You’ll rarely, if ever, see Willis Lamm without a Bluetooth in his ear. He is the person to call if there is a horse in trouble, and it seems as though his phone is always ringing. From his base of operations in Stagecoach, Nevada, Willis oversees the only formally-organized volunteer-led technical large animal rescue team in Nevada. His group is on call all day, every day, ready to spring into action. “It’s kinda like the volunteer fire department… for horses,” says Willis.

It’s an apt description since Willis spent nearly 30 years working for the fire service in the Bay Area. He retired and moved to Nevada in 2003, but instead of settling down, he got busier. At age 65, Willis has made a name for himself in this part of Nevada for his tireless energy. In addition to technical large animal rescue, he works with mounted search and rescue, does disaster response, and trains wild horses.

horses with leg caught in cattle guard
Volunteers help a wild horse trapped in a cattle guard. The horse walked away with only minor injuries. Photo by Dana McCoy.

Willis was informally doing large animal rescue in the region, but his group coalesced after the Pleasant Valley fire in 2012, which destroyed 29 homes just south of Reno. Willis and other volunteers stayed at the scene all night helping to evacuate livestock. After the fire, Willis formalized his group under his non-profit, Least Resistance Training Concepts (LRTC), and they’ve been responding to calls ever since.

Many states have technical large animal rescue (TLAR) groups. There aren’t really national statistics tracking groups, but Willis’ team might be the busiest in the country. Last year, they took 207 response calls. By comparison, the Los Angeles Special Mobile Animal Rescue Team (which is regarded as the largest TLAR group in the country) averages 125 calls a year. For Willis’ team, the work never ends.

They respond to calls involving cattle, sheep, goats, and other animals – but horses are their main business. They assist with incidents involving domestic horses, but 76% of the calls Willis gets involve wild horses, which makes sense since Nevada has more wild horses than any other state. They’ve seen it all: wild horses stuck in cattle guards, on roadways, caught in wire, fallen through ice, stuck in mud, and one time a foal with a tomato basket stuck on his head.

The most common calls are about horses on highways, which is always a potentially life-threatening incident. The Nevada Department of Transportation says there were 53 horse-related vehicle crashes on Nevada roadways from January to November 2017. NDOT has a number of fencing projects planned but they aren’t going up fast enough. That’s where Willis’ team is so crucial.

Last year, the LRTC team responded to a call about 42 horses stuck on U.S. 50. “We had to shut the highway down with Nevada Highway Patrol and the Sheriff’s Office,” he says. “We got the horses back on the proper side, through the fence, back onto the range. The next day they were out on the highway again because somebody left a gate open, which is how we believe they got out on the highway the first time.”

The LRTC rescue team is made up of three units, each fully equipped to handle calls individually or together. The group will respond to incidents in Lyon County, Storey County, Carson City, Douglas County, and a small portion of Washoe County. “Within reason, we’ll go where we’re requested,” says Willis. “The issue is the efficiency of response time.” In other words, the team is less effective the longer it takes them to respond to an incident.

man reaching out to horse laying down
Willis helps calm a wild horse stuck in a ditch. Photo by Kathy Port.

When a call comes in (usually to Willis), a group text goes out to all the volunteers with the situation details. Whoever is available and nearby answers the text and heads out to the scene. Once there, they asses the situation and come up with a plan. “Before we take action, we’re going to communicate the plan to everybody and we’re going to communicate the safety policy for that incident,” says Willis. Working with large animals adds an extra layer of difficulty and danger to their work, so safety is paramount.

One person is the designated safety officer at each scene. “The safety officer is the one person who will not multi-task,” says Willis. The safety officer’s job is to keep an eye over the entire scene and look for any hazards that might be overlooked. “Somebody can be so focused on a job that they’ve gotten distracted and they’ve put themselves in a dangerous situation – it can happen very easily,” says Willis.

When the LRTC team isn’t working, they’re training. There is a lot of specialized gear required to rescue large animals, and all the volunteers need to know how to use it properly. “People have been killed making mistakes addressing large animal incidents because they either didn’t have the right equipment or they didn’t have the appropriate safety culture,” says Willis. The team practices regularly as a group. Last year they added a horse to their training to make it more realistic. Winston is a fully articulating mannequin horse, who they can use in more challenging mock scenarios like overturned trailers or extrication.

Despite all their training and experience, not all rescues have a happy ending. In December 2017, Willis’ team responded to a call of a wild foal stuck in a frozen pond. The volunteers worked around-the-clock for 81 hours to get the horse out, build a recovery stall, and monitor for hypothermia. Despite their efforts, the foal, named Sven, did not survive. “Sven was a tough one,” says Wayne Woolway, one of the newer volunteers. “I held Sven in my arms. I was there all day and I was holding him up, working with him hands-on for like eight hours with Willis. When we lost him, that was pretty hard.”

woman giving milk to baby horse
A volunteer provides milk replacer to Sven, who was rescued after falling through the ice. Photo by Willis Lamm.

Wayne has been volunteering with Willis for about a year. He moved to Gardnerville, Nevada after a career as a police officer in Los Angeles. Wayne did not have previous experience working with horses. In fact, he says he didn’t even learn to ride until he was 60. He’s now an accomplished endurance rider and has discovered a new passion for working with TLAR. “I am so happy and I am so pleased that I have the ability and the honor to go out and impact a large animal’s life,” he says.

With a background in law enforcement, Wayne brings some special skills to the team. “Being able to handle complicated situations, stressful situations, dangerous situations – I think that all helps,” he says. “If you transmit your stress or your anxiousness to the horse… you know what happens. So with rescue, that’s the last thing you want to do. You have to be calm. You have to try to bring their stress level down.”

It takes a special kind of person to do large animal rescue. Not everyone can handle the high-stress situations or the strict organization of the team. Willis believes you’re either wired for it or you’re not. “We’re adrenaline junkies,” he says. “We get in there and we like to solve problems. Problem-solving, in the right environment, creates a dopamine response. And if you solve a lot of problems you get addicted to it.”

He isn’t the only one who has experienced the psychotropic effect of this kind of work. “When I come back from a rescue I feel high, almost like I had a drug,” says Wayne. “The high I get is satisfaction. It’s knowing that you helped an animal that nobody else can help. For a day or two after I’m walking on clouds!”

man hosing down horse in a pen
Willis hoses down a horse who was rescued from a sewer sludge pond and contaminated with hazardous materials. Photo by Willy Klaeson.

With dozens of volunteers at the ready and hundreds of successful rescues under the belt, the large animal rescue team has become an invaluable resource in the community. But what worries Willis now, is keeping it going. “At least three of our people are in their 70s and many of the rest of us are not spring chickens either,” he says. The problem is finding volunteers who have availability to be on call and respond to calls at a moments notice.  

Even more than volunteers, however, Willis says the biggest need is funding for continuing education and training. The group used to get grant money to help pay for training through the Nevada Division of Emergency Management, but that ran out several years ago. Now, the group relies solely on donations to help pay for equipment and training. Willis says he’d like to bring in a certified clinician. “You can get volunteers that have the right attitude, the right aptitude, the drive, and the availability,” says Willis. “But they need to be able to get the hands-on training so that everyone is functioning as a well-oiled machine.”

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Samantha Szesciorka is the founder of Sagebrush Rider. She is a former U.S. Army journalist and former television news producer. She also created the Nevada Discovery Ride and is a member of the Long Riders' Guild.