How to save a life: Lyons fire chief and horse rescue team up to train first responders in large animal rescue |

How to save a life: Lyons fire chief and horse rescue team up to train first responders in large animal rescue

Lyons fire chief J.J. Hoffman stands next to Lucky, a plastic horse dummy used to practice large animal rescue techniques.
Nikki Work |

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To donate to the 2016 Lucky Road Tour, go to To donate to the Lyons Fire Protection District directly, go to

Lyons Fire Protection District Chief J.J. Hoffman has seen horses and cattle fall off the sides of trails and into their feeding troughs. He’s seen them trapped in flipped-over livestock trailers on the highway. Hoffman’s seen the animals wander out onto ice and fall through. He’s even had to pull a terrified horse out of a backyard swimming pool.

Hoffman knows how important — and risky — large animal rescue is because growing up on a farm, he’s done it his whole life. So he takes Lucky, a plastic horse model that weighs more than 500 pounds, and drops him into muddy ravines or through the thinning spring ice over Boulder County’s lakes. He flips Lucky on his back and tells firefighters they only have a matter of minutes to get him upright before the pressure on his back will kill him.

He teaches firefighters how to rescue the life-size replica with the materials they already have on scene. That way, the firefighters in Lyons, and those who’ve already gotten training from Hoffman at nearby stations, can practice with Lucky before they get called to the scene of an actual emergency.

Though Hoffman said sometimes, his station will go months without getting a call about an animal in distress, when that call does come, it’s important to be prepared.

That’s why he, and his mother Shirley Hoffman, founder of rescue organization Horses Forever, are working to start the 2016 Lucky Road Tour.

To do that, though, they have to raise money. Hoffman uses his time, staff and materials to teach the course, all of which are scarce since the September 2013 floods devastated Lyons. So Shirley came up with the idea to combine the much-needed awareness about large animal rescue with a way to do some good.

Hoffman and Shirley’s goal is to take the training materials, which Hoffman created, to every fire district in the state to teach them how to handle the worst case when it happens, because as Hoffman knows, it does happen.

“It’s very likely it could happen anytime, anywhere,” Hoffman said.

Tools of the trade

As part of the training, Hoffman shows a sling he made from hoses, ropes and other materials fire departments always has on hand.

Most existing rescue tools, like complicated slings with dozens of straps, are too expensive for most fire departments to afford. The Anderson Sling, considered one of the best in the business, comes in at $4,000.

The sling he made is simple. It’s one size fits all, or at least most. On a big draft horse, it would be pretty snug, but on the everyday cow or horse, it will do the trick. Pieces of hose wrap around the horse’s backside and chest, then two more loop under its torso.

Then, those hoses attach to pieces of cable that can be hooked to a lift or pulled by firefighters. That sling only cost about $400 to make, and is something any fire department can easily replicate, Hoffman said.

In a recent rescue of a horse that had fallen on its back into a feed trough, Hoffman said he and several other firefighters were able to roll the horse to its feet using the contraption.

Doing a lot with a little

Hoffman took pieces of each animal rescue training he’d seen and from his background on the farm and in the horse show circuit to build from scratch — much like creating his own rescue sling — a training that would be as safe for the animal and the first responder as possible.

Though Hoffman fully believes this training is important, it’s a hard sell for the department to absorb the cost of staff and materials, especially considering how much debt remains from the 2013 flood recovery.

When the St. Vrain River overflowed, it washed away the Lyons Fire Station No. 2 off its foundation, as well as a brand new fire truck. Construction began on a replacement station to serve the more remote areas in Lyons the next year. The building is mostly finished now, but is missing key structural elements still, like a sprinkler system, Hoffman said. That’s because the department still needs hundreds of thousands of dollars to finish rebuilding and recovering from the flood that nearly wiped out the community.

Shirley Hoffman, who owns Lucky, saw how hard it was on her son to balance the needs of the struggling department and the desire to still train. She figured Horses Forever could help.

As the owner of a horse rescue organization, she agrees that more first responders need to be trained in how to properly care for large animals in distress, so she decided to turn the trainings into a fundraiser for the Lyons Fire Protection District. That way, Hoffman and his staff can continue to spread good while receiving a little as well. If a fire department wants to host a training, the training itself, refreshments and materials will all be free, Shirley said — but she encourages that the department to make a donation to help the Lyons with its flood recovery.

Both Shirley and her son want to see this kind of training in every fire department across the state. Shirley said she really wants the department to see the benefit of helping educate others, but Hoffman said while that’s a great boon to his city, for him, the trainings are more about helping his fellow firefighters.

Shirley Hoffman drove her red pickup truck through Blue Mountain, the area of Lyons where the new Station No. 2 is located, and where the old one slid from solid ground and into the St. Vrain. All that’s left of the old station is a shed, an old water pipe and a patch of concrete, surrounded by red dirt. You can see the new station from the river, and from high on the hillside where the new station is located, the old station just looks like a smear of red.

In between the two sites and Station No. 1 in downtown Lyons are several dozen properties with acreage and horses grazing outside, right by the new path the river carved. Just like agriculture has always been part of Colorado, the flood is now part of Lyons’ identity. ❖

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