Quick-thinking rescuers pull horse from icy West Tisbury pond

Stephen Chapman, an experienced photographer, said he was shaking too much to get a good picture, but he managed to take this image of rescuer Jeremy Bradshaw (left), an unidentified man and owner Pia Centenari-Leonard, trying to help pull Adara out of the ice. — Photo by Stephen Chapman

Updated 12:10 pm, February 14, 2013.

There was a moment, in the initial frantic effort to save Windsor’s Adara, a hardy Welsh pony, when it seemed like it couldn’t get much worse. It got worse.

Adara fell through the ice in a paddock pond at the Deep Bottom Pond subdivision in West Tisbury Sunday afternoon. Pia Centenari-Leonard, who owns the 16-year-old mare, was out on the ice, trying to calm her pony, when she looked up and saw the other five Pearl Cove Farm horses running through the fresh snow toward the pond.

The weekend blizzard had left deep snow drifts that made it impossible to see where the pasture stopped and the ice-covered pond began. Most of the other horses were bigger breeds, and would have been impossible to get out of the pond without a crane.

Stephen Chapman, a nearby homeowner who Ms. Centenari-Leonard did not know, except for an occasional glimpse when he walked around the paddock with his camera, arrived to help.

“I told him, please hold on to her halter and don’t let her slip under,” Ms. Centenari-Leonard said, as she recounted the dramatic story several days later. “I’m thinking, I don’t even know this guy. He’s eight feet out on the ice, holding a horse, so she won’t go down. If she got tired or cold, she would have just slipped right under.”

Ms. Centenari-Leonard began to corral the other five horses, to prevent them from running out onto the ice, too.

A picture of panic

Mr. Chapman is a retired creative director for a corporate design firm who lives in one of the homes that surround the paddock. He was struck by the beauty of the meadow, and the picturesque post and beam barn topped by a rooster weather vane. The barn sits in the center of the field between the man-made ponds on either end.

Earlier this year, he began taking his camera on his frequent walks around the paddock, with plans to publish a book of photographs. That’s why he was out Sunday afternoon, to catch the last light on the snow-covered pasture. That’s when he saw Adara, always among the most curious of the band, wandering through the snow. He thought perhaps she was coming to greet him at the fence, as she sometimes does. He didn’t realize she was on the ice, until he saw her crash through. He used his mobile phone to call the Deep Bottom Pond property manager for help.

“I don’t know anything about horses,” Mr. Chapman said. “I didn’t know if she could extract herself. It was soon clear that she couldn’t. I climbed the fence. You couldn’t run that day. Everything was ice. I came as fast as I could.”

He got to Adara just as the other horses began their curious charge toward the pond. That is when Ms. Centenari-Leonard put all her trust in a stranger so she could stop the other horses.

“I grabbed her halter and put my head on hers and tried to hold her from slipping back,” Mr. Chapman said. “You can’t do that with a 1,000-pound horse, but spiritually, I was trying.”

A curious charge

Ms. Centenari-Leonard, a breeder for the past 20 years, faced a daunting task, trying to herd the other horses back to the barn. When one horse in a band is in distress, panic can quickly spread to the other animals. Five horses running around in a panic is a dangerous situation, even for an experienced horsewoman. She managed to get all the horses stopped before they ran out on the ice, except for a big Quarter Horse mare named Fenway Baby.

“We were playing capture the flag with the others,” she said, but it was no game. “Another horse got past me, and she also fell in.”

Fenway Baby plunged through the ice into the shallow water at the edge of the pond, but was able struggle free by herself. Ms. Centenari-Leonard herded them all back to the barn.

With the other horses safe behind a gate, she grabbed some hay netting from the barn, thinking it might help with the rescue, and headed back toward the pond.

Adara was still holding on, her head and shoulders above the water, and her feet tucked under her like a cat. She was shivering violently, struggling among the chunks of snow and ice surrounding her, but not as panicked as she could have been, Ms. Centenari-Leonard said. That’s when, she said, the angels showed up.

“I was freaked out, I thought I was going to lose her,” she said. “I looked up, and there were people coming from all directions to help.”

Helping hands

Ms. Centenari-Leonard’s husband, Richard Leonard, chief operating officer of the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank, came to help. So did a dozen other neighbors and friends, including Jeremy and Annie Bradshaw, Michael Jackson, Peter Marzbanian, Dr. Connie Breese, Margaret Oliveira, Betsy MacDonald, David Schuster, Cole Powers, Eric deBettencourt, Donna Bouchard, and others who went unnoticed but not unappreciated in all the commotion.

Many are West Tisbury volunteer firefighters, well trained for emergency situations.

“The first thing they wanted was for me to get off the ice, so they wouldn’t have a person in there as well,” Mr. Chapman said. “I hung out until they figured out what the scheme was going to be.”

Was he frightened that he might plunge into the frigid water? “It crossed my mind, but I guess it was one of those situations where you’re doing what you need to do,” Mr. Chapman said. “I couldn’t tell whether I was completely on the ice, or on the shoreline.”

West Tisbury police department Sgt. Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter was off duty but heard the call for help. “She had two feet up on the ice, and her hind quarters in the drink,” said Mr. Manter, who is also a West Tisbury selectman.

The rescuers got one of the hay nets under Adara. A horse’s instinct, when something unseen touches its belly or hind quarters, is to run. Adara began to struggle harder. The rescuers cleared chunks of ice from around her hind quarters, and managed to get a rope under her.

“Three or four of us got on each side, and we all pulled,” Sgt. Manter said. “She came out, and ran for the barn.”

Hold on

Two days after the rescue, Ms. Centenari-Leonard was still exhausted from the ordeal. The drama seemed to rush past in a heartbeat, but her mobile phone provided an accurate timeline.

She got her first notice in a call at 4:11 pm. She called 9-1-1 a few moments later. Jeremy Bradshaw was the first rescuer to respond, six minutes after her emergency call. At 4:44 pm, the makeshift rescue crew gave a final tug on the rope, and got Adara out of the frozen pond. She estimates the pony was in the water for 34 minutes.

“That’s a lot of time to be in the water,” she said. “I think she was a little bit in shock. That’s one of the reasons she was struggling. It was heartbreaking.”

Welsh ponies are a sturdy breed, tracing their lineage back to the middle ages. More than a thousand years of soundness and stamina bred into the ponies, who thrived in a harsh seaside climate, probably helped Adara survive her time in the freezing water.

Dr. Breese, the veterinarian who takes care of all the Pearl Cove Farm horses, stayed into the night, helping get Adara warmed up, and tending to a lot of swelling in her hind quarters.

Ms. Centenari-Leonard walked the pony around the shed row every two hours all night long, to make sure her legs and internal organs were functioning. Adara is okay, though it’s a safe bet she will stay away from the pond for a while.

Ms. Centenari-Leonard told the story, with effusive praise for the angels who came to help, as she was beginning her daily chores on Tuesday morning.

“Steve Chapman is a hero, they’re all heroes,” she said. “So typical of the Vineyard.”

Adara is a pretty smart, but curious pony, she said, stressing that the meadow was like a frozen tundra, and it was impossible to discern the shoreline of the iced over pond under the snow. Even some of the rescuers unknowingly ventured out onto the ice as they came to help.

As she spoke on the phone, she saw Mr. Chapman approaching the barn, the first time she had seen him since Sunday afternoon. She interrupted the story.

“I have to give this guy a really big hug,” she said. “Hold on.”

This article was updated to correct Mr. Leonard’s title. He is the chief operating officer of the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank, not the president.