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Far from the USA, the floods in Queensland, Australia six months ago illustrated what can happen when disaster is not an individual horse owner's tragedy but a sweeping annihilation of the landscape. In floods, not only can horses lose their lives and owners lose their buildings, but the grazing land can be poisoned, the top soil might be washed away, or entire fields can sink or be riddled with gullies. You might be surprised that the narrators of this video are the jokester video stars of the World Equestrian Games last fall, Hamish and Dave. The theme of their very serious story: Character's rise to the surface, in both horses and humans, when disaster hits.
Five days after the Massachusetts tornado disaster blasted within 100 miles of where I live, I took some time out to listen to Horse Radio Network's fundraising radiothon, Horse World Gives Back. The idea was to have experts on disasters, survivors of disasters and horse world celebrities come together on the air and urge listeners to donate to relief funds for horses and people who need assistance in flood or tornado zones.
The radiothon came quickly on the heels of the personal disaster of a tragic barn fire for eventing star Boyd Martin. That tragedy had galvanized many in the horse world into a show of support, love and solidarity for the rider and his brave staff and the owners of his horses. At the same time, the Equine Herpes Virus outbreak in the western United States and Canada had vets working overtime, horse shows canceled and gloom-and-doom predictors forecasting that the horse world was on the verge of collapse. Disaster could have been defined many ways in late May 2011, depending on your GPS coordinates.
The radiothon delivered what it promised except that, in typical horse world style, people answered the interviewers' questions honestly. When Chris Stafford or Glenn ("The Geek") Hebert asked a well-known rider or an entertainer about their disaster planning methods for their horses, both admitted they hadn't given it much thought.
Horse owners should have plans in place for hurricanes and fires and earthquakes and floods and blizzards. But when it comes to tornadoes, you often can't give it much thought, since there is little or no warning, and most buildings offer little protection for people or animals if they are in the storm's path.
The theme that emerged from the radiothon was that the horse world has an alternate system, a backup, an organic Plan B that is so embedded in our culture that we aren't even aware it is there until a disaster hits.
Radio host Glenn Hebert called it "your horse family": Your friends and neighbors who would come over and check on your and your horses if there was a tornado. Who would get dry hay to you if the levee broke and your pasture was an island. Who would still be friends with you if you had a strangles outbreak at your farm. Who might even hand their credit cards to the unsmiling administrator at the university vet school hospital credit office on behalf of your horse injured by flying debris in a tornado.
Everyone has horse friends who make up your horse family. They might live next door or they might live a hundred miles away but you've bonded with them. They are the ones who understand why you have that horse, or why you're still trying to get up the nerve to go to that first pre-novice schooling event or why, um, you're going to go around those jumps, thanks very much. They have watched you splurge at the tack shop, pinch pennies at the grocery store, and wash your dusty saddle pads in the hotel bath tub.
There's another type of horse family too, one that I've personally seen in action only once, but I have never forgotten it. One hot summer night, the barn here caught on fire, and 40 or so horses were milling around. Some had been in the barn, one had been dragged out. Yes, the vet we all knew was there and he was checking the horses, but in addition to the boarders there were other people and we don't know who they were to this day.
They just showed up and started helping. They dragged tack out of the barn, they held horses, they helped the vet. They thought to bring leadlines and halters and hay and feed.? I don't think any of the boarders knew any of their names. They were just horse people; they heard there was a barn fire; they came to help. They didn't introduce themselves or organize themselves or bark orders at anyone. They just were there, like angels in paddock boots.
By the time the sun came up, they were gone and I don't think I've ever seen one of those people ever again.
After another local barn fire, when far too many horses died, the trainer saw a line of trucks come up the long driveway the next morning. She thought she was hallucinating. It was a parade of every farrier who had probably ever shod a horse on the farm, and their farrier friends. They had come, they said, to help her and her husband bury the horses, because they thought it was something they could do to help her. She still calls them her "angels".
It's just something horsepeople do.
Some people are handy in emergencies. They can catch a strange horse and take its temperature, they can get any horse to load onto a trailer, they can jury-rig a cross-tie system in the middle of the woods. Some people are good at giving money or setting up a Facebook page. Some people know they should stay out of the way and are good at making chili or cupcakes or going to Home Depot for fence stakes. Some people can organize things while others can just jump right in and instinctively know what to do first or next.
So the next time you're at the feed store and you think you have nothing in common with that crazy woman who lives down the road from you, the one talks on and on and on about her mini or her FoxTrotter or her warmblood or her Morgan or her Percheron, stop and think for a minute. This might be the person who saves your horse's life or loans you her last bale of hay or tells the vet which driveway is yours. She might be someone who will need your help when her fences are down or her mare has foaling problems in the middle of the night.
Can you count on these horse friends and angels coming to your rescue? No, and that's the whole point. When disaster is widespread, would-be angels and friends may be just as much in need as you are. Just ask the horseowners in Japan. Planning and taking responsibility for yourself is still all-important.
And it is probably more important to be a friend, a horse family member, or an angel than it is to expect you will ever be able to count on anyone in the event of a catastrophe.
Disaster has so many faces. In the last few months we've seen far too many news stories about animals whose lives were lost to or endangered by flood and fire and earthquake and tornado. But on the flip side of each one was a mirror, showing us that we each have a capacity for empathy and generosity and hope and that depth of character in horsepeople is infinite. Sometimes it takes a disaster for us to recognize our true tribe and to learn something about who we really are.
Or who, after even a brief brush with disaster, we might unconsciously rise and become.