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Horse rescues draw attention in deadly Houston-area storms

🕐 8 min read

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON (AP) — Darolyn Butler spent about 18 hours in and out of the swirling floodwaters of Cypress Creek last Monday, April 18, trying to rescue 75 drowning horses in her care.

The Houston Chronicle ( ) reports that finally, when she and dozens of volunteers had done all they could that dreadful day — 70 horses saved, one dead and four missing — she retreated to her home and switched on her computer.

“Devastated. Speechless,” is how the 66-year-old Butler felt when she discovered she was being eviscerated on social media for her failure to evacuate the horses that Sunday, before the deluge.

“I don’t want to be defensive,” Butler said, “but I would have had to be clairvoyant to know we were going to get 15 to 17 inches of water in northwest Harris County.”

The torrential downpour left at least eight people dead, 6,700 homes flooded and an estimated $56 million in damages in Harris County. Early that Monday, dramatic photos and videos of Butler’s horses, struggling to keep their nostrils above water and fighting for their lives, appeared on social media, prompting a fierce backlash even as rescuers rushed to her aid.

Butler found herself thrashed as a symbol — fair or not — of Houston’s increasing vulnerability to flooding and its poor disaster planning.

Almost immediately, a petition went up on, proposing to shut down Butler’s business, Cypress Trails Equestrian Center, and put her in jail.

More than 10,000 people here and around the country have signed that petition. Others, Butler said, have offered to whip or shoot her.

L.A. Kaiser, owner of nearby Sovereign Farm, is upset with her neighbor.

“I feel like she exhibits a great lack of responsibility for her animals,” Kaiser said. “She cares about them, but she’s not a planner. All this could have been prevented if she had just planned ahead. But when we spoke on the phone Tuesday night, she said the whole thing was a complete surprise. Well, it wasn’t. She should have evacuated those horses when the news said we were getting 12 inches of rain. She knows her property floods.”

Local forecasts ahead of the storm predicted as much as 10 inches in some parts of the state.

Kaiser, her husband and an employee were at their farm at 6:30 a.m. Monday to check on flood damage. That’s when the first of Butler’s horses appeared. They guided that horse to safety. Then a second horse appeared. By the end of the day, they were feeding and administering first aid to 54 of Butler’s horses.

Butler boards horses, oversees trail rides and coaches riders training for long distance competitions at her equestrian center along Cypress Creek, which she has operated for 42 years.

She said she was monitoring the weather late Sunday and early Monday. When 4 inches of rain fell between 2 and 3 a.m., she saddled up and rode into her north pasture to round up her herd and secure them in the barn under her home on stilts. But just as the job was almost done, the horses panicked and galloped into the floodwaters. Several got pushed by the current into cable fencing.

About 4 a.m. Butler and employee Hoku Malama-Custer started swimming, still trying to corral the horses. But neither could buck the current and had to perch on fence posts and wait for rescue.

“The current was so strong, it was literally ripping my shorts off,” Butler said. “Meanwhile, the horses were scattered like butterflies.”

The two women were rescued by firefighters in a boat about 8 a.m. On the ride to shore, Butler said she tried to untangle horses who were caught in fencing and debris, but the firefighters wouldn’t allow it.

Once on land, Butler said, she tried to get back in the water and resume her rescue efforts. As a long-distance rider, she said, she was fit and up to the task. But a fire captain threatened to arrest her whenever she ventured near the water’s edge. Emergency crews didn’t want people to drown trying to save animals.

By 10 a.m., videos of the horses floundering in Cypress Creek appeared on Justin Nelzen’s Facebook feed. The horse trainer, long-distance rider and veteran of the Navy and the Marines rushed to the scene, stripped down to his shorts and dove in.

By about 4 p.m., he had saved 10 to 15 horses himself and another 11 with the help of other volunteers.

Law enforcement officials had tried to stop him, too, Nelzen said, but when he explained his search-and-rescue background, they let him go.

