MARRUM, Netherlands – Rescuers on horseback lured a herd of about 100 horses off a mud-soaked knoll where they had been stranded for three days and led them through receding flood waters to safe ground Friday.
Nineteen horses had drowned or died of exposure from the days and nights on the patch of earth that was turned into an island during a storm Tuesday night.
The plight of the horses has gripped the country after the storm surge pushed sea water into the wilderness area outside the dikes of Marrum, a town 90 miles northeast of Amsterdam.
Four women on horseback guided the animals about 650 yards to higher ground, and the entire herd — except one horse — followed them back without hesitation.
The animals cantered through the shallow water, and burst into a gallop as they reached solid land, apparently relieved at being able to stretch their legs.
"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.
Earlier in the day, firefighters and animal welfare officers had carefully mapped out the return route.
The storm had lifted the North Sea waters as much as 13 feet above normal. Three days later it was less than 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 operation, 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.
Marrum's fire department floated or ferried around 20 horses, including the smallest foals, to safety with the help of small boats on Wednesday, but after that their rescue efforts came to a standstill.
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.
The Dutch army also tried to rescue the animals Wednesday, but called off the operation when water levels began to recede, grounding pontoon boats.
Marrum's mayor, Wil van den Berg, said helicopters were ruled out for transporting the animals, as the noise and lights might have panicked the animals and caused more to drown.
The Netherlands' Party for the Animals said it has filed a complaint against the horses' owner, and the operator of the wilderness area where they are stranded, since the Netherlands' national weather service had put the country on alert for rising flood waters early Tuesday.
The Agriculture Ministry ordered an investigation into the incident.
"We're going to work together with prosecutors to see whether there was any criminal act committed," spokeswoman Anita Douven said. "That could be negligence, or possibly mishandling of the animals."