Horses rescued from shrinking island home

Published 12:02 am Wednesday, April 16, 2008

NATCHEZ — Four horses on Giles Island Hunting Club really never had anything to worry about, despite the river creeping ever closer to where they stood.

That’s because Jimmy Riley, manager at Giles Island Hunting Club, exercised great caution.

“Better safe than sorry, that’s the key phrase,” he said as he relaxed between trips to save the horses.

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The horses had been moved to a high area on the island, or the sand field, as Riley called it.

He said they had plenty of food and he was taking a small boat out every day to bring the horses sacks of feed. A tank on the island kept several troughs full of water.

The horses would have still had dry ground to stand on until the river reached 58 feet, but he decided he didn’t want to take any chances.

“I’d been growing ulcers over this for two weeks,” he said.

He said in 1997 he saw the river rise — which was the last time the river flooded badly — and he knows what the river is capable of.

The first obstacle to hurdle was getting a barge. He said the barge he had been using sunk last year so he was looking for another option.

Riley contacted Natchez Island Hunting Club to see about borrowing a barge.

After that came through, he needed to find a tugboat to pull the barge up the Mississippi River to the Old River because the small boats they had were no match for the swift currents of the Mississippi.

He was able to find a tugboat and captain at Vidalia Dock and Storage and the rescue mission was on.

“It never ceases to amaze me how you can find good people when you need them,” he said.

Riley said he knew he needed to move fast because the tugboat captain was going to go out of town on Friday and be gone for two weeks.

From Vidalia Dock and Storage, the tugboat pushed the barge for about 12 miles to the Old River, Riley said.

The tug couldn’t go any further due to tree branches and that’s when Riley and his team made the switch to join boats for the rest of the four-mile journey to the island.

Though Riley doesn’t claim to be an expert in equestrian rescue, he said working for Giles Island and living on the river, it’s something that has to be dealt with.

“It’s just the way of life on the river,” he said.

Once the barge reached the island, the horses were transferred two-by-two onto a horse trailer connected to a truck that sat on the barge.

Riley said because the horses they were saving weren’t highly trained and were slightly wild, it was unsafe for them to just be on the barge.

With the horses not being tame, they could charge the gates on the barge, knock them over and fall into the river.

Riley and his crew of men took the entire day to rescue the horses.