“Horses are like my calm, my Zen,” 39-year-old Nelzen said. “Being in the military, you come back with baggage. But horses are soothing. You can lean up against them and feel their heart. Sometimes I’d rather be around a horse than a person. When I looked out in the water, I didn’t see horses. I saw family. Like my daughter.”

Devan Horn, 22, also rushed to the scene and dove in.

Again, law enforcement officials tried to stop her. At 5-foot-2, she did not seem up to the task, but she soon set the officials straight. Horn, too, is a long-distance rider. Like Nelzen, she has competed in the Mongol Derby, a 620-mile race across Mongolia. And, she knew most of the horses in distress because she worked for Butler for years.

“Darolyn and I go way back,” Horn said. “As a kid, I spent all my time in her barn.”

In the water, Horn made a beeline for Jolly, a gray Arabian who seemed hopelessly tangled in debris and brambles.

“All I really saw were his nostrils,” Horn said. “He was panicking. I finally got him free, then he kicked me and we got all caught up again.”

Horn freed Jolly a second time then both got tossed by the current, and she lost her grip. She swam back to the bank and asked everyone, “Did you see a gray horse? Did he come up?”


“I just collapsed in relief,” Horn said. “I was so happy I just laid down on the pavement.”

But soon she sprang up and went to help Nelzen and another volunteer, Laura Sueiro, get the 11 horses trapped under Butler’s beach-style house. For a few minutes they talked strategy, then decided they had to see if the horses could swim across the creek.

“The current was so powerful,” Horn said, “I chose Boomer to go first. That horse has an indomitable spirit. That horse has willpower.”

He’s also nearly blind.

They set out together, but Boomer panicked in the current. “There we were, me in a small life jacket on top of an 1,100-pound blind horse,” Horn said. “I thought, ‘Oh, crap,’ before we were swept down river.”

Horn remembers Boomer was flung against a tree — he couldn’t see it — and then his back legs were caught in a submerged gate.

As she struggled to free him, both were swept under the Cypress Creek bridge. That’s when she saw a red rope floating in the water, which she looped around his chest to use as a makeshift harness and guide him to safety. If it hadn’t been for the rope, she said, they might still be floating downstream.

When Boomer was safe, Horn returned to Nelzen and Sueiro. They decided to use a boat to pull the other horses to safety.

“The boat’s propeller was really dangerous, but it was what we had to do,” Horn said.

When it was over, the volunteers went out to eat fajitas and drink margaritas.

Now, most of the horses are in pastures near George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

As Horn looks back on that difficult day, she doesn’t want to assign blame to Butler.

“Darolyn was a mentor for me at a young age,” Horn said. “She gave me my first summer job. I’ve traveled all over the country with her. She really cares about horses.”

The resounding message of the petition still circulating on Facebook — that Butler didn’t care about the herd, which was made up of her own horses and boarders — also surprised veterinarian Dori Hertel. “These horses are all regular patients of mine,” Hertel said. “They’re not neglected or abused.”

Some of the horses are a bit thin, she said, because they are endurance racers and, much like marathon runners, must eat a lot to keep weight on.

“Usually horses are fed twice a day, morning and night,” Hertel said. “Darolyn feeds some of them lunch so they can get extra calories. . I’ve been Darolyn’s vet for 17 years. She’s a caring and responsible horse owner.”

But April 18 wasn’t the first time Butler lost horses to disastrous weather. Two of her horses died in Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.

Development, the rapid growth of the area, has contributed to flooding, she said.

“The city of Houston could be parallel to me when people say I’m greedy, that I have too many horses for my 10 acres,” Butler said. “The city opened its doors to commercial and residential building. They’ve built more than the drainage can handle.”

Since the flood, Butler and friends have continued to search for the four missing horses. On Sunday, two volunteers found Komanchi, a tall, bay Arabian, in surprisingly good shape in a clearing near Jesse Jones Park and Nature Center. Overjoyed, Butler and Hertel rushed to reclaim him and administer aid. They say the search for the three horses still missing will continue.

Butler estimates the damage to her business is $75,000 to $100,000. She plans to reopen as soon as possible.


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