As the sun set over Loon Point near Santa Barbara on Tuesday evening, waves crashed onto the sand, apparently spooking an Arabian show horse named William.
William, a 7-year-old grey stallion, had been part of a photo shoot with other horses. Frightened, he bolted into the surf.
He started to swim. And swim. And swim until he was nearly three miles offshore, headed for oil rigs.
On land, a team of four from the Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol, Carpenteria-Summerland Fire Water Rescue, and California State Parks set out to find the horse, whose official name is Air of Temptation. His owner, Mindy Peters, told Huffington Post that he had never been swimming in his life.
"Horses can swim, but not well,” she told HuffPo. Peters was driving when she learned about her sea horse and immediately bee-lined to the beach. She said William is worth about $100,000 to $150,000.
Ryan Kelly, a Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol Officer, was the first on site, heading out with a small motorboat. Overhead, a helicopter searched as well.
As the sun set further, the team worried they were losing light. But after a half hour search, they saw a nose and part of a face peaking above the water.
“It was a real needle-in-a-haystack kind of find,” Kelly told msnbc.com. “He looked like every other bird that was just sitting on the water.”
William was drifting with the current but still heading out to sea. When he saw the search and rescue team, he appeared startled but also exhausted.
They corralled the horse and used boathook to grab his reins. They made a makeshift harness to slip under his saddle and tie to the side of the rescue boat. They wanted to keep him buoyant so he wouldn’t sink and drown from exhaustion.
The return took two hours, because the horse moved at about a mile an hour. It was also occasionally scary for the rescue team.
“Some of the grunts and noises he was making along the way -- we weren’t sure how he was doing,” Kelly said. “We weren’t sure if he had other problems. He was making noise, thrashing around and other times he’d be completely still.”
One of the firefighters held his head above water and reassured him, Kelly said.
“It’s going to be all right,” the firefighter said, according to Kelly, petting the horse's head.
Once they hit the beach, the rescue team handed William off to a crew on paddle boats.
Waiting for William was a veterinarian who guided him to a trailer. William is now recuperating.
Peters, who has owned William for a little over a year, told HuffPo that her family was “scared to death we were going to lose him, that he was going to drown.”
“He is absolutely part of our family,” she said.
More content from msnbc.com and NBC News:
- Hawaii first state to ban plastic bags at checkout
- Veterans to return war medals in protest
- 'Mama bear' sued by church over online criticism
- Video: Dad of sole plane crash survivor: It's a miracle