Between Fires and Horses: Life of a Firefighter and Horse Trainer in Rural Australia

Trees and bushes are destroyed by the fire after a flashover inferno at Thornton-Mulgowie

Twenty-three-year-old rural firefighter and horsemanship trainer Odessa has been spending the past few months fighting the fires ravaging Australia. Living in Queensland in an area that has been going through the worst drought on record, she struggles to keep up day to day operations while trying to be as prepared as possible in case fires spread to her area. Her time with horses helps her cope with the stress.

Author: Charlotte Kingsman

Trees and bushes are destroyed by the fire after a flashover inferno at Thornton-Mulgowie
The aftermath of a flashover inferno at Thornton-Mulgowie. Photo credits: Odessa Phoenix Whitten

Question: Where are you based and what do you?

I am currently based in South East Queensland, Australia, where I have lived most of my life. I have also worked in several other Australian states as well as New Zealand, doing everything from working in a banana plantation, stable manager and agricultural support teacher, among other things. At the moment, my full-time job is at a Feed and Produce Agent, where I spend all day talking about animal nutrition and throwing around 25kg bags of horse feed. The latter part is basically a gym membership which pays for itself!

Q: How did you become a horsemanship trainer in Australia?

I come from a long line of horsemen and women on my mother’s side. My mother, who has been playing polocrosse since she was a teenager, played for her state at the highest level and continues to play today. My late grandmother was the first woman to travel the rodeo circuit and win rodeos on buckjumping horses in the ‘50s. Her husband (my late grandfather) was a world champion bronc rider. They were both highly accomplished horse trainers. In a way, I really didn’t have a choice when it came to horses – it’s in my blood.

Odessa is playing polocrosse on the attack position on a mare in training in Australia
Playing polocrosse attack position on a mare I educated for a client. Photo credits: Tyranook ASH Stud

I’ve played polocrosse since I was 8, so close to 16 years now! Polocross is an addictive, high adrenaline, strategic, full-contact sport which helped me become a better rider and build the confidence I needed around horses. I started training horses when I was 18 when I educated my first horse entirely on my own. Being able to do something which my mother, grandmother and other family had mastered earlier in life gave me an immense sense of satisfaction. Once one of the horses I had trained was sold, others asked me to train their horses. Many could not believe that I was able to make a horse rideable and safe in just 10 days. Six years later, I am able to make a safe, smart horse out of any horse.

Training a young stallion stallion thoroughly on the ground before riding him for the first time. This is part of Odessa's system for horsemanship in Australia
Day 9 of education for Morgan stallion Centurion before the first ride. Photo credits: Leambro Morgans

Q: How did you become a firefighter?

At a time when I was working on an agricultural campus, I met a co-worker I admired a lot who was a firefighter, paramedic, Emergency Responder and groundskeeper. When I told him I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in life he encouraged me to join a Fire and Rescue brigade.

I went to my local brigade to ask a few questions. Before I knew it, I was issued a uniform and put through testing. And I loved it. Six months later I was a qualified Rural Firefighter.

Fires in Australia are destroying thousands of acres of land in front of the firefighter's eyes.
Destruction of fires at Wandandian NSW. Photo credits: Wandandian RFS

Firefighting in urban areas is a paid, full time job but in the countryside, the Rural Fire Service (RFS) is volunteer only and deals with much much larger areas, sometimes up to 40 square kilometres where there is less population and more wildfires. The RFS is predominantly made up of people who have their own full-time jobs outside of the brigade, who look to give something back to their community, form strong friendships and learn new skills. Especially in rural areas, the sense of mateship and having your crew mates’ back is quite strong.

Q: What is the situation now with regards to fires? How is it affecting you directly?

Right now, the area I live in has not been impacted yet. However, it is dangerously dry and hot.

It would only take one stray cigarette butt to send this area into chaos. Only a few weeks ago there was a 90km firefront which I responded to with the brigade less than an hour from home. More recently, several fires less than 20km from home have had us on our toes. There are fires burning across the entire country: Western Australia, Northern Territory, South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania. But the main problem right now is New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria.

Currently, the damage stands as such: 24 people dead, 30+ missing or unaccounted for, 1,500+ homes destroyed, 14.5 million acres burnt and counting in NSW and Victoria alone. One-third of the koala population of NSW is wiped out. Additionally an estimated half a billion native animals have been killed directly from the fires.

These vicious wildfires have all but overrun the local brigades down there and are bearing down upon towns, homes, and people. The NSW Navy are evacuating people from beaches which they are trapped on, and New Zealand has sent us some much-needed support, as has Canada. The Queensland Fire Service has called for brigade volunteers to deploy down south to relieve exhausted local crews. I have put my name down for, and hope to be assigned to in the next week or so.

