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Stranded horse safely flown from sand bar to dry land

by Catherine Holland

Posted on March 16, 2010 at 5:46 PM

Updated Wednesday, Mar 17 at 4:36 AM

BUCKEYE -- After being stranded on a sand bar in the Gila River in Buckeye since Friday afternoon, Colorado the horse was air-lifted to dry land Tuesday morning in a spectacle rarely seen by most people. After about an hour of prep work, the air-lift happened at about 8:15 a.m.

The horse, which weighs about 900 lbs., was sedated before he was strapped into a special harness that was then attached to a helicopter for a short flight -- about a mile -- from the sand bar to land.

While the weather was nice for the air-lift, there was some concern about the horse thrashing in the harness as he dangled about 100 feet below the helicopter. That's why a vet administered a tranquilizer. In addition a hood was placed over Colorado's head to help keep him calm.

Aerial video showed Colorado standing quietly as his owner and volunteers strapped him into the harness.

An anonymous benefactor donated the money to cover the helicopter, which costs about $1,800 per hour to operate.

Along with two other horses and their riders, Colorado was swept away by the rushing waters of the Gila River Friday afternoon. It happened near 222nd Avenue and Eagle Mountain Road in Buckeye south of the Valley. One of those horses was rescued, but the other suffered a broken leg and had to be put down.

All three of the riders were rescued.

"We train extensively for rescues just like that," said MCSO Rescue Specialist Roger Yensen on Friday.

Plans to rescue Colorado were several days in the making and involved many volunteers, including several from the Arizona Equine Rescue Organization, Inc. who were familiar with air-lifting animals.The pilots at controls of the helicopter -- Gary Mercer and Jeff Boatmand of Airwest Helicopters, which operates out of Glendale Airport -- are no strangers to long-line operations like Tuesday's horse rescue. Lifting heavy loads is what they do.

While the preparations were meticulous and lengthy, the actual flight from the sand bar to dry land was relatively short -- just a couple of minutes.

Once the "Colorado the flying horse" was gently set down, more volunteers got to work unharnessing him. He appeared to be just fine and could be seen walking around, much to the delight of everyone assembled and those involved in the rescue operation.