Equestrians Helping Equestrians

The equestrian community pulled together after a series of natural disasters, donating money, time, and effort to aid horses.

Hurricane-related flooding endangered horses and inspired equestrians around the country to provide help. Photo Courtesy of AAEP.

In the wake of major Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria and devastating Western wildfires, the equestrian community banded together to help horses in need in a variety of ways, whether by donating to the USEF Equine Disaster Relief Fund or by helping to evacuate or shelter animals.

Countless individuals and groups donated to the USEF Equine Disaster Relief Fund to help during the trying times, totaling just over $653,000 this year. That included sizeable donations by Brooke USA and USEF partner Ariat. Due to this generosity, thousands of dollars in financial aid was provided to local emergency response teams, veterinary hospitals, humane centers, and other organizations on the ground in the aftermath of the hurricanes. Inspired and grateful for the equestrian community’s ability to band together, we wanted to highlight some of the fundraising and relief efforts around the country.

Competitors and guests at the Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC) in Mill Spring, N.C., for 2017 United States Eventing Association (USEA) American Eventing Championships (AEC) presented by Land Rover and Nutrena showed their generosity by donating to the fund. USEA CEO Rob Burk, Director of Programs and Marketing Kate Lokey, and fellow USEA staff came up with the idea to donate to the fund, and worked with TIEC staff to set up a collection box in the show office. More than 770 starters from around the country participated in the AEC, with a number of them donating to the fund.

“I think it was very important as part of the equestrian community for all the different organizations to be able to relate to the needs around the United States. Our hearts definitely go out to the equestrian communities affected,” said Molly Oakman of TIEC.

Two weeks after the AEC, the TIEC housed nearly 400 horses evacuated from Florida during Hurricane Irma. “It is great when one equestrian community can help another, because you never know when you will need each other,” Oakman explained.

Bill Levett (left) and Missy Miller (right) at the Hops for Houston fundraiser. Photo Courtesy of Missy Miller.

Missy Miller, who hails from the Gulf Coast but is now the head trainer at Town Hill Farm in Lakeville, Conn., wanted to do what she could to help the area where she grew up. She organized Hops for Houston on September 22 to benefit the USEF Disaster Relief Fund. The event consisted of a gambler’s choice jumping course designed by Chris Barnard with top local riders. The event also featured hors d’oeuvres provided by When Pigs Fly Southern BBQ and beer and wine from Lakeville Wine & Spirits for spectators to enjoy. One hundred percent of the donations from Hops for Houston went to the fund.

The hurricanes this year hit close to home for Miller, who recalled the fear she felt when she had to evacuate during Hurricane Katrina. “I grew up in south Alabama and remember having to evacuate with my horses during Hurricane Katrina. It was terrifying not knowing if we would have a home for ourselves or our horses when we returned,” Miller explained. “I still consider that area home, even though I base in Connecticut.”

The Foxfield Equestrian Team in Westlake Village, Calif., held a bake sale to help raise money for the fund. Based at the Foxfield Riding School, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, the team is a talented group of 24 young riders who ride horses bareback and bridleless in performances. Over the years, the renowned group has performed at major competitions across the U.S., including the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Calif.

The team is a non-profit group that raises the money they need to travel to their performances. They frequently hold bake sales to raise money, but when one mom suggested the team do a bake sale to raise money solely for the fund, the young riders jumped at the chance.

Shelly Postel, a former team captain and current office manager at Foxfield Riding School, explained that the bake sale consisted of usual items such as cookies and brownies, as well as horse treats.

“We just ran with it because the horse community is so big that we wanted to help in any way that we could,” Postel said.

California equestrians (left to right) Alana Curtis, Melissa Bohlmann, Cyndi Lester, Chris Bearden, and Keila Golden braved the smoke from wildfires to help evacuate horses. Photo Courtesy of Alana Curtis.

Even groups that may not first come to mind donated to the fund, such as a steakhouse and a parks and recreation department. Turn Key Hospitality in Chicago, Ill., which manages Gene & Georgetti steakhouses, gathered money from customers, employees, and its owners to donate to the American Red Cross, Austin Pets Alive!, and the USEF Equine Disaster Relief Fund. The group collected donations and combined that with a percentage of sales from one week of business at their establishments.

Michelle Durpetti, a co-managing partner of the company and a hunter/jumper competitor, said, “We wanted to do something that would let people suffering through trying to survive those awful storms know that people were thinking of them and sending not only prayers but resources to begin recovery.”

Given the importance of horses in Durpetti’s own life, donating to the fund made sense. “As a lifelong equestrian and horse owner, one of the very first things I thought about when the hurricanes were hitting was the horses and people caring for them who would be so affected,” she said. “It was just a natural and immediate thought for me, as my horses are such a beloved and huge part of my life.”

Troy Houtman, the director of the Wichita Park & Recreation Department in Wichita, Kan., and a horse owner, felt compelled to aid his home state of Texas following Hurricane Harvey. He and his department organized the Ride for Texas fundraiser trail ride at Pawnee Prairie Park, a 625-acre park of with miles of horse trails. In addition, the department accepted donations at all the city recreation centers.

“We picked the USEF Equine Disaster Relief Fund after researching the best organization that was doing the most good for the most amount of horses and stables in the area affected by Harvey,” intern Lexi Miller explained. “It was also important to us to know that the money was going directly to help those in need, and that was something USEF was very clear about.”

Equestrians volunteered trucks, trailers, and expertise to help evacuate and shelter horses from California wildfires. Photo Courtesy of Alana Curtis.

In addition to the numerous donations to the USEF Equine Disaster Relief Fund, many equestrians pitched in physically to help relocated horses to safety. In Texas, hunter jumper trainers Trapp O’Neal, David Harries, and Denial Bedoya, were among those whose trucks and trailers helped move horses to safety as Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters rose. In California, three-day eventer and coach Alana Curtis helped organize a group of volunteers, most of them equestrians, who evacuated nearly 200 horses in total from the state’s fire zones in October.

“I went on Facebook and put it out there that we had this many rigs and this location and for people to call us if they needed us,” said Curtis, who owns SunFire Equestrian Training in Woodland, Calif. “Within a few minutes, I got a message from a friend of a friend.”

Curtis rallied local equestrians with trailers of various sizes, and together the volunteers evacuated a group of about 36 mares and stallions in one location. The next day, when an equine evacuation facility housing 160 horses now needed evacuating itself, the volunteers sprang into action again. “We had an hour to do it,” Curtis said. “We went to social media again, we went to our friends, and just called in the cavalry. It was pretty cool to see trailer after trailer after trailer heading in to get out whatever we could get out. We were able to evacuate that place within an hour, all 160 horses.”

Solano County Fairgrounds in Vallejo, which used to be a racetrack, had room for 1,000 horses, Curtis noted, which was a major help to the equestrian community. “There were crews there who were fixing the stalls up, and there was a vet station. That was amazing to see, how the fairgrounds came alive again with everyone out there helping. There were so many people willing to help around the clock. There were people who took off work the whole week and came out with their trucks and trailers and just waited in the area to go to people who needed help.”

This is only a small sample of the efforts equestrians throughout the country took to help horses, and that cooperative spirit is something we can all be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

For more information about the USEF Equine Disaster Relief Fund, click here.