha Rudneza. From Belarus, she tended to Tucker as though he were her own. Recognizing that he was still cold, and his muscles must be terribly sore after the strain of trying to extricate himself, she massaged his entire body. Using a technique she learned in her home country, she twisted straw into a massage implement, and rubbed his body with it.

I was struck by her kindness. Yet another angel in Tucker’s life.

My horse had visitors. Rescuers dropped by to check on him. While one was visiting, his cell phone rang. He picked it up, chatted a bit, and then turned to me. “The Westchester County Commissioner is on the phone. He wants to know how Tucker is doing.”

I laughed. Everyone wanted to know how he was doing. Newspapers, TV stations, called. He deserved to be famous, but I would have preferred a different route.

More milestones were passed. He passed manure; he peed. His temperature became normal. He could go home.

Jessica Hyatt, who boarded him for me, was amazing, giving him his meds, taking his temperature, and cooking up all kinds of temptations to keep his weight up.

But there were still hurdles.  The first was would his kidneys be okay? Then there were the numerous infections that popped up from exposure to the mud; the rubs he got from being in the sling, the sudden drop in weight from hours in the frigid water. Five months later his hooves still hadn’t grown. His coat molted, shedding winter fur in sheets.  An infection in his ear took months to heal.

But his spirit never waned. When I started hand walking him, I could barely hold on. Bored after all the time in the stall he exploded into levades and caprioles.

My horse was back!

Fred Astaire survived and is back to exploring trails, practicing dressage, giving pony rides and gleefully leaping over jumps. He was lucky, he had expert trained help…and all those angels.

(Chief Nickischer recommends that stables ask their vets to sponsor a training with their local fire department in order to be prepared for the various situations that our horses manage to get themselves into!)


About the Author: Ann Jamieson wanted to be a horse show judge since she was a child, and has now held her USEF “”r”” judge’s cards for over 30 years. She writes about both horses, and travel, (and particularly loves combining the two). Ann is the author of the “”For the Love of the Horse”” series, four volumes of amazing true stories about horses, and the proud mom of her Secretariat grandson, Fred Astaire (Tucker).
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