Q: How are people with horses and other animals managing the fire risks?

As far as I know, the only special measures are those which people make for themselves. Acting early and appropriately in the only thing which is really helping. People are tagging their horses with phone numbers and posting pictures on social media should the worst come and they need to turn them loose, in the hope that someone will find them and reach out if they find the animals after the fire. As for cattle/sheep/goats, it is pretty much a case of ‘move them if you can, keep them safe if you can, or cut the fences and hope for the best’. The few people who have been able to move their horses out before the worst are luckier than they could ever imagine.

Q: How do you see things going forward?

Honestly, I am very very concerned. Our long-range forecast says no significant rain is expected until April, which is a terrifying thought. Several small towns in rural areas have already run out of water and are relying entirely on trucks to bring in the water for their families and animals. The only thing which will stop these fires is rain. We have already had 3 years of the worst drought Australia has known, and to now be hit with these fires, the worst in living memory… it’s utterly crippling. It’s not just for the agricultural industry, but for shop goers, consumers. Eventually, everyone will feel the pinch of this slow-burn natural disaster.

The only thing we have left is hope and faith in our fellow people because our elected leader is decidedly underwhelming right now.

If the fires do turn up here, we will just have to prepare and react as best we are able. There’s nothing else we can do.

Q: Coming back to your horse operation, can you tell us a bit about your day-to-day life now, and before the big fires started?

My day to day life starts pretty early. I try to be up around 5am most days to fit some horse time before work, which starts at 7.45am and finishes at 5.30pm. After work, I will spend more time with my horses. I like to change my training routine around every few days so it keeps my horses motivated, engaged and interested. We do everything from steady trail rides, fast long fitness rides, slow muscle-building sessions, bareback, bitless or sometimes both at once, flexibility and softness, obstacle courses, and occasionally we dabble in archery.

Odessa is practising horse archery on a mare to improve her horsemanship in Australia
Archery practice on a friend’s mare. Photo credits: Heidi Geppert Photography

Now more than ever, especially after a fire, the horses have become a kind of meditation time for me. An hour or so after a hard day to just let it all go and come back to a settled state of mind. They are my zen place. Their quiet presence is so underrated, and on long days it really makes me grateful to have them.

Before the fires in Australia and my full time job, I was able to put 110% into my horsemanship education platform, Toohey Equine Education on Patreon. It is a little harder now with full-time work and fires, but I still enjoy my work and hope to put up more content in the coming weeks.

Q: What are your future plans?

I would like to pursue a job in Search and Rescue in the future, but for now, it is just one foot in front of the other. With regards to horsemanship training in Australia, I want to make tutorials on fixing undesirable behavior. I also want to teach new skills to the rider, such as how to transition to tackless riding, handling foals, and groundwork. It is not always easy as there are always people out there who will disagree with my methods. Therefore, I’d like to teach those who wish to learn or try something different.

After a successful horse archery trial, Odessa is looking proudly at the mare she's riding.
Happy with the results. Photo credits: Heidi Geppert Photography

I’d also love to go to Mongolia and train one of their tough little Steppe horses, and visit the Northern reindeer tribes too! I would also like to ride the Bicentennial National Trail we have here in Australia one day. I have a keen interest in history, particularly Mongolian and the Pre-Empire Era of Genghis Khan, but I absolutely love history of all kinds. Perhaps one day I could be part of a renaissance, historical or Medieval fair group and bring the equestrian side back into it. I think since most of history was conquered on the back of a horse. It is only fair we acknowledge them through history.

Q: If we want to help with the fires, what’s the best way to do it?

Donations are the best thing one can do if nothing else. It helps equip our firefighters with breathing masks, truck supplies, clothing, food and water. It also helps stranded people get access to basic first aid, clothing, water, and protection from the elements. Buying from small county business also really supports the local economy and helps keep small businesses running.

Donations to organizations like:

are greatly appreciated and needed.

Any and all help is welcome.

You can find out more about Odessa’s approach and training methods of horsemanship in Australia on Instagram and on Facebook.

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Charlotte is a regular contributor for Equestrian Adventuresses. Click on the link to see all of her articles.

Published by Krys Kolumbus Travel

Krystal Kelly is a California girl on a Quest to see every country. She is a professional equestrian adventuress and has worked internationally with horses since 2010. Since then she has worked at professional competition and riding stables in Egypt, Italy, Romania, India and Bhutan! "I love travelling and I love horses and I am very blessed to be able to do both of my passions for a living!" She now has her own company, Krys Kolumbus Travel where she strives to empower women to travel and provides resources, tips and online courses to encourage women to travel SOLO to unique destinations. www.kryskolumbustravel.com www.krystal-kelly.com

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