Alexis Langlois, who manages a ranch in Kalispell, Mont., heard her neighbor frantically knocking on her front door on a recent Monday afternoon.
She threw on her winter boots — without socks — and sprinted toward the small pond on the 80-acre property. She was stunned by what she saw: four horses submerged up to their necks in 10 feet of ice water.
The horse siblings — Apollo, 4, Tilly, 3, Sergeant, 3, and Cricket, 2 — were trying to get out of the pond, which looked like it was frozen solid but clearly was not, said Langlois, who owns Tilly.
“They fell right through the center of this little pond,” said Langlois, recalling the Dec. 5 incident. She thinks the horses, each weighing about 1,200 pounds, might have been playing on the pond. “There was no way for them to crawl and get out. It was too deep.”
She felt helpless.
“I’m their mom,” Langlois said, adding that she was there when each of the horses were born and that she trained them all. “There’s nothing I could have possibly done to help them.”
She immediately called 911, as well as one of the co-owners of the ranch, Stacia McAdams, who lives half an hour away.
While waiting for help to arrive, “people just started showing up,” she said. “Neighbors were pouring in. People came with ropes, chain saws, shovels and pickaxes.”
“I grabbed a bunch of supplies,” said Countryman, whose two teenagers and their friend also assisted with the effort.
“It was 17 degrees that day,” she said, adding that she brought out handwarmers and water for the helpers.
Everyone was determined to get the horses out of the pond — which is about 15 feet wide.
Beneath a six-inch layer of ice, the water was “just barely above freezing,” said Chris Yerkes, the South Kalispell Fire Department chief who rushed to the pond with about a dozen volunteer personnel.
When the firefighters arrived, neighbors had already attempted to pave a path through the ice toward the edge of the pond using pickaxes, sledgehammers and shovels, and “we continued with that effort,” Yerkes said. Unfortunately, “as we got closer to the edge, we realized there was about three to four inches of mud.”
The thick layer of mud — which the rescuers couldn’t cut through — blocked the horses from climbing out.
Firefighters enlisted additional support from Flathead County Animal Control, as well as staff from local equestrian organization Rebecca Farm.
“There had to have been at least 60 people here,” Langlois said. “It was very swift action on everybody’s part.”
It took nearly two hours to find a workable solution that could bring all four horses to safety. It was a process of trial and error that required a few firefighters to slip into the frigid water to tie straps under the chests of the horses.
At one point, “somebody fell through the ice up to their knees,” Countryman said.
The scene was hectic, and everyone — including the horses — were panicked.
“I’ve been involved with animal rescues over the years, and almost without fail, in horse rescues, they end up not surviving the rescue effort,” Yerkes said.
“It was very stressful,” Langlois said, adding that, given her close connection with the animals, any time she came near the horses, “they started climbing on top of each other to try to get out.”
“I had to stay away from the edge for my own safety and theirs,” she continued. “I tried to calm them down with my voice.”
Emergency responders eventually secured a rope around the first horse and used a tractor to pull it out of the mud, “and manpower got them to the edge,” Yerkes said, explaining that about 12 people were pulling a rope that was secured to the animal. The mechanism worked, and the first horse was excavated around 3 p.m.
Using the same method but with a more powerful tractor, they saved the remaining three horses, one by one. The effort took a total of about three hours. Despite being chilled and startled, all four horses seemed healthy.
“I was surprised that we got the first one out, and actually shocked that we were able to get all of them out alive,” Yerkes said. “It was a great feeling of relief.”
Although the horses were safely removed from the partially frozen pond, Langlois was still shaken up. In the decade that she has worked at the ranch, she said, the pond “has never been an issue before.”
“We’ve never even thought about roping it off,” Langlois said.
The ranch, called Artemis Acres, is a horseback riding facility and lodge. Langlois runs the horse trail rides in the summer, and she looks after the property in the winter — including the herd of about 40 horses that live there.
On the morning of the incident, Langlois completed her routine herd check to ensure all the horses were doing well, then headed inside for a quick lunch. Before an hour had passed, her neighbor came knocking.
“I’ve been trying so hard to make sense of it,” Langlois said. “It’s as if the whole group went to go get water and somebody went on the ice and the rest of them blindly followed. That’s what young horses will do.”
Langlois is grateful for the end result — which, she said, wouldn’t have been possible without the help of her neighbors who not only assisted in the rescue effort, but also stuck around after for further support.
“I never asked for help, and the entire community came out and helped me,” said Langlois, who has since fenced off the pond. “It was an unbelievable experience.”
The helpers said there was no other option.
“It was essential that people came together,” Countryman said. “It was essential that people stopped and came and helped; if they hadn’t, we wouldn’t have the same outcome.”
Once the four horses were rescued, their vital signs were checked and monitored, and a veterinarian came the following morning and gave them all a clean bill of health.
Now, more than a week since the dramatic rescue effort unfolded, “everybody is back to normal now,” Langlois said. “It’s a miracle.”