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Horse in famous photo ran from the flames into a young lady's heart, and transformed them both.

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

Many believe that certain beings are put in our path for a reason. And as we traverse our life's road, those reasons are usually unclear. But retrospect focuses our lens and suddenly their role is illuminated like a beacon in the darkness.

Little did Santa Clarita, CA native Sydney Gilmartin know that on December 7, 2017, as she was curled up under her bed covers shackled by the chains of anxiety and depression, that one such being would play a pivotal role in her healing.

And he was running for his life from a fire.

It has become an iconic image representing the fateful day when the Lilac Fire reached San Luis Rey Training Center marking the beginning of a nightmarish chain of events. It has been used in news reports and countless social media posts. The viewer’s eye immediately goes to the chestnut colt in the center of the photo who by virtue of his coloring and placement has come to represent the fear and panic of hundreds of horses and humans endangered and injured that day, and the 46 horses who perished. But his story just begins there.

“That picture pops up everywhere," responds Sydney's mom Jenn. "We giggle to ourselves when we see it knowing that is our Fawkes.” (named by Win Place Home owner CJ Marinaccio for Harry Potter character Dumbledore's phoenix companion and defender)

And thank goodness they can giggle now. A typical horse girl, Sydney started riding when she was 10 in the hunter/jumper arena and moved on to eventing through the Pony Club. She advanced quite far until she walked away from it all at the age of 18. Anxiety issues had begun to grow and took hold of her to an extreme. “I didn’t lose interest in horses. I lost interest in everything.”

Sydney retreated permanently into her bedroom rarely emerging except for meals and then immediately returning to her safe space. Jenn shares her frustration. “I would make her go to the grocery store for me and it took her 40 minutes to muster up the courage.”

As reality set in, Jenn and her husband Shawn were selling off their daughter's horse tack and were making plans to sell the trailer. In their minds, this chapter was over.

Meanwhile, they were desperate to find a way to help their daughter. They decided to force Sydney to work a few days at Opava Equestrian Training Center in order for her to get out into the world again. She obliged but admits “I was doing what I had to do and then leaving. I was just trying to keep my parents happy.”

Destiny stepped in one evening last May when she was on her computer. An ad popped up for Fawkes by retraining and re-homing organization Win Place Home. Something in his picture spoke to her. Formerly owned by Bloom Racing Stable LLC under his registered name of Dream Police, the adoption-ready horse had “crazy eyes” that seemed to have a story behind them. She had to meet him and learn more.

She went alone to her first visit and tried him right out of the stall. She describes him as a “gentleman who did exactly what he was asked.” Dismounting, Sydney was texting her Mom before her feet hit the ground. This was her horse.

Previously more interested in horses that had a fair amount of training in order to be competitive quickly, Sydney didn’t care that Fawkes’ training was limited. She knew it would be a while before they could compete at a higher level (if at all) and she was alright with that. Little did she know, he would advance her in larger strides than an equine could ever muster in an arena.

He was not without challenges having anxiety issues of his own. “I think the trauma had an affect on him. He was not a snuggly horse.” Like Sydney’s bedroom at the time, Fawkes’ stall was his safe place and he didn’t take kindly to intruders. “He got nippy and bit if you got into his space.” Barn management even went as far as to put a note on his stall door urging passersby not to pet him or he will bite. Sydney also noticed that while riding, his mind was always going taking in everything around him. He continuously needed to be reassured and refocused.

The irony? “He’s a big love bug with me” Sydney gushes. While Fawkes considers his stall his safe zone, that includes Sydney’s presence in it. “Sydney can do whatever she wants to him and there’s no problem," says Jenn. Connection made.

Human Transformed

Fawkes’ influence in Sydney’s life is already quite clear and impactful. In the six months they have been together, Sydney has changed. She looks forward to leaving the house and interacting with the world again. She is at the barn all day as a working student, but now stays simply ‘to hang out’ with Fawkes for an hour or two before riding him. “With him, it’s not about advancing in competition as much as I just want to be around him.”

As for Jenn, she’s noticed a huge change in her daughter. She observes a newfound level of happiness, confidence and contentment. She’s setting goals. And since their original supplies and tack had been sold off, Sydney has taken on the full responsibility of working to pay for all of the horse’s board, training and other needs. She even taught a clinic for children – something she could never have considered just 6 months prior.

“Where before she would come home from work and go straight to her room, she now comes home and sits on the patio with us to talk about her day…. She’s a whole new kid.”

Horse Transformed

According to Sydney, Fawkes is really coming around as well. "Now he whinnies to me, trotting around in the field seeming to say 'come get me!' He is expressing himself much more now and even the staff are saying how much nicer he’s being. He's alot more content since he got here in May."

In Harry Potter lore, Fawkes’ tears have healing powers. He can carry immensely heavy loads. And he cannot die. If he sustains fatal wounds he will merely burst into flames and be reborn from the ashes.

Unlike the Harry Potter character, Sydney’s Fawkes will not live forever. But perhaps he did escape a fatal end, emerging from the Lilac Fire flames and ‘reborn’ simply because his job on this earth was not yet complete. The Gilmartins believe to their core his purpose is to heal and relieve the immensely heavy load felt by his new caregiver. It's becoming obvious Sydney is doing the same for him. And the journey has only just begun.

Follow Sydney and Fawkes' progress on Instagram

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