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Hours-long horse rescue in southern York County couldn't save Tonka

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

Firefighters, animal rescue crews, neighbors and others worked for hours to free a horse stuck in deep mud in Fawn Township on Wednesday.

But Tonka, a 22-year-old Percheron draft horse, was unable to survive his ordeal and had to be euthanized by his veterinarian at the scene of the rescue, according to Chief Jimmy Williams of Fawn Grove's Citizens Volunteer Fire Co.

"We got him out, but he just didn't have the strength (to recover)," said Peggy Maher, vice president of the nonprofit Equine Rescue Ambulance, based in White Hall, Maryland. "He was in shock and going into seizures."

Tonka's owner, Leona Halsey of Hopewell Township, praised rescuers' efforts and said she couldn't be more thankful for the community's response.

"We knew we had done everything we could humanly do to save this horse," Halsey said. "He didn't suffer."

Fire crews were called to a farm on Leib Road just after 10 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 12, according to Williams, who said he immediately requested more rescue resources.

"One was Harford County Technical Rescue Team, because they are well versed in (freeing) animals that are stuck or pinned," Williams said. "They have some pretty specialized equipment."

Fire police were called in for traffic control, and Equine Rescue Ambulance was summoned by Halsey to help with transport, according to the chief.

Mired in mud: Maher said the mud Tonka became mired in was quite deep and that rescue crews had to stand on sheets of plywood to avoid sinking.

Kathi Goodman of Fawn Township, center, and others try to help Tonka to his feet after the 22-year-old Percheron draft horse was found trapped in mud in the township on Feb. 12, 2020. 
Bill Kalina photo

"I went knee-deep into the mud and couldn't move," she said. "This is the time of year when these mud rescues generally happen."

Williams estimated Tonka was stuck in the mud for three to four hours before fire crews were dispatched to the scene.

"Before anyone else got there, the horse was kicking and trying to extricate itself," he said. "The horse was dehydrated, and I suspect it was suffering from hypothermia."

Fire/rescue crews were on scene for about three hours, and they spent most of that actively struggling to free Tonka, according to Williams.

An Equine Rescue Ambulance volunteer gathers tethers from the site where Tonka, a 22-year-old Percheron draft horse, was found trapped in mud, background, in Fawn Township Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020. After several vain attempts to get the horse to its feet, it was euthanized. Bill Kalina photo

"We worked very aggressively for a good solid two hours," he said. "It was all hands on deck. We probably had between 30 and 40 personnel there."

That included Halsey, Tonka's veterinarian and a Southern York County EMS supervisor who is a member of the York County Animal Rescue Team (CART). The CART team member acted as an information-relaying liaison for Williams, the chief said.

Kathi Goodman of Fawn Township, center, and others try to get Tonka to his feet after the horse was found mired in mud in the township on Feb. 12, 2020. The group used a sling and backhoe to try to right the horse, but Tonka couldn't be saved.
Bill Kalina photo

"It was a muddy, swampy area," Williams said, and Fawn Township sent out a backhoe to assist with the rescue. He said it was the state Department of Transportation that provided plywood sheets for rescuers to stand on.

Sedated for rescue: "The vet gave the horse a sedative so it wouldn't injure itself or anyone else during the rescue operation," the chief said.

Rescuers were able to get Tonka secured on a sled or glider-type contraption; then the backhoe was used to maneuver Tonka into a position where he could be examined by his vet.

Once rescuers had Tonka on solid ground, they learned he was unable to stand on his own, according to Williams.

"Despite our efforts, the horse had to be put down," the chief said.

"At that point it was decided to let him go — and to let him go comfortably, without struggle, without pain," Halsey told The York Dispatch. "He had just become too exhausted and weak to get his legs under him."

Tonka's vet had warned Halsey that the gelding was in bad shape, Halsey said.

About Tonka: The Percheron spent his first decade of life on an Amish farm, then was auctioned off to a group in western Pennsylvania that retrained him, according to Halsey.

"He became a therapy horse for a riding center not far from Altoona," she said. "He was about as gentle a giant as any horse could be."

Fawn Grove Fire volunteer Lynn Browne, right, sits with horse owner Leona Halsey, center, just before Halsey's horse, Tonka, was euthanized by veterinarian Jamie Peddy,  left, of Hess Equine, Stewartstown, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020. The 22-year-old Percheron draft horse was found trapped in mud in Fawn Township and could not be saved. Bill Kalina photo

Halsey said she bought Tonka once the riding center no longer needed such a large horse. She boarded Tonka at the Leib Road farm.

She described rescue efforts as phenomenal.

"It was more than what anyone could have asked for," Halsey said, adding that rescuers came from near and far to help Tonka.

Kathi Goodman of Fawn Township and horse owner Leona Halsey embrace, right, after Tonka, a 22-year-old Percheron draft horse, was euthanized after the animal was found trapped in mud in the township Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020. Goodman, a friend of Halsey's family, was integral in the effort to save the horse. Bill Kalina photo

The Equine Rescue Ambulance transports horses to animal hospitals and equine treatment facilities, and is willing to travel long distances to help horses, according to Maher.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.