I was lucky enough to get some time last weekend at Del Mar, volunteering and helping people who had lost everything. When people would come into the First Aid room, to get tooth brushes and other things they needed, I was able to speak with them a bit about what they went through. I overheard one of the vets talking to a woman. The woman was saying that people were having a really hard time dealing with the trauma. Some couldn’t sleep.
Inserting myself into the conversation, I asked if there was a therapist on the property. “No, the Red Cross has been contacted,” another woman said, unsatisfied. In crisis, the Red Cross sends doctors and trauma counselors.
“I know a trauma therapist, she’s worked with people who survived mass shootings. I could get her down here right away, and she’d work for free,” I blurted out. Yes I just volunteered a therapist I knew to come down at a moments notice to do pro bono work. Luckily, that therapist was my mother, and this was certainly not the first time I had offered her services for free without her consent. But I have seen her change lives, and I knew that if anyone deserved help, it was these men and women who risked their lives to save the animals they love.
The three of them looked back at me, a little surprised maybe. “Really?”
“Yeah, I know she would do it,” I said.
We discussed some of the problems, most of the guys spoke Spanish only, and would require a translator. The hispanic culture didn’t support the need for mental healthcare, and many of them may not admit they need help. Also, trusting a stranger would be asking a lot. But if people were struggling, they just might be willing to try.
“Can I get your number? I know the person in the racing office who is contacting the Red Cross. I will give her your info,” a woman asked me.
“Absolutely.” I scribbled my name and number. “It’s actually my mom,” I confessed.
That night, I called my mom as I drove back to LA. She said she was so proud of me for just getting out there and helping. I used that as a casual segway to tell her that there was a possibility that she would have to get out there too, since i had volunteered her services, pro bono. No surprise, she agreed.
The next morning, I was surprised to get a call from someone at the track. They said that they saw the need for mental health care, that some people were having a hard time, and that they were wondering when my mom could be out there.
Then we started peeling back the red tape layer by layer. Since Del Mar is a state owned facility, there are a lot of people who need to sign off before someone can practice on the grounds (for humans, not animals). We had to get her license verified, and then we had to get sign off, then more sign off, then the insurance had to approve. Overall, major thanks to the people in the racing office who were pushing hard for this. And, in the meantime Red Cross sent a counselor and the Chaplins from San Luis Rey came out.
Finally, on Thursday, we were approved and invited to come down and have a day of mental health treatment. In addition, there were two other counselors, one doctor and two registered nurses, all treating the grooms and trainers from San Luis Rey.
And then there was me. I just wanted to work. So I made myself busy in the donation center, organizing clothing and blankets. The woman who was running the clothing that day was amazing. She was getting everyone dressed up for “date night”, as she called it, helping the guys pick out full outfits, keeping the energy of the room upbeat and fun.
One woman came in, getting some blankets. I asked her how she was holding up, and she said it was hard.
“Were you there when the fire happened?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” she said. She worked at the San Luis Rey gate, and her husband was a groom. “His barn was the first to catch on fire,” she explained. “He got his horses out, and I told him, ‘Let’s go’, but he wouldn’t. He wanted to stay and help the other horses.” I could see in her eyes that she wasn’t mad at him though. “He couldn’t leave the other horses. And you know it’s hard.” She would shake her head.
“We have counselors on the property today,” I said. “If you need to talk to anyone.”
She nodded. “Yeah, I think I might.” She explained that she still needed to go to work, that the gate wasn’t destroyed.
Another volunteer walked over to us before she left. She had been unpacking boxes of donations and found a letter, thanking the brave people of San Luis Rey for their sacrifice. After reading the letter, I folded it up and then gave it to the woman. “Why don’t you keep that.”
“I’ll hang it up over in the stables,” she said. “So everyone can see.”
We hugged and she left.
Later, I was helping another man, and I asked him how he was holding up. He confessed that it was hard, and he felt so bad for the horses that didn’t make it. He told me how the craziest horses, ones that always requires a stud chain, let him simply grab their mane, and followed him out.
“I just have to thank you,” I said. “What you did, you know, the whole equestrian community, we think of you guys as heroes.”
“I don’t feel like a hero,” he said, shaking his head. “I did what anyone would have done.”
I shook my head. “No. Not everyone would risk their life to save horses.”
“You say we are heroes, but we think you are angels. All of you out here, helping us. You are angels.”
I smiled, holding back tears. We talked for another thirty minutes. His name was Renee. He told me details of that day, and the days since. How hard it has been. All of his horses made it out. But his heart broke for the horses that didn’t. He explained to me that he had a friend who was at Galway Downs, and all of his things had burned in the fire. He was going to bring his friend a blanket and some shirts once he finished work that day.
“We have counselors here if anyone you know needs to talk to anyone about what happened. My mom is one of them,” I said.
“Your mom is here?” Renee said.
“Yeah, want me to take you to meet her?” I asked.
“I just want to thank her.”
I walked Renee over to the barn my mom was working in. We waited for her to finish her session. I introduced her to my new friend and he thanked her for being there, telling her that she was angel for helping. I cried. We hugged. Renee had to get back to his horses, but said he would be back later.
The day continued. One man told me how me had to take off his belt to help catch loose horses. I listened to everyone’s stories as I helped them replace some of the items they had lost. I know that talking about it is the best thing they can do. It helps them process the trauma. And so many of them just needed someone who would listen.
As I walked through the barn, asking if anyone needed anything, one man asked for underwear. This broke my heart. He didn’t have clean underwear.
The day wore on. Vans Shoes donated hundreds of shoes, shirts and hats. Wrangler donated shirts. It was beautiful.
Renee came back, and he brought some friends, proudly introducing them to me. I thanked them all for their brave actions, and asked if I could help them find anything. One was an exercise rider who needed a new helmet and vest. “We can’t work,” he said, explaining that without a helmet and vest he couldn’t ride. I took him to the racing office, where he was already on a list to have a new helmet and vest ordered for him.
When Renee and his friends left, they each extended a strong handshake to me, thanking me. This was an act of honor that almost brought me to tears. It was something that I did not deserve, but would accept on behalf of all of the volunteers that had come together to help the heroes of San Luis Rey.
My heart is heavy and light.
There is loss and devastation throughout Southern California this holiday season. It has been hard for me to see this loss firsthand, and then try to go holiday shopping, buying gifts for friends who need nothing, after seeing those whom have lost everything.
But this experience has changed me. It has changed my appreciation for my toothbrush, for clean underwear, and for the fact that my horse is safe and sound. These are all things that I continuously taken for granted.
It has also showed me that there are so many amazing people in the world. There are people who would risk their life to save horses that aren’t even theirs. And there are people who would rally to support those who have lost everything.
I gave one man who’s items burned in the fire two blankets. He turned to his friend, and gave him one of them. So it goes.