With Sonoma Aflame, Racing to Get Prized Horses Out

Sonoma and Napa counties — where wildfires continue to rage — are known for wine and agriculture, but this is horse country, too. The counties are home to more than 26,000 equine animals (horses, mules and donkeys), according to the Sonoma Horse Council. In 2014, the Sonoma County horse industry brought in $613 million in business revenue. Thirteen competitions sanctioned by the United States Equestrian Federation are held in the area.

Many of the most celebrated — and valuable — horses in equine sports live here.

Fandango HX, a Capital Challenge Horse Show champion, is based at Sonoma Valley Stables. Corriendo Tau, an international hunter derby winner, also lives there. The thoroughbred Blackfoot Mystery, who competed with Martin Boyd at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, trained for five years down the road at Chocolate Horse Farms. Ballinakill Glory, who went to the 2009 World Cup in Poland, lives there full time.

The fires, which started in Calistoga on Oct. 8, have destroyed thousands of buildings and killed dozens of people. As of Sunday night, thousands of horses had been displaced and six had been euthanized after sustaining severe burns or experiencing colic. Veterinarians expect both numbers to rise.

The horse community established evacuation sites at the Solano Fair Grounds, Sonoma County Fair Grounds, Circle Oak Veterinary Clinic, Sonoma Horse Park and several privately owned barns in Marin County.

“There are so many people unaccounted for, and that’s the same thing for the horses,” said Natalie Zdimal, a veterinarian at Circle Oak who is stationed at Solano Fair Grounds. “I mostly am seeing wounds, bad wounds. They probably were injured the day of the fire and now, when the horses show up, those wounds are contaminated and old and it’s not the best for sewing them back together. Also, a lot of eye injuries and colic — abdominal pain that can be a serious condition that requires surgical intervention.”

Ned Glynn, the co-owner of Sonoma Valley Stables, decided to evacuate his horses early in the morning on Oct. 9. He woke up at 4:30 a.m. to a text from Nina Alario, the owner of the show barn up the hill. “Hi,” the message read. “I just got a call from a vet that keeps her horses close to Sonoma State. She says they’re going to be told to evacuate and we should too. 911 says we are still south enough, but sounding close. Have you received any info?”


Alisha Robinson worked around the clock last week to move hundreds of horses out of harm’s way.

Jason Henry for The New York Times

Glynn walked onto his porch and saw the hill overlooking his barn was ablaze. At first, the smoke was so thick, he thought the flames were in his backyard.

“No,” Glynn texted back to Alario. “But I smell smoke.”

Robinson, who lives 15 minutes down the road from Glynn’s barn, was summoned, along with her trailer. The group started at the top of the hill, evacuating 54 horses from Chocolate Horse Farm, a three-day eventing barn. Next, they moved 40 horses from Sonoma Valley Stables and 43 from Estancia — the barn owned by Alario and her husband, Mariano. The Sonoma Valley Stables horses were moved to Circle Oak Equine. Joey Pedroni Stables took in the animals from Chocolate Horse, and Sonoma Horse Park took the ones from Estancia.

Sonoma Valley Stables, Chocolate Horse Farms and Estancia house some of Northern California’s most valuable show horses, mostly hunters and jumpers. Glynn estimated that the average horse evacuated was valued at $75,000, and, “if you do those numbers, it’s going to be over $10 million in horses that were moved in an hour and 45 minutes.”

All of their horses were all evacuated preemptively — for fear that the dry hills nearby would soon be aflame — and the owners said none were hurt. Andrea Pfeiffer, the owner of Chocolate Horse Farms, said that one horse refused to be haltered, so she had to leave him behind. She left another horse with him in the hopes that a companion might keep the horse calm.

“You can’t let 52 other perish to save two,” Pfeiffer said. “He wasn’t locked in a barn. He wasn’t surrounded by trees. It was the safest situation you could manage. It was a difficult decision but the right decision, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

She later went back with six helpers and retrieved the two horses.

Most of the horses that were injured were kept in smaller barns or in people’s backyards. They were often moved after the authorities mandated evacuations.


Heather Roades, barn manager at Sonoma Valley Stables, at Circle Oak Equine in Petaluma, Calif., where several displaced horses were given refuge from the fires.

Jason Henry for The New York Times

“Unfortunately, I know of people who not only lost their facilities, but were told they had to leave and they could not load their animals,” Hope Glynn, a co-owner of Sonoma Valley Stables, said in a phone interview from Pennsylvania, where she was judging a horse show. “You have horses that are at these people’s homes or facilities and they said, ‘Open your gates, open your doors,’ but we cannot get them out fast enough.”

In the exodus, Robinson became the point person for organizing evacuations. From late on Oct. 8 to 10 a.m. the next morning, she evacuated eight barns. After a quick break, she went back out and evacuated more barns in Calistoga. She coordinated the evacuation of 15 other large stables, including the Coulter family’s private facilities and 160 horses at Valley Brook Stables in Napa.

“When I was coming down the hill with the first load of horses,” Robinson said, “it looked like someone was touching the top of the hills and lighting them on fire.”

Another veterinarian, Courtney Lewis, has been going to restricted areas with a police escort to rescue horses since the morning of Oct. 9. When owners called animal control, Lewis, 31, went in behind firefighters or policemen with two veterinary technicians in a four-horse trailer. She usually used roads that no one had been down since the fire began, cautiously sidestepping downed power lines and avoiding teetering trees.

In her first trip, she rescued a pony that had sustained severe muzzle and eye burns. All of its hair was singed.

“I did see a fenced-in paddock that had a skeleton in it,” Lewis said. “I don’t know what it was. It was probably a goat because it was small, but I didn’t want to get too close. It was too upsetting. But most of what I’ve found is healthy animals.”

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