The community has rallied around the family of veteran Canadian Equestrian Team show jumper Karen Cudmore following a fast-moving early morning February 3rd fire that destroyed the barn on their Heartland Farms in Nebraska, resulting in the fatality of a worker and leaving 16 horses dead.

The blaze is believed to be accidental, although Chief Travis Harlow of the Waterloo Fire Department, who was in command at the scene, said the cause is still being investigated.

It is believed that the man who died, Nate Dietrich, 32, had opened a number of stall doors to enable rescue of the horses. An autopsy is being performed to determine the cause of his death. It is believed he had been sleeping in a room at the site, where his dogs perished with him. A firefighter who was hospitalized for burns was treated and released.

Ten horses were rescued, but another nine were not able to make it out of the barn. Of the animals taken to safety at a stable across the street, however, five did not survive the injuries they suffered in the inferno. Among those lost were Coneja, Karen’s current grand prix mount, who recently had won grands prix at the National Western Stock Show and in Ocala, FL, as well as Southern Pride, a retiree who was her partner in the 2010 FEI World Cup Finals.

Neighbors and others responded to the scene immediately, taking charge of the rescued horses as they came out of the barn and bringing them to the nearby farm. Dozens of volunteers rotated on round-the-clock shifts, caring for the animals being treated on site by the Nebraska Equine Veterinary Clinic. By the evening of Feb. 6th it looked as if the five remaining horses, all of whom had needed tracheotomy tubes in order to breathe, would pull through and could be transported to the clinic for further care there. However, that was not to be, as two more didn’t make it through the night.

Even under such discouraging circumstances, though, the volunteers kept plugging away.

Heartland Farms

“This is what Nebraskans do in a crisis. The horse community always rallies to each other’s aid,” said Lisa Roskens. She is on the board of the Omaha Equestrian Foundation, as is Karen Cudmore, who has been in the region for nearly three decades.

Such assistance “is part of living in this frozen tundra — neighbors help neighbors,” emphasized Lisa, who headed the 2017 effort to bring the FEI World Cup Finals to Omaha, where it will return next year.

“Also, everyone loves Karen. She is always helping people and sharing her expertise for charitable purposes and giving to the community, with no expectation of getting anything in return.”

The Foundation has started a fund for the Cudmores. Here is the link for tax-deductible donations, which should be marked “To benefit Heartland Farms/Cudmore.” A GoFundMe campaign has also raised over $154,000 to date.

Volunteers are also taking care of Heartland’s mares and young horses who live outside, sheltered by run-in sheds, and were unharmed by the fire.

Dannee Urban, a stable owner who worked with the volunteers, said the farm’s well was run by a power supply in the barn, which means there is no water on site and it has to be hauled in, along with hay and feed, since Cudmores’ supplies and equipment were destroyed in the fire. People from far beyond Omaha have been contributing everything from blankets to buckets and grain.

Explaining the massive turnout of volunteers to help Karen, her husband Blair, and their daughters Brooke and Kiley, Dannee said, “most of the horse people in this area have known them long enough that if this were to happen to one of us, the Cudmores would step in right away to help.”

She said she went back to her barn briefly the day of the fire, and just looked around (as she imagined most other volunteers did) thinking “how horrific it would be” to have had this happen to themselves.

Dannee observed, “When tragedy strikes like this, it’s interesting how people really come together.” She knows that first-hand; when her in-laws’ Quail Run Farm was flooded in March 2019, “the amount of support for everyone involved in that was overwhelming as well.”

Seventeen years ago, Dannee moved to Nebraska from Canada, to work and train with Karen.

“She’s by far the most famous person we have in town,” said Dannee, who used to watch Karen on television when she was growing up in Olds, Alberta.

“Karen is extremely helpful, so kind. If you’ve ever been to their farm she’s the first person to offer you something she probably made at her house that day. She bakes, she cooks. The horses were always her main priority; their health, their safety, their well-being always came first.”

This tragedy came on top of Karen’s treatment for throat cancer, which has made it hard for her to speak, but Dannee noted, “She’s a strong lady. She’s actually one of the toughest ladies I know. I’m sure she’s handling it with more grace than most of us would be able to, but I’m sure she’s also struggling quite a bit, too.”

Lisa commented that Karen is “respected and admired by the horse community. She was sought after as a teacher, but her riding and show schedule made it difficult for her to find time to teach lots of lessons.”

Despite that, Lisa said, “she would always pitch in and help however she could. Even though she was in many ways an icon in our area, she was always approachable. She was the one who gave the International Omaha [horse show] organizers the idea of creating a tradition of [riders] throwing the ribbons to a child in the crowd during the victory gallop. More than anything, she always gave credit to her horses for her successes and took the blame on herself when things didn’t go right.”

Chief Harlow said 14 fire departments and between 120 and 140 firefighters from four counties worked at the peak of the blaze to subdue the conflagration at the 47,000-square-foot facility after the fire was reported at 6:15 a.m.

Fighting the fire was made more difficult by 1-degree temperatures that froze some of the equipment, and the fact that water had to be brought from a source six miles away, since the barn is located in what the chief called “a remote farm area.”

Each tanker could only hold a maximum of 3,000 gallons of water, so they ran out in two minutes of spraying, with the tankers stacked up to insure adequate water flow. The firefighters kept at it until 4:30 p.m. to subdue what the chief called “a once-in-a-career incident.”

He, too, noted the solidarity of those who helped.

“Nothing will ever take back the horses and person who died, but it’s good to see there’s support from the community.”