Icelandic Horse Connection

Loftfari and the Rattlesnake

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I am sorry that this is a rather long and terribly sad story. Loftfari and I were attacked in Spring (April 25th, 1993) on the first warm weekend of the year. We were on a wilderness trail here in Trabuco Canyon, Calif. The trail is in a regional park, full of wild-life, but flanked by Orange County development on several sides. (We are located near San Juan Capistrano, between LA and San Diego). I was in front, on Lofty, and my Mom, Sigrid, was behind on Svipur.

We were on a marked, but rather infrequently used trail, along a creek-bed. The 5-foot rattlesnake literally flung itself out at us from about 5 feet away, with no warning rattle. It began rattling as it flew around under my horse's legs, like a mad whirling dervish. It struck many times on Lofti's inner leg. I don't know if it delivered venom with every bite, but rattlesnakes are capable of multiple 'payload' and non-payload strikes: this is something I learned in my research after this terrible incident.

Astonishingly, my brave Loftfari did not bolt, move, or even flinch. He just looked under him, as the deafening rattle shattered the quiet and the snake whipped maniacly about under us. The snake whipped around my boots for many seconds. I yelled to my Mom to stop behind us and I urged Lofti on a few feet to safety. Lofti did not even break stride. The snake slithered off, and I got a good look at him. This was the largest rattler I have ever seen.

I got off to examine Lofti. I thought that somehow we must have evaded any bites, because Lofti was so unruffled. Unfortunately, within 2 minutes his breathing became heavy and gasping. We knew then that he was struck. I left and ran for help. Within 15 minutes we had the fireman with oxygen tanks and our Vet attending. Lofti gasped for 15 minutes, becoming more unsteady each minute. At 15 minutes after the bite, he collapsed to the ground, as Svipur, his stall-mate of 7 years, looked on, worriedly. We did CPR and gave him oxygen for 30 more minutes, keeping his heart and breath going, but he was gone. Lofti died on the trail, a few feet from where the snake bit him, within 20 minutes.

My vet and I did a lot of reading and consultation to find out how such a catastrophic thing could have occurred, as snake bites rarely kill dogs, let alone a 750 pound animal. Here is what we surmise:

The snake was a 'rager', Old-West parlance for a half-blind, half-asleep snake coming out of hibernation. These snakes are hungry, can't see well (eyes still covered with membrane) and they are chock FULL of venom after their long sleep (with no kills) though the winter. They are called 'ragers' because they are unpredictable, aggressive and dopey. I have seen many snakes and shared the trail with them for years. Rattlers are typically shy and don't want trouble. This snake was different. He literally flung himself at us, enraged, from a far distance. We were quite noisy (talking and so on) beforehand, but he was completey startled and did not retreat from the sound: he attacked.

Also: It was our misfortune that Lofti was evidently bitten in a main vein/artery, rather than sub-cutaneously. Thus he likely received an enormous, 'mainline' (intravenous) bolus of venom, straight to his heart/circulatory system. This shut him down and put him into anaphylactic shock. This was a freak occurrence, as skin/flesh bites are seldom life- threatening. Look at the inside of your horse's upper thigh, after a long ride: large veins are very raised and visible. This must be how the venom got into Lofti's system so quickly (or so we guess).

Anyway, there was no hope of saving him. I have seen many rattlers since, but have met no more 'ragers'. Statistics show that most snake bites occur in April and in October/November: this is when the snakes are dim- witted and either coming out of or going into hibernation. Bites cluster in the early morning, and at around 5:00 in the evening: again, this is when the snakes are soaking up the first morning sun, or getting the last bit of warmth before the cool Fall evening. During these times, I ride only on wide, Fire-road type trails, and I never enter deep grass. I always ride in chaps or tall boots. For a year afterward, I jumped at coiled garden hoses :(((!

This is my sad story. Sorry for the length, but maybe the information will help someone else avoid a bite. Again, most snake-bites are not catastrophic. I liken this to being struck by lightning.

I often have thought that my Lofti could have reared and dumped me. That he was so calm may have kept me or my mother from harm. He was fearless and wise. SO sad that he came all the way from Iceland to be felled by a rattler.

- Helga, with fond memories of my brave little Lofti

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