Our barrel racing family wasn’t spared the horrors of the natural disasters in 2017.
The epic California drought broke under a deluge of rain, flooding the state. Later in the year, rain-rich vegetation dried to a crisp and ignited, causing some of the deadliest fires on record.
Just before the dawn of spring, an inferno unfurled across the panhandle plains of Texas and Oklahoma, along with parts of Kansas and Colorado. Four lives were lost, including Cody Crockett, Sydney Wallace and Sloan Everett, who perished while trying to save livestock from the flames.
In the forest-rich Northwest and Mountain states, the annual summer burn was breaking records of its own. Lightning strikes, and even careless and thoughtless individuals who either ignored or sought to benefit from blazing America’s Western Wilderness, altered both landscapes and livelihoods.
The Northern Plains States battled some fires but were suffering from a long, slow roast as days turned into weeks, nearly months, without rain.
Yet, in Florida and Texas, the rain seemingly wouldn’t stop as two of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded made landfall. In Texas, Hurricane Harvey dumped a year’s worth of rainfall in a matter of days, causing a 500-year flood event. In Florida, rain coupled with Hurricane Irma-spawned tornados caused damage all across the state and into Georgia.
Chased By The Storm
Hurricane Irma couldn’t make up her mind where she wanted to go.
“One minute it was going down the east coast and another minute it was going down our coast,” said long-time trainer Kim Thomas, who manages an equestrian center in Parrish, Florida, about 25 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. “I had people call me wanting to bring their horses here, and then all of a sudden, it was coming our way. it was chaotic for a few days.”
Thankfully, Thomas only had to contend with rain, uprooted trees and a little wind damage.
“They were expecting it to be a [Category] 4 through the whole state, and by the time it got to us, it was A1,” Thomas said, who applauded Florida’s response to the threats and disasters. “My mom thought we all needed to be together, so I got her and went to my sister’s. While they didn’t get hammered, the town they lived by did. The eye went right through downtown Arcadia and Wauchula. There was so much stuff flooded.”
The worst after effect for Thomas and her sister was the rain rot the horses got from being in the storm.
“We turned our horses out in it,” Thomas said. “What you have to worry about is them getting hit by debris. If they are in the barn and the roof comes off, they can get hit by so much stuff, but if they’re out they have a chance to get away from it. We turned everything out in the pasture. One of Tami’s horses and one of mine—they were both black—got rain rot.”
Luckily it cleared up in 10 days.
“It was a weird, weird thing,” Thomas said. “They had only been out in it 24 hours, and I had already gone back home. I had never seen anything like it. Their skin got all wrinkly and felt like leather. We kept them inside under fans because it was almost like they couldn’t sweat.”
Thomas’ friend and fellow barrel racer Lisa Miller was truly chased by Hurricane Irma. She has a home and business in Key Largo on the Florida Keys, boards horses in Homestead, and has a second home in Ocala. All three were hit by Hurricane Irma.
“Our houses are OK, and our horses are OK,” Miller said. “You look back on all of it, and you just can’t believe it.” Miller planned well ahead and left the Keys the Tuesday before Irma hit. Rather than take the main highway from Homestead to Ocala, Miller went the “rural route” through the small towns.
“I got out early so I wouldn’t get stuck on the road,” Miller said. “It typically takes me five hours to get from Homestead to our barn in Ocala, and it took me seven hours—not because of traffic, but because every little small town had a stop light. But it was steady forward motion. I didn’t have the horses sitting in a hot trailer stopped on the highway.”
Miller also carried 25 gallons of extra fuel just in case she did run out and couldn’t find any.
“It paid to be prepared,” Miller said. Her preparation didn’t end once she got to Ocala, where 20 evacuated friends joined her.
“My husband stayed in the Keys to get our house shored up, and then he came up Thursday,” Miller said. “They were predicting it to come up the state, so I was trying to get our place in Ocala ready. We were cutting trees that might fall on the barn or house. It was a tough decision, to leave the horses out or put them in the barn. We decided to put them in the barn in case a fence went down. My barn has concrete walls, but had an old tin roof with wooden rafters. My husband used one-by-twos and tow-straps to ratchet the roof down to the concrete. By the grace of God, it worked. It looked funny, but it held that roof down.”
In mid-October, Miller says people were still trying to get things back to normal in the Keys.
