Catching a frightened horse in the middle of a paddock with fire burning all around is a nightmare scenario for most of us.
But for Christchurch volunteer firefighter Natalie Powell, it was all in a day’s work this week, as she helped rescue horses from the Port Hills fires.
Working with members of Animal Control and volunteers with horse trucks, she brought eight horses to safety from behind the cordons.
It was a long night on Monday for Natalie and the other firefighters; she spent from 6.30pm until 7am battling the flames, and was back again early on Wednesday, by which time the winds were rising and the fire was raging out of control.
Many hundreds of people were evacuated from their properties, and cordons were set up to block access to the area. Livestock including horses were in many cases stuck behind the cordons; it was up to Natalie and her colleagues to do what they could to rescue them.
Natalie’s horse-handling experience was soon put to work.
“My crew got deployed to a different fire around the corner and I joined in with the animal control guys,” she says.
“Animal control were fantastic. We picked a dog up… we opened gates for sheep. Horses are different: as flight animals they react differently to how a cow or sheep would react. We tried to get them out as quickly as possible.
“There were eight horses we managed to evacuate. One of the properties was actually on fire as we were moving a horse out.”
Of course, catching a strange horse in a large paddock which was on fire, while wearing hi-vis gear and smelling of smoke, isn’t an easy prospect.
“I took my hi-vis top off so I didn’t look so fluorescent, and she just let me walk straight up to her. I grabbed her by her mane and pulled her over to the car where she let me put a headcollar on. I then walked her down the street – she didn’t spook at anything. We had fire engines going past, the police cars had flashing lights going, the valley was covered in smoke, the helicopters were flying low because they had been evacuated out of that area… and she didn’t blink an eye. She was amazing.”
The horses were then loaded on the trucks and driven to safety.
In order to find the owners of three of the horses, Natalie posted on Facebook. “I put a post up and it snowballed. The owners actually came back to me 46 minutes later!”
The post was shared by the equestrian community nearly 1000 times. It was through reading the comments on the post later that Natalie found out more information. The 30-year-old chestnut mare, Star, while a much-loved paddock buddy, had a reputation for being a grumpy old girl. “To hear that she was a bit of an old bag was a surprise. I thought she was actually faultless,” said Natalie.
She agreed to share the very emotional video taken of her in action with the mare. “Here I was, thinking I could do animal control work, but I ended up having a cry – I just couldn’t believe that the horse had been left behind. It really got to me.” Now she knows Star is much-loved, Natalie is just relieved that it all turned out okay.
Star’s owner commented: “I was beside myself when I realised that we weren’t going to be able to get to her… the fire path changed so damn quick. She would hate being famous – it would make her even crankier!”
Natalie works full-time for Datacom, a role she took up just before Christmas. “They have just been fantastic in regard to the support.” While she was at work today (Friday), she will be back on firefighting duties over the weekend.
Natalie has been a volunteer in the fire service for 20 years. “I joined in Wellington when I was 15. I’m now a member of the High Country Fire Team which is affiliated with DOC [Department of Conservation] here in Christchurch. That basically gives us a really, really huge coverage. We generally get to go to the very big rural fires.”
She loves the variety, the training and the people involved in the rural fire brigades. “It is pretty full on, the days are ridiculously long, you never know what you might be doing next. You could be helping a logging crew, you could be working under a helicopter or getting dropped off by a helicopter. They are a good bunch of guys.”
For those thinking about joining, Natalie has some good advice. “There are many rural teams you can join. Obviously it makes sense to join your local one, but, in saying that, I live in Rangiora and the team I am involved in is based in Christchurch, near Sockburn.”
When she is not fighting fires, or hanging out of helicopters, Natalie has three horses she dotes on. “I’ve got a ‘unicorn’, a 25-year-old St James horse that I still ride. He is my number-one horse, I adore him to pieces. He was Dave Ferriman’s lead hunt horse for many years. While I am limited on the riding I can do with him, I took him out to a three-day trek a couple of weekends ago. They had a spar course and he just hit that field like it was the old days. He was chomping at the bit to get at them and he just loved it.”
The two other horses are more recent additions to Natalie’s team. “I went to the St James sale to purchase another one like him but they breed them a bit different now – they are a lot more athletic and finer looking. I just wanted a tank so I decided to breed one myself. I purchased a three-quarter Clydesdale mare and I put her to a 17.3hh part-Clydesdale Gisborne-bred horse, Ngahiwi Ranger. The foal has come out enormous.”
As well as trekking, Natalie goes to a few local dressage, show jumping and hunter events. “I’m not planning on competing at the Horse of the Year or anything!”
— Mark Hannah (@MarkHannahPhoto) February 15, 2017
And we thoroughly agree with the sentiments in the tweet below.
— nzherald (@nzherald) February 16, 2017