When the deadly Woolsey Fire swept through more than 96,000 acres of Los Angeles and Ventura Counties in California
last November, it killed three people, destroyed homes and lives, and prompted the evacuation of nearly 300,000 people, as well as countless animals.
Eventing athlete Kelsey Holmes, 20, counts herself exceptionally lucky. She, her family, and their animals came through without significant injury. And two of the barns on Brookview Ranch in Agoura Hills survived the fire, giving them a chance to continue stabling and riding at the same farm.
But the Holmeses’ home in Malibu burned, taking with it many precious memories. Sometime later, Holmes’s mother asked her what one object she would have saved from the flames, if she’d had the chance, and the answer came quickly: her bronze team medal from the 2016 FEI North American Youth Championships. Holmes had come home from the NAYC eventing championship (then known as the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships) in Colorado with that team bronze around her neck and an individual eighth-place ribbon in the Junior division, having finally fulfilled her dream of riding at the NAYC just before she turned 18, in her final year of eligibility.
“I started competing at the 1* (now 2*) level when I was 15, but the stars never really aligned for me to be able to go until finally I was able to in my last year,” Holmes said. “We flew my horse from California to Colorado and I spent about a week there training and allowing him to adjust to the altitude. At the competition, it was one of those perfect shows that just never seem to happen: I had all dream phases, easy and perfect, and then we finished on our dressage score. I couldn’t have finished any better than I did. That never happens!
“It was important because, after years of trying to qualify and never having it pan out, I finally got to go,” she continued. “And then it was such an amazing experience for me. It really showed me how hard work and perseverance will pay off in the end, no matter how long it takes you to get there. I think for a lot of people competing at Young Riders, either it’s at the beginning of the rest of their competitive life or it’s at the end of their riding career. For me, I wasn’t entirely sure what my future in riding was going to be. But I knew afterwards that riding and competing in eventing was going to be a part of my life for the rest of my life.”
What made the 2016 championship even more special was the fact that two of Holmes’s close friends, fellow eventers Lisa Takada and Lexie Thacker, were with her for the NAYC at the Colorado Horse Park. “All three of us had that as our big goal,” Holmes said of the NAYC. “When I went, it was very special, because Lexie actually groomed for me and Lisa came and watched, so they were all there with me,” she said. “The team, the group of girls that I was with, and our coaches and the chef d’equipe—everyone was rooting for each other, and not just for our own personal Area, but also the Areas we were stabled by, too. It was this whole community coming together and supporting one another.”
The medal reminded her of that camaraderie at NAYC, as well as of the personal goal she had fulfilled there with her horse NZB The Chosen One, nicknamed Squid. “It was there every morning when I woke up,” she recalled. “It was the first thing I saw.”
A Lucky Escape
When the Woolsey Fire struck last November, Holmes wasn’t at home; she was in her apartment near the University of California, Los Angeles, where she was then a 20-year-old junior majoring in political science with a minor in entrepreneurship.
The barn the Holmeses leased on Brookview Ranch was a short drive from their home in Malibu, and when Holmes’s mother Lisa got word of the approaching fire, she sprang into action.
“At the time we had a little over 20 horses in the barn,” Kelsey explained. “It wasn’t mandatory evacuation yet, but being from Southern California, we’d been in that situation before. We’ve evacuated the horses before, and we’ve always been of the mind that it’s better to get them out early than wait. So she and many other people started evacuating the horses out of our barn before the mandatory evacuations; they finished early in the morning, about 2 a.m.
“Most of the horses were taken to evacuation centers around Los Angeles. My horse Squid and two other horses were taken into Malibu where our home was. My dressage trainer, Carly Taylor-Smith, had a barn down there, and they took him there, thinking he’d be safe in Malibu.”
But by dawn, flames were also bearing down on Malibu.
“I woke up in the morning when my mom called me to tell me that all the hills surrounding Malibu were covered in flames, and she was going to the barn where Squid was to get him and the two other horses out of there,” Kelsey recalled. “I couldn’t get there, because all the roads had started closing down, so I went to the evacuation centers where all the boarders’ horses were and started helping with whatever I could there. I didn’t talk to my mom for five or six hours, because all the cell lines went down. So I had no idea what was going on, and it was pretty scary.
“People were calling and texting me, because they knew Squid and the other horses had gone into Malibu, and there were pictures circulating of people walking horses on the beach, and horses just running round free. I knew my mom would have taken him to the beach if it had gotten to that point with the fire. But he was a competition horse, an 18-hand Hanoverian, and I don’t think I could have handled him in that type of scenario. So I was so worried about their safety!”
At the barn in Malibu where Squid was sheltered, Lisa Holmes had no horse trailer. Her chance would rest on a group of volunteers that had driven in to the hills to help. She fervently hoped that one would pass by the barn—and, sure enough, one did. The trailer was smaller than 18-hand Squid really needed, but he loaded without hesitation along with his companion from Agoura Hills, and the two were headed for safety. Lisa Holmes raced home, grabbed the family pets, and made it out before the fire consumed their home.
