Cody, the fire pony

Written by Karen Rademeyer

Professional photography by And so it is Photography

The devastating June 2017 Knysna Fires will forever be entrenched in the hearts and minds of people throughout South Africa. Recorded as the biggest disaster in South African history, the people of Knysna were left reeling after the flames devoured farms, forests, houses and more. Thousands lost all of their possessions and were left without homes. Many lost their jobs. Sadly, many also lost their beloved pets, who were either injured or had run from the inferno.

Humans, domestic animals, wildlife… the whole town of Knysna, irrespective of their actual degree of physical loss, has been through trauma of unimaginable proportions. Which makes one particular pony very special indeed…

First to be evacuated 

Cody (short for Code Badger) was one of a herd of ponies who’d lived at Essendale Farm all their lives. All besides one had been born semi-feral (owned, but never handled) and they were a proper little herd that had learnt to fend for themselves. 

When we bought the farm in February 2014, the ponies were given names, food and shelter, and slowly learnt that people were actually quite useful to have around! They became far more trusting of humans – and eventually, part of our family.   

On the first day of the fires, Essendale was one of the first properties in the Knysna area to be evacuated. With no cellphone reception, road closures and no idea of the extent of the fire, it was a challenging evacuation. 

The flames leapt across the road

Eight horses and ponies were boxed to various locations, but with limited time and the fire approaching the farm gates, the difficult decision was made to send the pony herd, as well as one young horse, Summer, across the N2 and into a neighbouring plantation, where it was determined they would be safe (the road should have formed a firebreak). 

Traffic was stopped and the ponies and Summer were led across, only too happy to be away from the chaos of smoke, flames and strangers trying to catch them. 

Unfortunately, the gale force winds turned soon after the evacuation, and the flames leaped across the national road and into the plantation. All we could do was pray that they’d outrun the fire, to safety.

The search for the ponies

Summer was found unscathed the very next day, having found the only unburnt patch of grass (with a water trough) on a farm neighbouring the plantation. She was brought to safety at a nearby farm, and then evacuated again, along with 30-odd other horses and ponies, when fires and smoke threatened their refuge just two days later.

The ponies, however, were nowhere to be found and the plantations were still too dangerous to enter.

It was only after four days of intense fire and smoke that we were finally able to launch a search for the ponies. Twelve 4 x 4 vehicles fanned out in the plantation while drones took to the air, searching for any signs of Cheeky, Bella, Mila, Deja and Cody. By some miracle, fresh tracks were found, having emerged from the far side of the plantation approximately three kilometres from where the ponies had been released.

Pony tracking through the ashes

We followed the tracks of two ponies who’d made their way over another road, closer to Buffalo Bay. I knew for certain that one of the sets belonged to Déjà Vu, as she was bigger than the others. But, with no experienced trackers on our search team that day, and all the cattle that had converged near the river muddling the tracks that we could find, it was very frustrating…

Unless badly injured, a traumatised animal will just keep running. With all the fences in the area burnt, the ponies had access to tens of thousands of hectares. We knew that timing was critical, but all the experienced trackers were, literally, putting out fires. We couldn’t expect anyone to put the lives of five ponies ahead of thousands of others, and we were grateful for any assistance that we could get.

We continued to search for the ponies every day, often with the help of friends and fellow horse lovers. People helped with drones, thermal drones, helicopters, planes and gliders – but there was no sign of the ponies.

Out of the blackened plantation

Then, at around 10am on Friday, 23 June, Cody appeared on the N2, roughly 100 metres from our farm. He was in a terrible condition and had suffered burns to most of his head and parts of his body.

His eyelids had burned and hardened shut, which made him appear blind. His beautiful red winter coat, along with his mane and tail, had been singed short. But Cody was on his way home. After 16 days on his own, he’d found his way out of the blackened plantation.

I wasn’t home at the time. We were actually about to take off on a helicopter search for Cody when he appeared. Suddenly I had dozens of calls and messages coming through, with people on the scene sobbing on the other end of the line. With all the activity, my phone battery died halfway home, and I had no idea whether my family and staff had managed to get him to safety – or what condition he was really in.

He was badly injured

Upon arrival at home, I felt sick to my stomach. Cody was standing in our garden, shaking, and looking nothing like Cody. But as I approached him, without having said anything, he sniffed the air. Then he lifted his muzzle and, like someone peering through spectacles on the tip of their nose, he looked straight at me.

We couldn’t actually see his eyes. All we could see were slits. But I knew by the way that he looked at me, and then started moving around, searching for his pony friends, that he still had at least some vision.

