Thanksgiving took on special meaning for Sarah Lockman this year. Nearly two months ago, a fast-moving brushfire tore through her Southern California base, seriously damaging Peacock Hill Equestrian Center’s main barn, destroying stalls, pipe corrals and equipment, and forcing the evacuation of 172 animals. When the blaze kept horse trailers from accessing the property, Lockman and others found themselves hand-walking—even hand-running—horses to safety.
Looking back, Lockman is grateful that no animals were lost or injured. “We’re just lucky to have gotten them out,” she says. “I’m responsible for nearly 50 horses, and I am so happy to have found a place to put them all, and more importantly that we have them all.”
Currently ensconced at Coto Equestrian Preserve in Coto de Caza, some 25 miles from Peacock Hill, Lockman admits that she still dreams about the fire. “I have horrible nightmares where I didn’t get a horse out.” But the always-resourceful and energetic former eventer continues to manage her busy training and sales barn in its temporary location and is looking forward to a busy show season for herself and her clients.
Prepared For the Worst
On the morning of October 9, Lockman was looking forward to a productive day off when Angela Albright, her younger sister and barn manager, phoned in a panic. “There’s a fire nearby, and it’s really windy,” Albright told her.
Lockman filled her truck with diesel and headed to Peacock Hill, which sits on nearly 10 acres within Irvine Regional Park. Anticipating the worst, Lockman had already begun reaching out to nearby barns, clients with trailers, and haulers, as well as Peacock Hill’s owner, Robin Bisogno. “My evacuation plan included a list of facilities we could call when we had to leave,” says Lockman. “I knew how many stalls they had and how far away they were.”
How Do You Move 50 Horse in a Hurry
Transporting the horses would take some doing. “I don’t have trailers for all of them, but I managed to get through to hauler Les Thompson, who I’ve used for years, and he put two 18-horse rigs on standby. I offered to pay him whatever he wanted as a deposit, but he wouldn’t take anything.”
By the time Lockman arrived at the barn, the air was thick with smoke and the wind was gusting at more than 25 miles per hour. “I knew it was bad,” she says. Her Pony Club training kicked into high gear. “I’ve run a large barn since I was young, whether it was my own or someone else’s,” she says. “I’ve always had a plan.”
Who Goes First
She’d already mapped out a strategy for how to evacuate each horse, down to which horse would go in which trailer and which horses could be easily loaded into borrowed rigs. “You have to make a decision: Who goes first? We have some horses that won’t go in certain trailers. The first ones to go were the finicky horses that need a particular kind of handling or who can’t be rushed or pressured. A lot of the horses that were left til the end were experienced show horses and very good loaders, the schoolmasters that will hop in anyone’s trailer and not give anybody a hard time.”
Facebook Appeal Brings More Help
With firefighters battling to save nearby homes, it was left to park rangers to issue formal evacuation orders, giving Lockman and the rest of the Peacock Hill boarders and trainers a perilously small window—just 45 minutes—to remove any animals that hadn’t already been trailered out.
The wind-whipped flames caused freeways to be closed in both directions, leaving humans and horses at Peacock Hill virtually trapped. The parking lot of an Albertson’s supermarket nearly a mile away became a de facto staging area, and Lockman turned to social media, putting out a distress call on Facebook: “Walking horses to Albertson’s parking lot,” she posted. “Please come with trailers.”
Lockman and assistant trainer Hayley Buckingham-Essig helped jog horses down the road and along sidewalks, and stopping traffic to cross a busy intersection to reach the awaiting trailers. Remembers Bisogno, “The fire was moving so fast that we ended up hand-walking and running 50 to 60 horses out.”
"They Must Have Known We Were Saving Them"
“I’m thankful to have such good show horses. They just jogged with us, not looking at anything. I think they must have known we were saving them.
We were leading horses out and handing them off to random people, handing off our top dressage horses to guys in business suits, saying, ‘Hold this.’ And then we’d run back in to get more horses. There wasn’t enough time to call everybody, so at that point, you just go into survival mode and save the animals. Hayley and I and a couple of my clients were the last ones in the barn, pulling out the last horses.”
In all, the Canyon 2 fire scorched more than 9,200 acres and destroyed or damaged nearly 60 homes, but none of Peacock Hill’s four-legged residents—including horses, a mini and a goat—were injured or lost.
“My biggest takeaway is that everyone should have an evacuation plan that everyone knows—even if it’s not your facility,” says Lockman. “We barely got the horses out, and that was with us being very organized with a plan.
It’s just common sense that every horse should have a halter and a lead rope at their stall at all times. I told my clients to get a tag with their horse’s name, their name and their phone number.”
Any Hands are Good Hands
In an emergency, she notes, the most important thing is to save the horses. “Any hands are good hands; any trailers are good trailers. You’re watching a stranger jog out one of your horses, terrified and thinking, ‘Don’t let him trip,’ but then you’re just so happy that someone has them and they’re getting out.”
Peacock Hill Will Rebuild
Bisogno, who invested more than $100,000 in improvements after purchasing Peacock Hill in 2013, says the fire destroyed the boarding facility and seriously damaged the main barn but spared the adjacent public riding school and trail business as well as employee housing. Rebuilding will occur in two phases. “We started demolition on October 21, and a crew has been here every day since then—removing 140 pipe corrals and starting soil remediation,” she explains.
Half- and fully-covered 12’ by 24' pipe corrals are planned as replacements for the burned stalls. “By rebuilding in two phases, we can get many of our tenants back home and riding,” Bisogno adds.
Phase two will involve rebuilding the barn. Damage has been estimated at $1.3 to 1.5 million.
From the 30 sacks of grain delivered by her sponsor American Family Feed, the barrels of supplements from Platinum Performance, tack from Dover Saddlery and Riding Warehouse, and supplies and money donated by Southern California trainers and riders, Lockman says she was overwhelmed by the strong support shown by the local horse community. “We all get so busy doing our own thing and just trying to make a living, but so many of my colleagues and friends were there for us in that time of need. We have a strong equine family here in Southern California. There’s no way I can repay anybody. People were giving us girths with their horse’s name on them. That meant something to them.”
Making the Best of Things
No matter how long Sarah Lockman Dressage will remain in its temporary quarters, Lockman is determined to make the best of things. “For every trainer at Peacock Hill, this isn’t a hobby; this is our livelihood that we watched go up in flames,” she says. “But whether they’ve been in my personal life or my business life, I’ve always turned these situations into something positive. A fire isn’t enough to keep us down. We’ll be bigger and better and stronger because of it.”
To donate to Sarah Lockman Dressage, go to https://www.gofundme.com/help-sld-after-devastating-fire. To contribute to the rebuilding of Peacock Hill, go to https://www.gofundme.com/rmjvz4