By PETER DEJONG
The Associated Press
MARRUM, Netherlands -- A herd of horses marooned on a lowland knoll for three days by rising floodwaters waded to safety on Friday, led by wranglers following an underwater path marked out by half-submerged stakes.
The horses were neck deep at times and had to swim at some spots, especially the foals. But they began to canter as they neared the edge of the brackish water, and burst into a gallop once they reached solid land, apparently relieved at being able to stretch their legs.
The plight of the herd of about 100 horses has gripped the Netherlands since a storm surge Tuesday night pushed sea water into the wilderness area outside the dikes of Marrum, a town 90 miles northeast of Amsterdam. Before they could be saved, 19 of the horses drowned or died of exposure. Several rescued by boat earlier in the week have contracted lung infections.
With support from rescue workers on the knoll and a chain of small boats indicating the route, the four young women on horseback -- riders from the town's Cavalry Club -- on Friday guided the remaining animals about 650 yards to higher ground. All but one horse followed them without hesitation.
'Went off almost perfectly'
"It worked, and it went off almost perfectly," said Jacob Prins, a firefighter from the nearby town of Hallum who helped in the operation.
The remaining horse was led back later, escorted by firefighters on foot. They needed to attach a rope to its hindquarters to compel it to walk the final stretch. It collapsed after reaching shore, and was covered by blankets and attended by veterinarians.
Prins said the horse that collapsed was taken to a warm stall, where it was expected to make a full recovery.
"It was just exhausted," he said.
The Dutch Agriculture Ministry ordered an investigation into whether either the horses' owners or the managers of the nature preserve where they were roaming should be held responsible for neglect or abuse.
Marianne Thieme, leader of the Netherlands' Party for the Animals, said it was clear something went badly wrong, since the country's weather service had warned of possible flooding as early as Tuesday morning.
"The most terrible thing is that the death and suffering of all these horses could have been prevented. When autumn comes, you know that if you keep animals outside the dikes you put them at great risk," she said.
She said that the horses' owner has been accused of neglecting his animals in the past, and the nature reserve's managers had failed to enforce an Oct. 15 deadline for allowing animals to graze in the area.
The storm had lifted the North Sea waters as much as 13 feet above normal. Three days later it was less than a 3 feet deep in most flooded fields, with pits up to 6 feet deep where they are crisscrossed with drainage channels. The channels, along with submerged barbed-wire fences, were difficult to see.
Before the rescue mission, a veterinarian examined the horses and rescue workers gave them hay and fresh water to drink to raise their strength.
Their rescue capped several days of drama.
Dutch television and newspapers showed dramatic images of the horses huddled together, their backs to the wind whipping up small waves in water surrounding their isolated island.
Marrum's fire department floated or ferried around 20 horses, including the smallest foals, to safety with the help of small boats on Wednesday. The Dutch army also tried to rescue the animals, but called off the operation when water levels began to recede, grounding pontoon boats.
Marrum Mayor Wil van den Berg ruled out the use of helicopters for transporting the animals, as the noise might have panicked the animals and caused more to drown.