“I’m in Key Largo, which is the upper Keys,” Miller said. “It’s not as bad. Most people had to deal with flooding downstairs. All the houses are built on stilts, so what would be our garage or storage area was under five feet of salt water. Whereas down south, they had severe damage, just devastation. It’s going to be months before they get back to normal. We were grateful we got the horses, and we lost very little. You don’t really understand until you go through something like that what it’s really like. We survived it, and we’re thankful.”
With fires burning all over Washington, Oregon and Montana, producer Mike Gammelgard of Barrel Racers National 4D opened his home in Oregon City to evacuated livestock.
“We had 35 evacuated horses, a herd of cows and two mini donkeys here for two weeks,” Gammelgard said. “Wilco and others donated feed, buckets, and fly spray. We had to feed, clean, doctor and watch them all during their stay. Sound Equine Options sent volunteers to help.” Gammelgard applauded SEO’s efforts throughout the ordeal.
“They were a great group of volunteers,” Gammelgard said. “By the time the county showed up to help the evacuation effort, SEO had the job well under control. The county just used SEO as their coordinator, as they were way ahead of anything the county had in place.” Gammelgard acted as a liason between community members and SEO.
“Folks with trailers would contact me to help,” Gammelgard said. “I would put them on a list, so when SEO called for more trailers, I could contact the next group and tell them where to meet. It was an incredible group of horsemen helping horsemen. We often had 50 to 60 trailers ready to roll, wanting to roll and many more than we actually needed. It was really pretty unbelievable.”
Although he didn’t believe any BRN4D members lost their homes or horses directly to the fires, the situation made for a difficult summer.
“I know several races were cancelled due to smoke,” Gammelgard said. “Travel was affected. Vets said it would take three to four weeks to get the smoke residue out of horses’ lungs, and many girls took that advice to heart.”
Gammelgard says his main takeaway from his experience this summer was the incredible support within our industry. “If you were in need, there were 100 families willing to help in each situation,” Gammelgard said. “It makes my heart feel good to know our equine community is so selfless. I was proud to be a part of it.”
Sometimes you just need to go to a barrel race. After Hurricane Harvey, Stacie Boudrie of Boling, Texas, needed something normal, something fun in her life. She made her runs and returned home to the RV she shares with her husband, Ryan, and their two kids while they wait for their destroyed home to be rebuilt.
“We had a little bit of water,” Stacie said with a small laugh. “We had six feet of water in our house, five feet in our shop and three to four feet in our barn.”
Shockingly, Stacie says they only had one day of heavy rainfall, but the upstream runoff into the nearby Colorado and San Bernard rivers flooded her property. “Basically, the Colorado and San Bernard touched, and they’re not close together at all,” Stacie said.
Having only lived in the area for a decade, Ryan started asking the old-timers for signs they needed to get out. “They told him as long as the water is moving and draining, you’re fine,” Stacie said. “When it starts backing up, you have about 8 to 10 hours. My husband put a stake in the ground to measure, and Monday evening he was watching with a friend and it started coming up.”
That evening, the Boudries decided to start getting the horses out. They needed to move their living quarters horse trailer before the water got high enough to damage the inside. An hour passed to move and settle one load of horses, but by the time Stacie got back to pick up the next set, she could no longer see the road through the water.
“I had to guess where I was driving,” Stacie said. “It was about three, three and a half feet deep. I got the second load out and said I’m not coming back with this trailer. We still had two mares and the babies left, but we didn’t think it would get that bad.”
Monday night, Stacie woke up at 3 a.m. to notice the water backing up along their second driveway. She got her car out before it was too deep. At 7 a.m., the water was still rising, and she told her family it was time to get out.
“We were really blessed,” Stacie said. “We had friends start showing up with trucks and trailers to help us get everything out. The first thing we did was get the mommas and babies out. We got the heavy equipment and stuff we thought we would need to rebuild. We moved what we could off the ground, because we were still thinking just a foot or so of water.” At 10 a.m. when Stacie and Ryan left their driveway for the final time, the water was almost coming in the truck.
“About two days later, or maybe even the next day—it was such a blur, I don’t really remember—I asked a neighbor who stayed, because their house was higher up, to take a picture,” Stacie said. “The first day it wasn’t so bad, it was maybe three feet deep. I thought, ‘That I can live with.’ The next day she sent a picture, and I broke down. It was to the roof, and I didn’t expect that.”
