When Justin Birch received a distress call from a neighbour, he quickly learned this would be no ordinary job.
by Pat Rediger
In response to an emergency call, Justin Birch, co-owner of Vintage Towing in Leduc, Alberta, took a wrecker and a flatbed truck, and headed down the road for the twenty minute drive.
Earlier that day, an 11-year-old horse, named Fysik, fell into an icy mud hole at the Adorado Nino Horse Rescue and Sanctuary. The owner, Tracy Benkendorf, discovered the horse struggling up to its neck in mud and phoned 911 for help. Firefighters and the RCMP were dispatched to the scene, and a veterinarian was brought in, but they were all a little stumped about how to get the horse out. That is when the call went to Vintage Towing.
“We live in a small town where everybody knows everybody, and the horse community is even smaller,” said Birch. “A friend of mine is an equine therapist and she sent me a Facebook message asking if I could help. I looked at the pictures and thought, ‘that guy’s really stuck’. Then the RCMP phoned, and I knew that we were going to help.”
Birch and a couple of employees arrived a short time later and quickly sized up the situation. A tractor was already stuck in the mud and the horse probably would not be able to last much longer. Unless action was taken quickly, the fate of the horse was certain.The Vintage Towing crew quickly developed a plan of action. They extended the boom of the wrecker, hauled out the leash cables, and pulled the staples out of a barbed wire fence so they could access the horse. With the ground covered in mud, Birch placed the wrecker in four-wheel drive and backed up straight towards the horse at a high enough speed that he would not get stuck.
The horse couldn’t stand up so we ended up lifting the horse again for three or four hours to get its blood circulating.”
One of his employees basically swam in the cold, muddy water, placed down planks, and then wrapped soft straps around the horse’s shoulders and hips to form a harness. Then they used their boom with a twin line and winched as much as they could while keeping the tension steady. Instead of using two winches at the same time and speed, they opted to just lift the boom, and the horse came straight out. Although the horse was on firm ground, the project was far from over.
“People started putting blankets on him to warm him up and then they put an IV in him. His core body temperature had dropped by four degrees, which is quite substantial. He just had no power to stand on his own legs,” said Birch.
They had to find a place for the horse to warm up and recover. The barn would not work because they were unable to navigate the horse into the narrow stalls. The next best bet was the garage, so they placed some straw on the concrete floor, and decided to move the horse.
The next hitch in the plan was that the wrecker had become stuck in the process of lifting the horse, and a second tractor that arrived on the scene also got stuck. Thank goodness that Vintage Towing brought its flat deck and was able to pull the wrecker and tractors out.
They lowered the flat deck, reharnessed the horse using the wrecker, and then slid the horse onto the back of the flat deck. Then they transported the horse to the garage and lowered him onto the floor. The horse was wrapped in blankets and and the IV was replaced. The Vintage Towing crew cleaned up and went out for supper, but then another call came in.
“The owner said, ‘we need you guys back here,’” explained Birch. “The horse couldn’t stand up so we ended up lifting the horse again for three or four hours to get its blood circulating.”
I love this industry because you are constantly helping and saving people in need.”
By this time the horse was able to stand under its own power and they walked the horse into a small pen beside the garage. The vet said that time would tell if the horse would be able to recover from the trauma. The horse appeared fine, but it refused to fall asleep and would not eat.
Eventually the horse went down and could not get up again, prompting yet another call to Vintage Towing. The vet wanted to do an assessment of the animal but that would only be possible if he could be lifted. Vintage Towing brought their medium wrecker this time, since it provided more maneuverability in that small space. They backed the wrecker up to the fence, extended the boom all the way out, and then lifted and suspended the horse.
“The vet said that [the horse] was super-fatigued and that it would be best to let him sit overnight. Hopefully, he would get up by himself in the morning, but if not we would have to come out a fourth time. The next morning the horse got up and he’s been healthy ever since,” said Birch.
Despite the time and effort, the company invested in this project, Birch did not charge for the company’s services. Since Adorado is a non-profit rescue horse operation that survives on donations, Birch felt it would not be appropriate to charge them. Fysik is a jumping horse that was rescued about five years ago after a medical condition ended his career.
Birch said the experience has certainly been one of the most memorable during his time in the industry. The company also assisted with the forest fires in Fort McMurray a few years ago, and Birch has helped pull moose and cows in the past, but Fysik was the first horse rescue.
The episode also marked the first time that his efforts were recognized by the Premier of Alberta, Jason Kenney, who posted about the rescue on his Twitter account. Vintage Towing became a bit of an overnight sensation with all the people who videoed the rescue and posted it on their social media accounts.
The company dates back to the late 1990s when Birch’s father purchased a tow truck as a sideline to his work in the oil patch. In 2005, he purchased a second truck and turned his attention to the company full-time. With his wife working dispatch, they were soon able to build a thriving enterprise. Today the company employs nearly a dozen and has access to about 20 trucks.“I love this industry because you are constantly helping and saving people in need,” said Birch.
Photos courtesy Justin Birch