By Meagan Ellsworth
To Donna Stedman, the rescued animals at Henry’s Home Horse and Human Sanctuary in Conroe are like her children. That’s why she was willing to risk her life to save all of them when Harvey’s floodwaters began to rise.
At 7 a.m. Aug. 28, Stedman, the owner of the Sanctuary that also serves as an outreach program for veterans, walked outside to spooked horses huddled on a patch of land like an island in the corner of a corral. It only took a couple of hours for the water to slowly rise to ankle, then knee, and eventually waist height in some areas at the Grand Central Park property off Interstate 45, Stedman, whose phone was dead, posted on Facebook calling for a truck and help. She knew she needed to act fast. But with no responses to her Facebook call for help, she set out to do it alone with one final post before she unplugged her computer.
“Water is all the way up to the road now even on our pasture side,” Stedman posted at 8:30 a.m. “Horses are standing on a small piece of ground. Rising quickly. If I don’t see any of you again, please know how much I love you and how much of your love and support for Henry’s Home has meant to me.”
Stedman jumped into action. She put halter on 8 full size horses, one mini horse, one mini donkey, one mini mule, and prepared three full size horses, six barn cats, and one pig with water rising by the minute.
“I never felt fearful,” Stedman said. “But I felt sad that I may not ever see the people I love again. I don’t fear death but I’ll be damned if I ‘m going to let those horses go without a fight. … I’m the momma out here. I’m connected to this earth and animals. Every animal I’ve ever taken in is as beloved to me as my own children.”
Stedman ran over to check the dipped entrance to higher ground where she needed to lead the horses.
“I walked down the road through the water,” she said noting she needed to check if the horses would be able to cross. “It was up to my shoulders.”
Able to touch the pavement in the slow, not rapidly moving water, she prepared to the lead horses over.
Meanwhile, Board Advisor and Air Force Veteran Jay Novak, whose wife urged him to check on Stedman, attempted to check on Stedman but could not reach her due to an impassable road to Henry’s Home. He called the Conroe Fire Department who arrived with boats ready for a water rescue. But instead, they found Stedman safe–crossing the road in the water with light humor to share. The fire department, who was unable to stay long due to other calls, was able to cut and clear a fallen tree for a safer alternative route for the horses. The route made it possible for Stedman, Novak and volunteers to save the horses. However, by the last trip it was too risky to return due to at least one area of rushing water, Novak said noting he observed 3 inches to 3 feet of water.
“It could have gone very badly,” said Novak relieved for Stedman and the animals safety. “She definitely would not have had a way to communicate and would have been trapped for sure for at least two or three days without a way to communicate and if she tried to cross the water it would have been bad for her (with rising water over a period of time). What was already a bad situation definitely would have been life threatening.”
The horses were transported within a few hours to Magnolia thanks to the help of Panther Creek Inspiration Ranch sending trucks with three large horse trailers.
Panther Creek Inspiration Ranch flooded last Spring and prepared for Harvey by tying down property and evacuating the 15 horses in advance, according to the Ranch’s Chief Executive Officer MG Tindall who understood the experience and felt compelled to help Stedman.
“If you know horse people they are like the captain of their ship, they are going down with their horses, they are going to stick their alongside,” Tindall said. “I can definitely understand her motivation … I knew she was going to stay there and do whatever she had to keep the horses safe, which is why we felt the urgency to get over there and get her out.”
While all of the animals and humans were saved, the sanctuary-Stedman’s vision from God that began in 1994 to provide rehabilitation for both horses and humans with a free invitation for veterans–suffered some loss.
The breakroom, bathrooms, tack room, supplements, tractor, 100 bales of hay and $2,000 in feed were all flooded. Volunteers have helped dry and save the saddles, replaced some of the fence panels and helped clean up after the flood. A donor has replaced the hay.
The Thrive feed, tractor, and sand will have to be replaced if not fixed, and there is a need for a truck and larger horse trailer. A “Hurricane Relief : Horses & Heroes” GoFundMe page has been created by volunteer Jenny McMillian. By Wednesday, 88 people had raised $7,738 of the $25,000 goal in six days.
Stedman is grateful for the help received during the “once in a lifetime event”. Like Tindall, she is confident she will be more knowledgeable and prepared in the case there is a flood again with a plan to evacuate the horses days in advance and the hope to help others in the future.
While Stedman said volunteers and people involved were worried and she is unsure as to how the sanctuary will accomplish its goal to have a retreat center, she is confident that the experience is part of God’s plan.
“Watching God build this place, just exactly like He told me that He was going to do, that He was going to take care of the land, money, and people, has just been flooring me every minute of every day,” said Stedman who has no details but no fear “… This is all going to work out to be a part of the perfect plan, all part of our perfect growth.”
“So when I came back here and saw these fences all up and the trailer without water, the cats and Gus (the pig) OK, it made my heart happy,” Stedman added. “But somehow it didn’t surprise me because I believe in a God that is incredible and keeps his word and I’ve lived my entire adult life counting on that word.”
For more information about Henry’s Home visit henryshomehorsesanctuary.org or call 281-292-1110. To contribute search GoFundMe for www.gofundme.com/henryshome.