The machine loader-operator and former bull rider sprung into action on Monday, using a motorboat to herd 29 horses to safety through freezing cold and fast-moving floodwaters in Merritt, B.C.
“That’s my first time doing that in a boat,” Chillihitzia told As It Happens host Carol Off. “I knew if we didn’t do anything then, yeah, my heart probably would have shattered in two billion pieces.”
Much of B.C. was bombarded by torrential rains over the weekend and Monday, leading to widespread flooding, landslides, road closures and evacuations. The RCMP says least one person was killed in a landslide near Lilooet.
The rain started to subside on Tuesday as officials began assessing the damage, but large swaths of the province remained under flood watch or flood warning.
WATCH | Horses are herded to safety out of flooded hayfield in Merritt, B.C.
The southern B.C. city of Merritt — still recovering from devastating summer wildfires — was badly hit.
On Sunday night, Jerry McCauley and Connie Joe’s horses were roaming happily in their Merritt hayfield. But by Monday morning, that hayfield looked more like a raging brown river.
The animals were cold, wet, and trapped. They needed to get to higher ground, or else face a possible death from hypothermia and exhaustion.
Chillihitzia lives in nearby Douglas Lake, but was working in Merritt when he got a text from his boss that some cows and horses were stranded in the floodwaters. Chillihitzia is an experienced cowboy with horses of his own, so he stepped in to help.
The cows were easy enough to herd to safety. But the only path for the horses was over a dip in the ground where the water was nearly two metres deep.
The wary horses didn’t want to swim across, so Chillihitzia and several other Good Samaritans stepped up to help. They mounted horses and tried to coax the stranded creatures in the right direction.
I had a lump in my throat the whole time, so my emotions were pretty high.– Henry Chillihitzia, horse rescuer
But it was no use. The water was rising too rapidly and moving at about 60 kilometres an hour, Chillihitzia said.
“It was impossible for our horses to swim with a saddle on, and us, so they were struggling,” Chillihitzia said. “I said, yeah, this plan is not going to work, so we have to put our horses away and either put waders on, or get a boat. The best way was to get a boat.”
Wrangling horses in a boat is no easy feat. On board was Chillihitzia, Phil Dumont and Tyson Vandean, who owns the boat. McCauley, who owns the horses, was nearby in a tractor, and several others stood watch around the perimeter.
On their first attempt, the boat’s motor gave out. And even when they got back up and running, it took them four hours in the cold, pounding rain to get the horses to budge.
“We were all tired, and at one point we did say, ‘I don’t think these horses are going to move,'” Chillihitzia said. “I said, ‘Well, they stood in water overnight, so we can’t give up now. We’ve got to keep trying until we get them in.'”
They started by simply circling the horses with the boat, then came at creatures sideways, pushing them towards the gate where they needed to go.
Finally, a brave mare at the front of the line made the plunge with her calf, swimming the approximately three-metre stretch over the dip and to safety. The rest soon followed.
In a dramatic Facebook video of the rescue, Chillihitzia and his horse-wrangling comrades can be heard whooping and hollering in celebration.
“I had a lump in my throat the whole time, so my emotions were pretty high. And I own horses myself, so they’re kind of like my kids, right?” Chillihitzia said.
“It was a relief for sure, getting them to higher ground and dry and getting them some feed. It was overwhelming.”
On Monday, Jeanette McCauley, whose father owns the horses, posted on Facebook that the animals are all safe and accounted for, thanks to their helpful friends and neighbours.
“They are all OK, no more shivering, and bellies full of hay!” she wrote. “Huge thank you to everyone who was out there all day in the cold and rain and wind doing everything possible to save them!”
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Chillihitzia says his home and animals in Douglas Lake are all doing fine. He was still working in Merritt on Monday when he spoke to As It Happens, and says the floodwaters there are starting to recede, but there’s been a lot of damage to the community still recovering from summer wildfires.
“It’s a rough year,” he said. “First, we had the fires … now, just all of a sudden, overnight — just boom.”
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chris Harbord.