August 2017: Welcoming Equine Refugees

James Lee Blurke’s horses at Dunrovin Photo by Carolyn Maier

As it became clear that the Lolo Peak fire was headed to the heavily populated Lolo Creek and Bitterroot Valley, people began to take stock of their situations. What would they need to evacuate? Where would they go to house themselves or their animals? What would they take with them? When should they go? Should they wait until a mandatory evacuation order or go sooner, at a more leisurely pace.

Dunrovin received a number of phone calls posing these exact questions, especially concerning livestock. Our answers were always the same. Take large animals out as soon as possible. Don’t wait until it is an emergency. Animals certainly know what is going on. They smell the smoke, they hear the fire’s roar, and they are keenly aware of their owner’s emotional state. Trying to load and move animals during the last minutes of an emergency is a script for disaster. The more “amped” up the handlers are, the more “amped” up the animals become, the more reactive they are, and the less able they are to handle. This is how things end badly, with loose horses and cattle running down highways away from flames.

As always in these situations, Dunrovin is available for providing more than advice. We are happy to pick up and house livestock in distress. With a six-horse trailer, we can often accomplish in one load what it might take others to complete in two or three. As the fire danger rose, we called our hay supplier and laid in an additional 5 tons to ensure a good supply should we have to house evacuees, and let the word out by stopping by at the US Forest Service Fire Information Center and the Missoula County Sheriff’s office to leave our cards with contact information. We also posted on Facebook and other social media.

We were not alone in this offer, by any means. In fact, during this fire, Dunrovin most often served as a matchmaker, linking someone in need of assistance with someone else either better suited or closer in proximity. We lack, for example, appropriate enclosures for pigs, chickens, sheep, or goats, but we can easily handle horses or cattle. Lacking other options, we would make temporary arrangements as best we could, but it only makes sense to make use of others who are better prepared.

It seems that New York bestselling author James Lee Burke is one who is always ahead of the game. He called at the first whispers of evacuations to see if we could come pick up his three horses and evacuate them to Dunrovin. While he is a famous resident in these parts and I have heard a great deal about him, I had never before had the pleasure of meeting him. James and his wife live on Heartwood Ranch, which is located several miles up a dead-end drainage with only one road in and out. He is keenly aware of and cautious about his situation relative to fire.

At the appointed time, I set off with Sterling to look for his ranch. James couldn’t have made it easier for me to find him and maneuver my horse trailer onto his property. He was out on the road waving me in and showing me exactly where to turn around. He had all three of his horses haltered and ready to go. Two of his horses—his boys, as he refers to them—are Foxtrotters that are well trained and completely calm with people. They have a huge fan club from having appeared on a number of James’ marketing materials and covers for his mystery novels. With little effort, we were able to load and quiet the two geldings.

His sleek dark colored mare, however, was another story. Gloria was uneasy with strangers among her. As James attempted to load her, he explained that she had been adopted and had an unknown history. It took him a long, long time to gain her trust at all, and that was fragile. She didn’t like being caught and would flee at the sign of a halter. Her loyalties lay with the geldings. We had hoped that by loading the gelding first, she would reluctantly follow. After several unsuccessful tries, James turned to me with a bit of wisdom. He said that he well understood his own limitations with respect to rehabilitating her. He could, if he had to, accept the fact that he might have to leave her. He clearly loves his horses, and leaving her would had caused him great pain. But he seems to be a compassionate realist who does not fool himself about the ability of one human to undo what others humans may have done to an animal’s psyche. Just as he was deciding that perhaps we best get going with the geldings, he turned to walk back to his house, and the mare followed him, allowed herself to be caught, and quietly ambled with him to the trailer. It was as if she knew that she needed to trust him this time and go along.

With a little coordination among the three of us,  she was loaded and I took off with the three horses while Sterling hoped in James’ truck for the ride back to Dunrovin. There we let the three go, and they immediately took off to explore their new surroundings. After watching them for a few moments, James called to them and they came right to him. Watching him with his horses told me a great deal about the man. He was aware of the physical limitations that age had bestowed him, neither apologizing nor shying away from his need to make adjustments. From his patience, evident love, and respect for his animals, it was clear that he is man comfortable with himself, and therefore the world.

It didn’t hurt that he referred to me as Miss SuzAnne. He explained that men of a certain age from New Orleans always use ‘Miss’ when addressing a younger woman. WOW! I was totally smitten by this gracious, kind man who wares his fame like an old pair of polished loafers, comfortable, well-worn and well-kept.

His horses are still here as I write this. We will make arrangements to return them before our next wedding so our own horses can occupy the field and escape the wedding ceremonies. But beyond that, we have enjoyed their presence. Three lovely animals came into our lives for a short period and brought a most charming new friend with them.


Getting James Lee Burke’s three horses back home. Photos by Sandy Walters

James came to collect his horses right after I completed this article. Again, he surprised me and my staff with his ability to read and work with his horses. He did things so very differently that we would have. Our way would not have been successful with his horses. He knows them and they know him. His horsemanship dance with his horses is his alone and speaks volumes about the ability of horses and humans communicate with on another and find their individual dance steps. There are clearly many ways to dance.

James also sent back ten bales of the sweetest looking hay for our horses. They, and we, thank him.

Be sure to check out James Lee Burke’s many mystery novels. We hope to get him involved with our Dunrovin cyber book club in the coming months. Stay tuned for dates and times.


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