- Associated Press - Thursday, September 1, 2016

CRYSTAL LAKE, Ill. (AP) - When the Valley View Acres stable burned down in November 2014, Natalie Hinz lost what she considered to be a family member.

Her horse, Lightening McQueenie, was among the 32 horses killed in the blaze in Woodstock, just north of Route 176 and Haligus Road.

“It was like waking up to a nightmare you can’t escape,” the current Crystal Lake Central junior said.

Some 150 miles away, a stranger heard about the fire and decided to take action. Cindy Pyke, 58, owns a breeding farm in De Pere, Wisconsin, and drives a truck part time. A friend of hers drives trucks through the Chicago area and heard about the fire on the radio.

“When I was younger, my horse meant the world to me,” Pyke said. “To lose a horse in a fire like that, it just haunted me.”

About a month after the fire, Pyke donated Hinz a new companion, whose show name is Rumor Has It, but whom Hinz and her family call Destiny.

On Aug. 12, Hinz rode Destiny to a national championship at the United States Equestrian Federation’s 2016 Pony Finals in Lexington, Kentucky. Hinz was a member of the four-person pony jumper team from Zones 5 and 6 (the Midwest) that won the championship.

Hinz, 16, qualified for the event after accumulating enough points in local competitions. She has been riding horses since she was 8, and the championship was the first she ever had qualified for.

“I was surprised and shocked because not a lot of people expect to even go, and then to somehow win it,” Hinz said. “The cool thing is you meet so many people who have the same passion. It’s great just to feel that recognition and realization that there are people who love the sport as much as you.”

On her team were Anna Spitzer (Edwards, Illinois) riding Silver Charm, Isaiah Wiseman (Fort Wayne, Indiana) riding Midnight Heart and Maya Lovdal (Saint Germain, Wisconsin) riding Miracles Happen. They beat out seven other teams from across the country.

The USEF has a program that enables participants to receive varsity letters, and Hinz has received two of them as she enters her junior year. She also is a member of the band at Central.

Natalie’s mother, Kathy Hinz, who also is the superintendent of School District 47, said losing Lightening McQueenie in the fire was “one of the hardest things (Natalie) and the family had to go through.”

The Hinz family was far from the only one to lose a horse in the fire. Valley View Acres owner Amber Bauman - who also is Hinz’s trainer - and her family owned 18 of the 32 horses lost that night.

Her daughter Alexis, now 12, lost two ponies: Ella Enchanted and Reece’s Pieces.

“It was excruciating, the whole experience,” Amber Bauman said. “She still cries about it a lot. She really loved her Ella. Ella was her best friend. She road that pony every day.”

Donations came from everywhere after the fire.

Two horses were donated to Alexis (not from Pyke) - Two for the Bunny and Stoneledge Foxfire. Last month Alexis rode Stoneledge Foxfire, more affectionately known as Foxy, to the Pony Finals. The duo earned eighth place for riders competing on their own horses in the Small Green pony category.

“I’ve watched my daughter and pain she’s gone through,” Amber Bauman said. “We have had the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows. You have highlights like what we had at pony finals.”

Neither Foxy nor Destiny knew how to jump hurdles when Pyke donated them. Pyke mostly breeds horses for cutting and reining - riding competitions popular in the West. She currently has 16 horses on her farm, although she has downsized in recent years.

Pyke remembers when Hinz and her parents visited the barn. Pyke said Destiny kept approaching Hinz, putting her head on Hinz’s shoulder.

“Usually the horses pick the person,” Pyke said. “I said, ‘That would be a good one.’ She had a motor, she was smart and athletic. I never expected (Hinz) to turn her into a national champion. That’s every girl’s dream and that was Natalie’s dream. So they say I raised a champion, but those two made it happen.”

Hinz and Bauman went to work on Destiny. It didn’t take long for Destiny to pick up what they were trying to teach her.

“At first it was this awkward thing where she was taking huge steps over (the hurdles),” Hinz said.

“Natalie completely taught this horse how to jump,” Bauman said. “We just said, ‘OK, we’re gonna take it to pony finals.’”

In the summer of 2015, they set their sights on the 2016 finals. Last weekend’s finals consisted of jumps as high as 3-foot-11. The duo even turned in one flawless round - clearing all hurdles - of their three finals rounds.

It was the culmination of a year and a half journey that began with a heartbreaking night.

“When you lose someone like that, you think you don’t want to replace them,” Hinz said. “The biggest thing for me was that I’m not replacing (Lightening McQueenie), just starting a new chapter.”

The new chapter is off to a good start. Kathy Hinz frequently updates Pyke about Natalie and Destiny.

“It’s like an extended family, they’re always sending pictures,” Pyke said. “Every time they send pictures I get all teary-eyed.”

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Source: The (Crystal Lake) Northwest Herald, http://bit.ly/2ccBxD6

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Information from: The Northwest Herald, http://www.nwherald.com

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