Shea Center Welcomes Orange County Firefighters for Third Annual Equine Rescue Training

First responders load a horse into a trailer
Firefighters participate in an equine rescue training at The Shea Center. Photo by Taryn Trumble

On March 25, 2024, The J. F. Shea Therapeutic Riding Center in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., hosted its highly anticipated third annual Equine Training in collaboration with the OC Fire Authority’s Urban Search & Rescue Team (US&R). This unique event, generously funded by The Gary Sinise Foundation, offered an immersive experience for over 100 first responders seeking to enhance their skills in horse rescue procedures.

Established in 1978, The Shea Center stands as one of the world’s premier equine assisted services providers. With 27 horses and over 700 dedicated volunteers, The Shea Center addresses 87 distinct disabilities through programs such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech-language pathology, mental healthcare, and adaptive riding.

Firepower Meets Horsepower

The idea for this training followed on the heels of a remarkable rescue in 2021 where OCFA saved Choco, a Shea Center therapy horse. Choco ended up in a very tricky situation while out on a trail ride in the surrounding hills after he was struck by a bird flying into him. His rider dismounted to check on him and the spooked horse got loose, ending up trapped between concrete and rebar on his back in a culvert. He was extracted by helicopter airlift and amazingly came out of the ordeal with just a few scratches.

The first annual training initiative began in the wake of this rescue in March 2022, setting the stage for an ongoing partnership between heroes and horses. Horses and livestock are integral to Orange County’s culture. Firefighters’ proficiency in safely rescuing and evacuating these animals is crucial to ensuring the safety of both human and animal lives.

Firefighters practice a mock equine rescue training simulation with a life-size model horse
Firefighters practice a mock rescue situation with a life-size model horse. Photo by Taryn Trumble

San Juan Capistrano, where the Shea Center is located, has California’s highest per capita ratio of horses to people, serving as the perfect location for this specialized training. [The OCFA’s commitment to addressing the unique needs of a community where the welfare of residents and their animals is paramount.]

“Our commitment to provide exceptional emergency support services to the nearly two million people we serve includes their pets, horses, and livestock, all of which add tremendous value and joy to our communities,” says Brian Fennessy, Fire Chief of the Orange County Fire Authority. “The training necessary to extend our services to these large animals hinges upon the support of partners like the Shea Center and the Gary Sinise Foundation, and I’m grateful and proud that our collective work makes us a national model for large animal rescue.”

Comprehensive Equine Training for Firefighters

Participants engaged in comprehensive equine training, with four stations covering behavior and handling, equine anatomy, situational rescue procedures and equipment, and safe trailer loading and unloading.

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