A week later, the cleanup began and is still ongoing at press time in late October. Stacie remains eternally grateful to her family and friends—some of whom she hadn’t seen or heard from in years—and the countless, nameless individuals who volunteered and helped.
“Strangers started showing up,” Stacie said. “Friends I hadn’t seen in 10 to 15 years just showed up and started working. It was gross. It was sticky. It was moldy— just awful, and they kept showing up.” Stacie says if there is a story to come out of this, it should be how compassionate people can be and how much they want to serve their fellow man.
“Yeah, we lost everything,” Stacie said. “But we gained so much more. My faith is so much stronger, and that’s really what matters.”
Fire On The Hi-Line
High winds and drought conditions fanned the flames of 21 wildfires throughout Montana. Todd and Una Ford’s Treasure State Quarter Horses near Chinook, Montana, lost about 60 percent of their acreage in both private and leased ground to the fire in the Bear Paw Mountains in north central Montana.
“It was roughly 10,000 acres,” Todd Ford said. Their operation is part of a larger Crowley family ranch comprised of Clear Creek Angus and Clear Creek Hunting Adventures, and it involves 600 head of cattle, 70 head of horses and four ranching families.
“We were all affected. I think when it’s all said and done, we’ll have to rebuild 25 miles of fence,” Todd said. “As far as the cattle are concerned, all the winter pasture was burned. For the horses, all our spring grass was burned. Where we do all our breeding—where we turn two of our studs out with a number of broodmares— all that was burnt, so we’re going to have to do something different this spring.”
Todd says officials still aren’t sure what caused the fire, but suspect it was manmade, either a cigarette butt or a stray spark.
“It started quite a ways southwest of us before it ever got to our place,” Todd said of the fire that claimed approximately 25,000 acres. “The fire lasted about three weeks. It was 90 percent contained by the landowners, volunteer firefighters, state and federal firefighters. Then we were watching [the fires], and we got a nice rain show that put them out for good.”
Thankfully, the Ford family didn’t lose any cattle or horses, but they spent three weeks fighting the blaze and moving livestock to keep it safe.
“When it first started, the wind picked up for a couple days and we couldn’t contain it,” Todd said. “When it started to get closer to our ranches, we worked to get our horses and cattle out of the mountains and closer to the ranch where they could be safe. That’s where a lot of the volunteers and people from town really helped out. We had people from town helping move cattle and horses, and they’d probably never done that before. They jumped in and were such a big help.”
Todd and Una were in awe at the network of people willing to help.
“It was amazing the amount of work everyone did,” Todd said. “When we were thinking about evacuating, Una put out a post that we needed trailers, and it was amazing how fast they got here. Neighbors stepped up and let us move our horses to where it was safer.”
The Fords evacuated their mares and colts to corrals near their home until it was safe to turn them out again.
“We couldn’t turn them ‘out-out,’ because all our fences were burnt, and we didn’t have any grazing with it all being black,” Todd said.
Cowan Select Horses graciously turned some of the Fords’ mares out at their place near Havre.
“That was just out of the kindness of their heart,” Todd said. “They’re actually going to take 300 of the ranch’s cows, because they have the grass up there. That’s a huge deal. It’s a life-saver for us.”
All the while the fire was raging, the Fords were also trying to get ready for their annual production sale with Weaver Quarter Horses. They stand three stallions—First Down Frenchman, a full brother to Traffic Guy and Morning Traffic; Frenchmans Shake Em, a son of Frenchmans Guy out of a Royal Shake Em mare; and Tres My Fame, a young stallion by Tres Seis and out of Famous Blue Eyes.
“At one point, we didn’t know if we were going to make it, but thanks to a lot of help from people, we were able to do that,” Todd said. “We got all our horses to the sale. We had a really good sale, so we were fortunate.”
About one month to the day after the fire was extinguished, an early winter storm dumped three feet of snow on the ranch in a 24-hour period.
“We needed the moisture, but it was kind of a pain-in-the neck,” Todd said with a chuckle. “When the snow melted off, we did start to see an inch or two of regrowth. Hopefully, next spring we continue with some good moisture. I don’t know if we’ll be able to graze that ground next year or if we have to wait until the year after, but it will come back.”
Despite the hardships, the Fords feel comparatively blessed.
“We feel really fortunate. We still have our homes, and the grass is going to come back,” Todd said. “A lot of people lost everything, and it’s hard to fathom what they’re going through. We were lucky.”
