In a drama that transfixed the Netherlands,four womenon horseback led about 100 horses to safety on Friday from a flood-washed temporary islet where theywere stranded for three days.

Nineteen horses had drowned or died of exposure since Tuesday night, when astorm surge pushed sea water into an area outside the dikes of Marrum, northeast of Amsterdam. The horses took refuge on a muddy mound surrounded by water.

In the rescue, the womenguided the herd through receding floodwaters to higher ground about 600 metres away. All of the horses except one followed without hesitation.

One woman fell into the water during the ride but remounted to finish the job. The last horse, led back later, collapsed after reaching shore and was being attended by veterinarians.

The horses' predicament riveted the country, where television and newspapers carried dramatic photographs and footage of the horses bunched together, their backs to the wind that whipped up small wavesaround the island.

Veterinarians, firefighters and animal welfare officers brought the horses hay and fresh water and emergency workers in boatsmanaged to ferry about 20to safety on Wednesday.

The water was about a metre deep in most places, but depthsreached two metres where drainage channelscrossed fields surrounding the knoll.

The Dutch army tried to rescue the animals Wednesday afternoon, but called off the operation when water levels receded to less than a metre in some places, grounding pontoon boats.

With files from the Associated Press