On a chilly November evening, flames raged through a barn at Valley View Acres in unincorporated Woodstock killing 32 horses and breaking the hearts of many who loved them.
“We lost everything,” said Amber Bauman, who with her husband Tyson and their three children have owned the farm for about eight years.
In recent days she has found herself knee deep in the ash and twisted metal sifting through, searching for what is left of the horses and the life she so loved.
She said, with tears in her eyes, it is her duty to be out in the debris no matter how painful because “Those are my horses … I need to be in there … That was my life.”
The horses ranged in age from 1 to 31. In the fire she lost 18 of her own horses and 14 others owned by borders. She loved all of them.
Bauman said she knew each one “intimately … knew every whinny.”
“They all (had) their own personalities,” she said.
One horse, Heaven ”went to college” with Bauman. While attending Northern Illinois University in DeKalb she boarded her in a nearby stable.
Heaven died in the fire with her foals Bobby, 6, and Ferrah, 2.
Eve, who Bauman bought as a yearling, also died. Bauman was 10 and she bought her with her own savings of $82.73 on New Year’s Eve. Eve was the first horse her daughter Alexis road on at just two weeks old, Bauman recalled carrying Alexis on her chest in a baby carrier wearing her little helmet.
Each New Year’s she was sure to ride Eve to celebrate the day she bought her.
On a side table, inside Bauman’s home sets a framed photo taken on their last New Years Eve ride together.
Out in the pasture are mounds where the horses have been buried. Upon the mounds are flowers, Christmas wreaths, apples and carrots placed there by visitors.
Alexis Bauman, 11, placed a love letter on one mound written to her horse Dusty: “I love you even though you bucked me.”
Children who took riding lessons from Bauman hand painted 32 rocks, each with the name of a horse buried beneath the mounds.
Bauman said visitors come daily to pay their respects. She says it’s like that old adage “The barn door’s always open.” She often look out her window to see someone walking out to the pasture.
The rubble of what had been home to the horses sits eerily outside her kitchen window. She tries to avoid seeing it by parking her truck in front of the window.
“It’s gonna be a long road … but hopefully we can clean up this mess,” she said.
The investigation into the fire, which started when the Baumans were attending an end of the year horse gala is still under investigation, authorities said.
Adam Bauman, 15, rushed to the barn when he noticed the fire and tried to get the horses out. But, as is typical horse behavior, they would not flee their stalls, his mother said.
In the weeks since, the deep pain has somewhat eased by the kindness of the local horse community and strangers from across the country.
Bauman said daily she receives phone calls and donations of money, saddles, bridals, horse blankets and other tack. Nearby school children raised $1,600 for Bauman and a local vet has donated equine medicines. Items just arrive on her front porch, she said.
But most endearing are the donations of horses.
In the last few weeks she has had seven horses and ponies donated from as far as northern Wisconsin, Connecticut and Florida.
Cheryle Schultz of Black Creek Wis. met Bauman in 2011 at an American Warm Blood inspection event. She learned of the fire through Facebook and reached out to offer two of her own 18 horses.
After spending some time with the horses in their stalls, brushing them, talking to them and watching them run in the pasture Bauman chose two male youngsters named Diesel and Scooter. Or, as Bauman says, the horses chose her. “We don’t pick horses, our horses pick us.”
“I own a horse again,” Bauman recently beamed when telling the story of finding her “two boys.”
Schultz said she gave Bauman the horses because she “can’t imagine the pain she felt.”
“All I could see is her going out to her barn everyday and having no one there to love,” she said adding that for horse people, horses are therapy.
“If you can’t go out there to love them you are losing a piece of your soul,” Schultz said. “Where do we go for therapy when something terrible happens, if not to the barn?”
Bauman said seeing horses out in the pasture again has brought her some peace. “It’s like (taking) one step forward.”
Bauman said she has only felt love and support from the horse community. Her borders and clients have all stuck with her. One barn in Marengo donates horses so she can continue to provide riding lessons and another barn in Prairie Grove had let her use their space to provide the lessons. She recently signed a lease with a barn in Crystal Lake where she will board her new horses and provide lessons.
She has 97 students and teaches up to 200 lessons a week.
Bauman said she is moved by “the outpouring of love from people” especially from those she has never even met, including local children who she heard have given their allowance money to help the barn.
Cindy Pyke, owner of A’la Fin Rancho horse farm in DePere Wis. learned about the fire through a friend. Though she did not know the Baumans she reached out and offered two of her 21 horses.
She was sad for those borders who had only one horse and wanted to do something to help.
“I’m a horse lover and I know if you only have one and you lose it, that’s pretty traumatic,” Pyke said. “It’s like losing your best friend. … It’s just heartbreaking.”
Kathy Hinz of Crystal Lake, whose daughter Natalie lost her horse Lightening McQueeny in the fire, recently took a ride with Bauman to Pyke’s farm.
Natalie Hines, 14, chose a mare named Tivo Miz Quijote. Another border joined them and brought back Cee Cee.
Hinz said dealing with the fire and the loss of her daughter’s horse “is a painful process.”
She is amazed at Bauman’s strength and the way she puts her borders before herself in her efforts to continue lessons and find them new horses.
Hinz described the closeness of the families at Valley View Acres and the shared strength and determination to help rebuild the barn.
“While we never forget the souls we lost, we continue to focus on the strength of each other,” Hinz said. “Sometimes it is hard, but we continue to remind each other that forward is the only option we have.”
The morning after bringing the new horses to the pasture at Valley View, Hinz went out for a visit.
“It was so nice to see passed where the barn was and see horses roaming out in the field,” she said. “it was very, very peaceful.”
The tragedy has broken Bauman’s heart but has not stopped or embittered her.
“We will rebuild,” she said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day, this wasn’t built in a day. Our barn was like a family. I need to have that family again. We just need to get back to normal.”