Even The Best Prepared
Even the best preparation couldn’t save structures from Hurricane Harvey’s path, especially those along the Texas Gulf Coast. The eye of the storm made landfall in Rockport, Texas, just to the south of the Braman family’s historic ranch, which is home to JB Quarter Horses and Isabella Quarter Horses.
Zoe Braman’s Isabella Quarter Horses was hit hard in spite of the extra efforts undertaken to save their main barn. Thankfully, no animals—save two chickens—were lost.
“By the time we realized how bad it was going to be, we didn’t have enough time to get the majority of horses out of here,” Zoe said, whose 60 head of horses rode out the storm at the ranch. “We sent our most valuable horses out, about four hours away. We moved the mares and babies to higher ground. The second-most valuable horses went in the barn.”
They took precautions to make sure they had enough water, should the power go out, and stocked extra hay bags to make getting feed to the horses easier.
“We made wind breaks at the ends of the barn out of round bales to keep the winds from going straight through,” Zoe said. “We filled empty feed sacks with sand to put in front of the stalls to keep water from coming in. Ultimately, the afternoon before Harvey hit, we did everything we could and then we had to leave. We didn’t get back in until 7 the next morning.”
The Bramans came back to find the roofs gone from Zoe’s barn and her husband Thomas’ barn. They ended up losing three barns, five lean-tos and the barn manager’s house.
“Not a single horse was lost,” Zoe said. “I pulled up some of my weanlings and put them in a pen together during the storm. The whole roof from one of the barns was in their pen, but they didn’t have a scratch on them.”
Like many horse owners, Zoe wondered where her horses would be safest—turned out or locked in a barn?
“When Harvey was about to hit, we were talking about what to do with the horses—maybe the safest thing to do was turn out the horses and let them find shelter in the brush,” Zoe said. “The craziest thing was I thought the safest place for our horses to be was in the barn, but it turned out the safest place for them was out in the pasture. They didn’t have as much stress as the ones that were in the barn as the roof was being lifted off.”
Zoe thanked Granada Equine for taking her sale colts and their stallion, Heats Hustler. The biggest loss was the barn, especially Zoe’s office.
“It was pouring rain in my office,” Zoe said. “I got my computer and Ron’s (Kelso, her barn manager) computer. I grabbed every loose piece of paper I could, even if it was wet. I grabbed my horse files. They were in those black files from Office Depot and were safe, so I ended up leaving them there. The com- puters that had been rained on for two days, plugged right in and worked. We were really lucky.”
The nearby towns of Rockport and Refugio are still completely devastated. “You drive through parts of Refugio, and it still looks like the day it happened,” Zoe said. “Our new normal is chaos.”
Paying It Forward
When the Oroville Dam was overflowing, Katie Beverly of Half Moon Bay, California, struggled to find a way to get to her retired barrel horse pensioned near the dam. After jumping through hoops and burning up the phone lines, Beverly got her horse rescued.
The experience inspired her to get certified by the Federal Emergency Management Assistance as a community emergency response team member. When the fires engulfed Napa Valley in October, Beverly headed to Santa Rosa to assist.
“I called and left a message and said, ‘This is who I am, this is my certification, I have a trailer. I’m willing to do whatever you need me to do to help out.’ They called me Tuesday night and asked when I could come. I said, ‘I can come up tonight, or I can come up tomorrow morning with a three-horse trailer full of stuff,’” Beverly said.
Armed with a list of what they needed for the evacuated horses, Beverly headed to the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds with supplies—including 45 buckets donated by Ace Hardware. She left her home on a Wednesday morning and wouldn’t return until Wednesday evening a week later.
“My first night I got out there, I was up for 29 hours straight,” Beverly said. “But it wasn’t hard at all. It wasn’t hard to be up like that when you’re helping horses. My shift was from 8 p.m. until 8 a.m., because no one wanted that one.”
Beverly says the first night was spent filling water buckets, taking inventory and figuring which horses would be fed by volunteers and which ones were to be fed by their owners. They also had strict protocols in place to prevent cross-contamination between horses.
“You can’t have people go from horse to horse and touch,” Beverly said. “A lot of those horses don’t get shots. They’re someone’s pets and they don’t go anywhere, so they think they don’t need them. We had protocols set up to avoid cross contamination.”
An exception was made for the firefighters, Beverly adds.
