For Katrina Survivor, Keeping Horses Safe Means Miles of Separation

The equine Katrina evacuee snorted and bit into an apple. Her owner, Shelby Wilson of New Orleans, beamed with pride as she related how Fara, a large white Arabian mare, suffered the ravages of the storm one year ago but now has returned to good health and spirits.

Wilson climbed onto Fara's bare back. That's how they always have ridden, she said. Off they trotted across the hilly terrain at Mount Olive Farms for a brief romp.

Fara's story might not be so special were it not for two facts — first, the visibly obvious bond of love between owner and horse; second, Fara's age, 33, which her energy and high spirits belie.

"I was in my early 20s when I got Fara," said Wilson, a Natchez native who grew up riding horses in the area. "Both my kids grew up riding her. They've never known life without Fara."

Wilson's home is by the levee in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, one of the most devastated areas of the city. She was lucky, as her property is on the other side of St. Claude Street. Only about 18 inches to two feet of water came into her home. It is under repair.

As the storm approached, Wilson began to search for some way to get Fara and her daughter Esme's horse, Arion, out of town.

Fara lived at Wilson's house, where there was an acre of land surrounding the house and always plenty of riding room along the top of the levee.

"Every year, the threats of hurricanes have become more intense, more harrowing," Wilson said. "But Katrina really crept up on us. On Friday, my co-workers and I said goodbye in the parking lot and said, 'See you Monday,' but we didn't see each other again."

She would not have left her home without the horses, she said. "I would have brought them inside, I guess. I don't know what I would have done."

Finally finding someone who could transport the horses to a place not far from the city, she knew it was time to go on Saturday, Wilson said. She came to Natchez and stayed in the country with friends

"Last time we evacuated, I packed up everything I valued and put it in my car. This time we left it behind, including my car," she said.

An artist, she lost not only many of her tools of the trade but also many of her works of art. "It was weeks before I could get home."

The horses were on the north shore.

"It was weeks before we could get to them. That whole area was inaccessible," she said. "We couldn't get through to anyone. As soon as we could get there, we just went and found them."

Fara had not done well. "She was in a very compromised condition," Wilson said.

When she found out about Mount Olive Farms and the possibility of boarding the horses there, she jumped at the chance.

Fara was diagnosed with peptic ulcers and was treated. She began to eat.

"When the horses got here (at Mount Olive Farms) and saw these digs, they've been deliriously happy ever since. I attribute Fara's well-being to this place," Wilson said.

Bradford, who cares for all the horses on the farm, including those boarding, said she has fallen in love with the two equine evacuees from New Orleans.

"Fara is the first one I look for in the morning. She is my inspiration," Bradford said. "She likes to ride, likes to go up and down these hills."

Bradford said for a horse to reach 33 is not that unusual, but for one to act as young as Fara does at 33 is another story.

Wilson lives in a FEMA trailer next to her house as she sees to repairs. She hopes within a few weeks to move into the house.

The horses will not return to New Orleans anytime soon, however. "There will always be issues in New Orleans. There is an edge, an anxiety," she said.

Her fences are not back in place. And even if they were, she would fear for the horses' safety, she said.

"There are only two or three of us back in our houses in an area of several square blocks," she said.

Furthermore, she is comfortable knowing Fara and Arion are safe and well kept.

"I didn't realize how wonderful it would be to know that I have no worry whatsoever about their welfare," she said.

"This is such a happy place. We're lucky to have found it," she said.

Someday, Wilson hopes to buy property in Natchez and live in her hometown again. Until then, "The horses are here, and we're here on the weekends."

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The Associated Press

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