As the Woolsey fire raced through the hills of Malibu, California, in November of 2018, Kelsey Holmes faced a nightmarish scenario. While she was safe at the University of California, Los Angeles, campus, her family and horses were caught in the middle of the blaze. Holmes waited for hours for word from her mother, Lisa Holmes, who was trying to evacuate three horses from the farm they lease 45 minutes away from UCLA.
”We’d gotten calls about the fire and knew the barn might be affected,” Kelsey, 20, said. ”It wasn’t mandatory evacuation, but my mom decided to leave before it became mandatory. Some horses went to evacuation centers, but my horse and two others went to Malibu. We went to bed thinking everyone was safe, then around 5 or 6 a.m. my mom woke up to Malibu in flames. I had no way to get there because the roads were closed. I didn’t hear from my mom for about five hours. I had no idea what had happened; it was terrifying.”
Lisa did not have access to a trailer in Malibu, so she waited at the farm praying someone would come by. A woman ran up the driveway and informed Lisa that she had three spots on her trailer, but the rig was not warmblood sized. As Lisa held her daughter’s beloved 18-hand gelding, NZB The Chosen One, she was not sure he would fit.
“ ‘Squid’ hunkered down, pinned his ears down and climbed into the trailer somehow like he knew that was his only way out,” Kelsey said. “They took the horses to Moorpark, and my mom finally had service and called me. I went out to see them, and later that evening we found out our house burned down. The next day we learned the barn had burned down too.”
Kelsey purchased the 13-year-old Hanoverian gelding from Mark Todd in 2013, imported him, and the two have worked through the one-and two-star levels together. Their crowning achievement was competing in the 2016 Adequan FEI North American Junior & Young Rider Championships (Colorado) where they placed eighth individually and helped the Area VI team to third in the CCI*.
“[That event] held a lot of significance for me because it had been a goal for me since I was a kid,” Kelsey said. “I aspired to represent something in a team competition, and for me that meant representing California. It was such an amazing experience, and it kind of just resembled my journey growing up riding.”
Kelsey’s NAJYRC ribbons and medal were lost in the fire, but her mother and her best friend Lisa Takada teamed up to deliver a special gift. Takada contacted the U.S. Eventing Association and then the U.S. Equestrian Federation to figure out how to replace Kelsey’s lost awards. They were able to send a bronze medal from a para-dressage competition. Takada then took the medal to be re-engraved with the correct information and presented it, plus replacement ribbons, to Kelsey by dressing Squid in his reclaimed winnings.
“I came out to the barn and saw my horse wearing all these ribbons, and Lisa was holding the medal, and my mom was there,” Kelsey said. “Obviously it was emotional; it was crazy that all of these people put in so much effort just so I could have something back. I realized the importance of acknowledging the people around me who are here for me every day to make my day brighter, everything from people texting me to see how I’m doing, to big things like what Lisa did for me.”
Life for the Holmes family is slowly returning to normal. Kelsey is continuing her studies at UCLA, pursuing a degree in political science, and the family plans to rebuild their home in Malibu. The horses have helped Kelsey cope through the aftermath of the fire.
“The other day I was at a tack shop, and the clerk said another girl had come in who had gone through the same thing,” Kelsey said. “And this girl was apparently planning on quitting riding. I was taken aback by that because at this time for me riding is that one thing, that 45 minutes where the fires didn’t happen. I can relax and be peaceful. I could never imagine not having that.”