By Haley Katherine Esparza
The past week has blurred together in a sea of helplessness, shock, and fear as thousands of horses throughout Southern California are evacuated from their barns, some running for their lives, others not making it out. I felt helpless as so many barns that I knew and visited burned.
Then there was San Luis Rey Downs. Four hundred racehorses let loose, given the opportunity to run for their lives, and unfortunately some did not survive. The videos of brave grooms, risking their lives and their health to save hundreds of horses, left everyone shocked and haunted.
The tragedy is unimaginable. The things that these people witnessed is truly unimaginable.
Last weekend I was honored to get my boots on the ground and help the community heal. From hand walking horses to cleaning water buckets, my morning was full of furry faces. But by far the best part of my day was when I stumbled upon the First Aid supply room. Someone had dropped off a donation of vet wrap and it was my job to make sure it ended up in the proper hands. After going to the wrong place at least three times, I walked into a room that was filled with supplies, for horses and humans, everything you could think of: SWAT, Corona ointment, B Kalm, tooth brushes, toothpaste, blankets, hair brushes (for horses or for humans), gauze, antibacterial ointment, bandaids, eyedrops, hand sanitizer, mineral oil. I had no words.
“Can I help you?” said a cheery blonde woman.
“I hope so. I am trying to figure out where vet wrap donations go.”
“You’re in the right spot!” She said, taking the bag with a smile.
I stood looking around the room in shock. “This is all donated?”
She smiled. “Isn’t it amazing?”
“Do you need help organizing?” I asked, seeing paper towels piling up.
“Actually that would be great.”
She put me in charge of the horse first aid, which included every ointment and supplement you could think of. She explained to me that people lost everything, and it was our job to help them recover the supplies they need.
I watched as people would come in and she would take them “shopping”, as she called it. She would walk next to them, and help them pick out everything they needed. Shaving cream, shampoo, and toothbrushes, to electrolytes, vet wrap and fly spray.
A young man walked in and asked for a couple small things, explaining that they were for a trainer who had lost everything, he had lost some of his horses, and his wife was still in the hospital from burns. The woman in charge asked if the trainer was on the property, and was told that he was actually right outside the room. I watched her bring him inside. She explained that the stuff in the room was donated for people like him specifically. I got a tingly feeling inside when I heard her say, “Let’s go shopping.”
He didn’t say much, as I followed him around the store with bags. At first he didn’t grab anything, then I just started picking up things and asking if he used it. “Do you use Corona ointment?” I asked. He’d nod, and I would put it in the bag for him. I think he literally didn’t have the words, and was shocked at the fact that those donations were there for him.
The woman running first aid was hold back her tears. I couldn’t talk, otherwise I would have cried. As we packed up their items, they could not stop thanking us, and telling us what a difference this made. The difference it made to have shampoo to was the smoke smell off of their horses.
I would later learn that this trainer’s wife was still in critical condition in the hospital, after being burned saving horses in the fire. The two of them had a small barn, and had lost at least one horse in the fire. Looking back, a few bags of horse and human supplies hardly seems like much, and I wish I could have done more for him. But then I remind myself how very appreciative he was for the little things, like toothpaste, and dish soap, and the comfort he found knowing that we were there for him, whatever he needed.
The rest of the day was spent taking in donations, taking inventory of what we had, and distributing supplies to those that needed them. As I helped people load bags full of every day items that I take so for granted, I would see burns and bandages on their arms. People who risked their lives to save so many horses. I cannot begin to imagine the terrible things they saw.
But being in that room full of love, watching people be overwhelmed as they received a blanket and shampoo, it reminded me that community is everything. Everyone continues to step up to help in this tragedy, and although we can never undo the suffering, hopefully we can help our neighbors heal. It will be a long process, in which we will have to help rebuild all that was lost, but we will get it done.
Give your horses an extra kiss tonight.