Sunday, January 4, 2015

Horse Lovers Ride Again After Fatal Barn Fire

Straight from the Horse's Heart

In the days after a fire in her barn killed 32 horses, Amber Bauman walked knee-deep in ashes and twisted metal, sifting through what remained of her old life.
Barn Fire
Amber Bauman, the owner of Valley View Acres stable, tries to move on and rebuild after a fire destroyed her barn and killed 32 horses trapped inside. (Stacey Wescott, Chicago Tribune)
She found her first childhood saddle, ruined by heat, water and soot. She uncovered brushes used to groom the coats of horses now gone. She felt compelled to salvage what she could, no matter how painful.
“Those are my horses,” she said tearfully. “I need to be in there. … That was my life.”
Flames raged through the barn at Valley View Acres near Woodstock on a chilly November evening. Only five of the 37 horses kept there escaped.
“We lost everything,” said Bauman, a substitute teacher who owns the farm with her husband, Tyson, who is deputy police chief in nearby Harvard.
The Baumans are working to resurrect their horse farm with an outpouring of support from friends and strangers alike. The family has leased a new barn at East Hillside Equine in Crystal Lake, where they are keeping their horses and give riding lessons. Complete strangers have donated horses and equipment to the Baumans and others who had horses boarded at Valley View before the fire.
In the weeks since the blaze, the couple have been trying to follow the first rule of horse riding: When you fall off, get back in the saddle again.
The second chance they are being given reflects a close-knit and supportive horse community. Those who stepped up to help said they feel the pain of horse owners who’ve lost their animals.
Cheryle Schultz, of Black Creek, Wis., met Bauman in 2011 at an equestrian event. She learned of the fire through Facebook and reached out to offer two of her own horses.
After spending some time with the horses in their stalls, brushing them, talking to them and watching them run in the pasture, Bauman chose two male youngsters named Diesel and Scooter.
Schultz said she offered Bauman the horses because she “can’t imagine the pain she felt.”
“All I could see is her going out to her barn every day and having no one there to love,” Schultz said. “Where do we go for therapy when something terrible happens, if not to the barn?”
The donated horses have been a welcome step toward what remains a slow recovery from the tragedy. The Nov. 22 fire began in the hayloft of the barn, for reasons that investigators have not determined. The Baumans were out that night, attending an end-of-the-year horse gala.
As is common in horse barns, the stable had no fire detection equipment. The couple’s 15-year-old son, Adam, saw the flames from the family’s home next door and rushed to the barn to try to get the horses out. But, as is typical horse behavior, most would not flee their stalls, his mother said, except for the five animals that escaped.
The Baumans lost 18 of their own horses and 14 owned by boarders.
Amber Bauman said she loved and knew each horse “intimately. … (I) knew every whinny.
“They all (had) their own personalities,” she said.
Among the horses that perished was Eve, which Bauman had bought when she was 10 year old for $82.73 — then her life savings. Eve was also the first horse her daughter Alexis rode, with Bauman carrying the child on her chest in a baby carrier when she was weeks old.
e got her name because she was purchased on a New Year’s Eve. So at the end of every year, Bauman made a point to ride her to celebrate the day she bought her.
But as this new year began, an 8-foot chain-link fence surrounded the charred remains of the stable.
Out in the pasture are mounds where the horses are buried. Visitors come daily to lay flowers, wreaths, apples and carrots there. Children who took riding lessons from Bauman hand-painted 32 rocks, each with the name of a horse, as a memorial to the animals that died in the fire.
Alexis Bauman, now 11, placed a love letter on one mound written to her horse Dusty: “I love you even though you bucked me,” it said.
Every day, Amber Bauman said, she receives phone calls and donations of money, saddles, bridles, blankets and other tack. Nearby schoolchildren raised $1,600 for Bauman, and a local veterinarian has donated equine medicines. But most endearing are the donations of horses.
In the past few weeks, Bauman said, she has had seven horses donated from as far as Connecticut and Florida.
Abbi Ferrigno, owner of Rabbit Hill Farm in Newtown, Conn., heard about the fire through a friend. Though she does not know the Baumans, she pledged two ponies — Bunny and Foxy — for Alexis.
“I just felt the kinship with Amber,” Ferrigno said. “I put myself in my mind in that place and I couldn’t imagine what it was like for her to have lost all those ponies and horses. … It’s every horseman’s worst nightmare.”
In the weeks after the fire, a barn in Marengo donated horses, and another barn in Prairie Grove let her use its space to provide rising lessons.
Most of Bauman’s boarders and clients have stuck with her. She has 97 students and typically teaches up to 200 lessons a week. During one recent lesson, she stood in the middle of the arena and called out instructions to three young riders as they trotted, slowed and jumped.
Kathy Hinz, of Crystal Lake, whose daughter lost her horse Lightning McQueenie in the fire, recently took a ride with Bauman to a farm in DePere, Wis., to accept a donated horse.
Hinz described the closeness of the families at Valley View Acres and the shared strength and determination to help rebuild the barn.
“Sometimes it is hard,” she said, “but we continue to remind each other that forward is the only option we have.”
Despite the difficulties, Bauman remained determined to rebuild.
“Our barn was like a family,” she said. “I need to have that family again.”

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