For several months, we’d had a trip planned to film with several top riders in Southern California for NF.insider. What we didn't know is that by the time that trip rolled around, much of California would be ravaged by some of the most devastating wildfires the West Coast has ever seen.
Hundreds of horses, families, and businesses were displaced by the time we landed in the Malibu, Calif., area. Scorched earth and smokey air blanketed the once picturesque landscape, far removed from the postcard image of paradise most of us typically envision. Connecting with the equestrian community there, we quickly realized how detrimental these fast-moving, unusually hot wildfires had been. While celebrities and wealthy families do reside in Malibu – and many lost their beloved homes, animals, and belongings – much of the area, and particularly the horse community, is made up of regular folks who have grown up there or moved because of the great land available for horses. Hard-working trainers, barn managers, property caretakers – people who love the land, the area, the opportunity to do what they love in a beautiful location.
The Woolsey Fire swept rapidly through the canyons and flatlands, reaching all the way to the coast in a torrent of destruction, leaving many homes and barns destroyed, hundreds of horses and people displaced, and many animals missing as owners were forced to let them free when there simply was not enough time to evacuate. When we saw what was happening in California, we knew we had to do whatever we could to help our community. We chose to do that by telling the story through video in hopes of raising awareness and donations for the fight still to come as the horse people of Southern California begin to rebuild.
We connected with Laura Kotimäki-Hurd, owner and trainer at LKH Equestrian in Malibu, who lost her home ranch in the blaze. Laura told us the incredible story of how her husband bravely drove back into the fire zone after evacuating their son, determined to help the four horses who lived on their home property nestled deep into the canyon. As Laura was attending a horse show during the evacuation, her husband had little time to act, and, as Laura explained, isn't a 'horse guy' – but he knew he had to save the animals. Letting them loose and closing the gates behind them, he gave them the best chance at survival.
He and Laura returned daily after the active fire had ceased, hiking seven miles straight uphill to reach their home, since downed live power lines prevented any vehicles from entering the area. They found the three rescued mini ponies and 30-year-old Arabian, all owned by the owners of the property where Laura and her husband acted as caretakers, on the first day, walking amongst the still smoking ashes. Laura's personal horse, a big, snuggly gelding called Archie, was nowhere to be found. They continued to hike in every day for five days looking for Archie, also turning to social media to help find the lost grey Holsteiner, where thousands of people rallied around the cause to help save Archie. Finally, on day five, the SPCA of Los Angeles found the gelding on a desolate mountaintop hiding behind a burnt out horse trailer. Laura's horse was safe, but her life was far from normal.
Walking through the remains of Laura's home, she told us about other members of the local horse community who had also lost everything. Trainers who no longer had a place for their business and their whole livelihood uprooted. Farms that were completely wiped out, all of the animals with nowhere to go. Riders who no longer had tack or supplies to care for their horses. She remains optimistic, despite the destruction, because she has her 'babies' back, and she knows that the equestrian community will bounce back, as long as we all work together.
Later, we joined up with comedian Whitney Cummings and Two Broke Girls and The Neighborhood actress Beth Behrs at their barn to talk about what comes next. Whitney and Beth have been heavily involved in efforts to support those affected by the fires, helping to raise awareness and donations, and even personally distributing much-needed supplies to those who lost everything. As horse lovers, they know the importance of community in times of crisis and have decided to use their platforms to give back. They were fortunate to get their horses out in time, but they know that not everyone was so lucky.
We have chosen to direct donations to the USEF Disaster Relief Fund, which works to distribute funds and supplies directly to equestrians affected by natural disasters. You can donate at https://www.usef.org/donate.
Whitney Cummings has partnered with Animal Hope and Wellness to provide supplies, equipment, and support to those in need. You can contribute monetary donations HERE or email firstname.lastname@example.org to coordinate donations of tack, supplies, or gift cards.
The fires may be out, but the fight is far from over. Together, we can rebuild.
Photos courtesy of Laura Kotimäki-Hurd and Erin Lane.