“They needed some equine therapy, so I would ask owners if they had a horse the firemen could pet,” Beverly said.
Helping the horses meant helping their owners, even in the seemingly smallest ways possible.
“There was one man I met who evacuated at 3 in the morning,” Beverly said. “When he went back, he had his house, but all his barns were gone.”
Knowing he lost all his tack in the fires, Beverly took him to the donation bins.
“He said, ‘I lost everything.’ I took him to the donation bins. I asked him if he used a wheelbarrow to clean up. He said yes, so I got a donated wheelbarrow and started to fill it up with fly spray and brushes and buckets. He said, ‘I can’t take this. I can buy it later.’ I said, ‘But you need them now. People donated them for you.’ It was a really good feeling,” Beverly said.
Beverly also recalls asking one woman if she needed anything. She asked for a brush and advised, ‘Don’t think a brush isn’t important.’
“She said she found one woman crying by her stall,” Beverly said. “She goes, ‘I’ve lost everything, and the only thing I want is a brush to brush my horse. I just want a brush.’ That was their way of comforting their horses and themselves, so I brought up as many brushes as I could.”
Beverly says coming home and returning to work was one of the hardest things she had to do.
“Coming home was horrible, because there was nothing I could do from there,” Beverly said. “I wanted to go back up and help, but I had to go to work. It’s definitely an experience I learned from.”
Beverly says the biggest thing she learned was to be prepared.
“The most important thing is to have a plan,” Beverly said. “I don’t care where you are—if it’s a fire, a flood or a tsunami, have a plan. Know who has a trailer that’s going to get you out of there.”
In a matter of hours, Kimmi Byler’s premier equine rehabilitation and conditioning center, Horse Swim, became one of the first major command posts for the evacuation and rescue efforts for horses affected by Hurricane Harvey.
“When it hit over the weekend, we started getting phone calls,” Byler said. “We were getting calls from people we didn’t even know who were wanting to know if we had big enough trailers to come help evacuate horses.”
Using the Zello app, Byler started to coordinate pick-up and drop-off efforts, and that quickly morphed into organizing volunteers and donations along with caring for the injured rescue horses housed at their facility just north of Bellville, Texas.
“Austin County doesn’t have an Ag Extension agent, so Josh Rush, Meredith Cotes and I took that over,” Byler said. “Using Facebook and texts, the word started getting out. Every time I had a chance to look at my phone, there were more texts of people needing help and people offering to help.”
With the massive amounts of donations pouring in, Sealy Tractor jumped on board to offer storage for hay, feed and supplies. The Danny Dietz Foundation, named after the fallen Navy Seal, stepped in to financially process donations through their 501(c) tax exemption.
In addition to coordinating rescues and hauling supplies to hard-hit Wharton, Texas, and as far away as Orange on the Texas and Louisiana border, Horse Swim processed and cared for 150 head of horses during a three-week period after Harvey’s landfall.
“The horses that weren’t severe we tried to move out to other places,” Byler said. “The severe horses were brought here. Dr. Ben Buchanan [of Brazos Valley Equine in Navasota, Texas] spearheaded efforts from here down south to Katy, Texas. He helped direct horses to facilities where they could get surgery if they needed it.”
Byler says they treated many horses for the skin sloughing from standing in water for too long. They also saw pneumonia from inhalation of floodwaters and other stress-related complications.
“They were swimming horses out to us by boat, and one of the guys thought a foal had gone under,” Byler said. “They thought it was lost, but when they went back they found it piled on some wire and tree trunks, and they were able to pull her. We had to treat her for pneumonia, but she’s doing fine now. It just shows you their resilience. The kids really worked hard, loving on her and caring for her.”
The support was overwhelming, Byler says. Her personal sponsors stepped in to send supplies. Priefert overnighted panels to build pens for the rescued horses. Hay-Rite sent three truckloads of alfalfa cubes. Countless nameless individuals donated their time, supplies and money.
“It was just a massive effort of everyone coming together,” Byler said. “For every bad story I was seeing on the news, I was witnessing 10 good ones. It restored my faith in humanity.”
For all the horrors and for all the loss, these tragic events showcased the most unyielding of human spirits. So many picked up, pushed forward, volunteered and donated, proving that times of great tragedy go hand-in-hand with our greatest triumphs.
This article was originally published in the December 2017 issue of Barrel Horse News.