The Holmeses found out that their house was gone by watching videos on social media, Kelsey said.
“All over Instagram we saw videos of the barn burning and of our home burning,” she said. “I think it was at least a week or so before we got back there. Malibu is sort of one way in and one way out. There are routes through canyons, but the Pacific Coast Highway, which is the main road, was closed, and it was really hard to get in there. A lot of my family and friends didn’t even know what the status of their homes was, because of that. I just happened to find out through the Instagram Story from some random stranger.”
"The Horses Brought Us Together"
About a week later, as Kelsey’s close friend Lisa Takada was on her way to a horse show, she got a text from Kelsey’s mother.
“She told me she’d been having a conversation with Kelsey and they’d been talking about what they wished they could have saved, not including the animals, and Kelsey said her NAYC medal,” Takada said. “Her mom asked if there was any way to try to get that back for Kelsey.”
Takada was the right person to call. She and Kelsey had been friends since 2011, when they met on a trip to a horse show.
“We met because our trainers are best friends,” Takada explained. “My trainer is Auburn Excell Brady and hers is Jennifer Wooten. They do a lot of shows together and traveling together, and Kelsey and I met at some schooling facility on our way up to Woodside. We were doing beginner novice, and we stopped there on a Wednesday or something, I think just to get ourselves out there before we went up to Woodside to get the most out of the trip. That weekend we became friends, and from there we have just always been really close.
“You have a different relationship with your horse friends than you do with your school friends, because the horse friends completely get why you’re doing what you’re doing,” she continued. “My school friends wouldn’t understand why I have to go school my horse or what this one show means, stuff like that. Having friends like Kelsey, she understands when I’m upset or struggling with something about riding. She’s been there, and she is very supportive, because she’s a rider, too, and she’s been in the same exact situation at least once before. And that’s reciprocated from me to her.
“The horses brought us together because we share a common goal. It definitely creates a bond.”
A Collective Effort
Lisa Holmes’s text to Takada started a process that ultimately would involve US Equestrian, the United States Eventing Association, and businesses in California that specialize in buffing and engraving metal. Takada began by emailing the USEA and US Equestrian to inquire whether there might be any possibility of finding a new NAYC medal and ribbon for Holmes. Inspired by the story and Takada’s request, they rapidly marshalled their resources to help. In short order, US Equestrian sent Takada a bronze medal, as well a replacement sash ribbon, honoring the team bronze, for Squid.
“It was so cool to see how nice everyone was and how willing they were to help out,” Takada recalled. “It was kind of surprising, because I didn’t know how they’d respond to this, but it was awesome!”
Takada arranged to have the medal re-engraved with the 2016 NAYC information.
“They did an amazing job,” Takada said. “It looks like the medal was always like that. They smoothed it down, and then the engraver at the trophy shop used a picture I got from one of Kelsey’s teammates to re-engrave it. I finally got everything together after Christmas, around the first week of January, and then the next weekend was when I saw Kelsey.”
In January, Takada and Holmes both attended at a clinic at Galway Downs in Temecula, Calif., and Takada seized the opportunity.
“I was making grain or something; I wasn’t paying attention,” Holmes recalled. “I turned around, and my horse was out of his stall and had his ribbons on, and Lisa was holding the medal. It was very special.
“I was shocked. I remembered telling my mom that I wished I could have saved the medal. I think it’s so heartwarming that not just Lisa, but everyone at the USEA and the USEF who put their time and effort into getting this medal back. People I don’t even know touched my life, and I hope they realize that they were able to do something like that for me.”
The new medal now hangs, much like the original did, over a lamp on a bedside table, in Holmes’s Los Angeles apartment.
“The medal was the one thing I said I would have saved,” she said. “It really did define my growing up, in general, not even just riding. It represents my journey riding, and it was something I never thought I’d be able to get back.
“The fire was devastating, but I think it’s all about perspective, too,” she added. “It was definitely hard in the beginning, and I am still reminded of the fire every day by little things. But now it’s more in good ways rather than bad ones. Like what Lisa did for me and all of friends and family around me trying to support me during these times.”
Some aspects of Holmes’s life before the fire are irretrievable, but her barn life has provided a welcome sense of continuity and calm.
“It does feel like home there to me because I spend so much of my time there,” she said. “It’s a bit of normal when everything seems so far from normal right now.
“The other day I was at a tack store and the person helping me was asking about my story. She was telling me about another girl who went through a very similar situation—many, many people in that area did, because there was so much devastation. But the girl was planning on quitting horses. I was so taken aback by that, because during this time, even the couple of hours I’m spending at the barn every day is a time when I can forget everything else that’s going on and just focus on Squid and being at the barn, being happy, and the peacefulness of it all.”
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