Wildfires, horses, and the Thoroughbred who saved me

My heart goes out to the people of Colorado, Montana, and all who are affected as they fight the devastating wild fires.

But somehow, I’m not surprised to hear that horse folk are going out of their way to help those in need of assistance.

I was thirteen years old when a fast-moving brush fire swept through the town I grew up in, burning down houses and barns and acres of tinder-dry California brush. I was camped out with my horse at Pony Club Camp  when fire appeared at the ridge of the distant hills and started its crackling path toward us.

My parents, my house, my entire town was located beyond the ridge of that hill, now separated from us by a wall of fast-moving flames. Our instructor made a swift decision: we had no choice but to get on our horses and ride away from the fire hoping that we could stay ahead of the flames.

Not long later, our beloved instructor,Hilda Gurney,

would impress the world, when her outstanding performance helped the American team bring home a bronze medal in dressage at the 1976 Olympic Games.  Her 17.2 hand Thoroughbred, Keen, proved that an American Thoroughbred could compete at the highest levels of dressage.

When she rode him, it was pure magic.  In the early seventies in California upper level Dressage was an absolute rarity.  Most of us had never seen a piaffe or passage except when Hilda and Keen suddenly transformed our dusty pony club field into a world class level training ring.Hilda and Keen camped right along side us, the big sweet chestnut standing quietly at his tie block while Hilda fussed over him. treating him like the prince that he was.

But the day that the fire swept down the hill, we learned that like all great champions, Hilda and Keen were both brave.

The wind was blowing hard, choked with soot and blowing ashes, and the sky was a terrifying orange.    We mounted up, put our halters over our bridles, and left all of our possessions behind.  The path out was down a series of brush-covered hillsides, toward a distant highway that we hoped the fire couldn’t jump.

Keen and Hilda took the lead down the hill, and we followed, trusting that they would lead us to safety, and they did.

I’ve been so happy to see Keen mentioned in the news again recently, as the imperative grows to find second careers for Thoroughbreds. and people remember Keen’s outstanding career as an American pioneer in dressage.

But reciting Hilda and Keen’s list of accomplishments doesn’t tell the half of it.  That big, well-behaved, beautiful and brilliant chestnut  was more than just a champion.  He was a beacon  out of the path of a terrifying wildfire.

I hope every horse in Colorado is safe from fire today. And,  I’d also like to take a moment to remember the big Thoroughbred, the Olympian, Keen, for leading me and my friends and our horses to safety that day.

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