The first vet on the scene had recommended that Cody be euthanised immediately. In fact, he’d wanted to do it before I arrived home. But my husband, Dave, explained that it would have to be my decision and they had thankfully waited, dreading my reaction and what seemed an inevitable conclusion to Cody’s story.

Home sweet home

But I knew those ponies better than anyone – and Code Badger hadn’t earned his name by being any regular sort of pony. I could see that he still had plenty of fight in him, and, after getting a second opinion and giving him the necessary painkillers, Cody and I opted for intensive care. Cody was immediately given antibiotics for his infected skin and eyes, cortisone for his very itchy ears, and special creams were ordered for his burns. 

Cody clearly hadn’t been able to graze for two weeks. His chin and lips were burnt and I concluded he must have survived on dried leaves in the plantation, as this was all he was prepared to nibble on in the garden. (He ignored the lucerne and teff that had been put down for him.) But as soon as he had the necessary pain medication, he began to graze like there was no tomorrow. The boy was hungry! And his eating was our first milestone of many.

Cody suddenly became a lot more interactive. With the pain substantially reduced and some food in his tummy, he was just SO happy to be home. If he were a dog, I’m sure his tail would have been wagging non-stop, as he moved from one family member to the next. When the adrenaline eventually wore off, exhaustion set in and at one stage he suddenly fell asleep on his feet, leaning his head against my chest. It was a bittersweet moment.

He did, however, have terrible separation anxiety and could not be left alone; even to sleep. So we took it in turns to be with him through the night.

From strength to strength

The following days and weeks were intense. For the first two weeks, Cody needed approximately six hours of hands-on treatment and TLC per day. Close family and friends would take over at times when I went out searching for the other ponies, nursing his wounds and offering him Reiki healing.

The requirement for topical treatment slowly reduced over time, and fortunately so, as he was understandably very sensitive about having anyone touch his face. As his strength grew, it became more and more difficult to treat him – and he’s a feisty one!

There were many times that I was reduced to tears of absolute frustration as he fought off the help that I was trying to give him. But I kept reminding myself that his strength was a good sign. He was getting loads of good stuff internally and through various forms of energetic healing. His blood work was good. He was feeling good.

Once we were over the worst, I would do only what was absolutely essential and then leave him be. Like any of us, he needed to be in a good headspace for his overall healing to take place.

Cody’s eyes

Five months on and Cody is doing amazingly well. He has to wear special, rigid UV protection masks for his eyes during the day and at night, as he is not able to fully close his lids properly. His eyelids had contracted early on from the burns. His nictitating membranes (third eyelids) were, however, perfectly intact and he soon learnt how to use them like normal lids, helping to protect the eyes and keep them moist and clear. 

While there has been a considerable improvement in the left lids, with the skin slowly stretching, we’ve taken a wait-and-see approach with the right. His right side was more badly burned than the left, had more infection when he first arrived home, and the skin contracted more than the left.

He might still need a minor surgical procedure to help stretch the lids, but the surgeons cannot do anything without sufficient healthy, supple skin to work with.        

Getting back to normal

In the interim… we’re getting on with things and trying to get back to normal – well, as “normal” as circumstances will allow.

Cody has his routine, which includes limited, supervised morning and/or evening time with the rest of the horses and ponies on the farm. He loves the freedom, galloping and bucking with sheer exuberance, then settling down to graze near the others. Unfortunately, we can’t leave him with the herd all the time, as we can’t afford any injuries (play gets suitably rough between the boys and Cody wears the nips on his neck with pride). He also can’t be out in the sun until all his hair has grown back. But we’re getting there!

As for the rest of the pony herd, tragically, the remains of Cheeky and Bella were found in the plantation during a massive search soon after Cody had returned home. This wasn’t a total shock to the family, but it was still incredibly sad and difficult to deal with under already stressful circumstances.

I was just so grateful that Cody had returned before we found their remains as it gave me something positive to focus on.

Hope and inspiration

In fact, Cody has given the whole town of Knysna something positive to focus on. His bravery, determination and sheer will to live, has moved so many. He’s become an icon of hope and inspiration – and that’s what makes him so very special.

And since you’re still wondering about the other two ponies, Mila and Déjà Vu…  well, their exact location is unknown, and that’s perfectly okay for now. Our story is far from over, for we expect the happiest ending is yet to come. Sometimes, the sense of joy that we feel within that secret anticipation is all we need to get us through the day. No matter what the eventual outcome, it will be perfect. Just like every other one of God’s plans.                      

Follow Cody’s progress on his Facebook page @CodytheBrave and watch his video as highlighted on Cody's return