The 9-year-old grandson of the founders of Vail Meadows probably had the best perspective on his family’s feelings over the loss of 10 horses that died when fire engulfed a barn at the Cedar Point Road farm.
“These people don’t realize that these horses are family,” said Michael McGee, whose grandparents, Robert and Joy Vail, started the clinic nearly 25 years ago to assist people suffering from neurological conditions, such as spinal-cord injuries, to regain nerve and muscle coordination by riding horses.
The fire early Thursday morning that swept through Vail Meadows Equestrian Center in Oregon killed six of the seven horses used in the nonprofit clinic’s horse-riding therapy and learning programs that include treatment for autism and cerebral palsy.
The four other horses killed — an Arabian, palomino, and two quarter horses — belonged to the Vail family.
Joylyn McGee, the Vails’ daughter, said her family plans to continue the center’s programs but will have to start over with new horses.
“Without horses, we cannot run the program,” Mrs. McGee said. “But how do you replace those special horses that did what they did?”
Yuma, an Arabian that survived the fire, had been put into a fenced area on the 25-acre farm on Wednesday and was not in the barn with the other horses when the fire began in the 100-year-old wooden structure. Yuma was the first animal the Vails acquired for the riding programs.
Toledo police Sgt. Mike McGee, who is married to Joylyn, said Tennessee walking horses are preferred for the therapeutic riding programs because of their temperament and smooth gait. He said that only one out of five horses is appropriate to undergo training, and only one out of three that get accepted will be used in the therapeutic programs.
“That was our whole program,” Sergeant McGee said about the loss. “We’re going to try and keep the program going but we’ll have to start over. ... We’ve got a lot of kids that depend on us.”
One who grew up with the program is 18-year-old Jessica Griest, a Rogers High School student with cerebral palsy who has been receiving therapy there each Saturday since she was about 3.
“All she could do was lay on the horse when she first started,” her grandmother, Peggy Pedersen, said. “Now, she sits up and rides.”
Ms. Pedersen praised the Vail family and their volunteers for not only teaching Jessica how to ride but to blossom and gain confidence. She said the program has been a blessing in many ways, and the family’s support has gone beyond lessons.
“They’re very dedicated. It’s done a lot for her,” Ms. Pedersen said. “Just to get on a horse and be able to get on something other than a wheelchair is something she really enjoys.”
She said this Saturday will be an emotional day for Jessica, knowing the routine she’s had most of her life will be interrupted.
Pam Baldwin said she was “just sick to my stomach” when she heard about the fire.
Her son, Zach, 17, rode therapy horses at Vail Meadows for three or four years. Zach, who also has cerebral palsy, had to stop attending six or seven years ago because of Ms. Baldwin’s severe allergies. But the family has fond memories and saw progress.
“It was a whole different thing when he got on a horse,” Ms. Baldwin said.
A second, larger modern horse barn, which houses about 25 boarding horses, and the equestrian center’s riding arena did not catch fire. The Vail family home, built in 1892 and about 20 feet from the destroyed horse barn, also was untouched by the fire, which was reported about 3:40 a.m. by a motorist who saw flames in the barn while driving by.
Michael Duchesne, spokesman for the state fire marshal, said investigators have not yet determined a cause for the blaze, but they could not rule out electrical service and appliances in the structure. Arson is not suspected, Mr. Duchesne added.
Among the horses killed in the blaze was Harley, the horse that Sergeant McGee was assigned when he was with the police department’s mounted patrol. Harley, nearly 24 years old, was purchased by the McGees in 2005.
He said losing the gelding in the fire was devastating.
“All the things that horse went through to die in a fire just kills me,” he said. “I didn’t want him to die like this. He was the best partner that I ever had.”
The McGees’ two daughters and their son, Michael, are involved in the family operation and the care of the horses.
Sergeant McGee said he loved all the horses, but if forced to choose, he would pick Harley as his favorite. He said Harley was the first horse that he rode.
“To me, he was part of our family. You can’t separate family,” he said.
Harley, Pusher’s Carbon Copy, Chico, Midnight, Taz, and Cherokee, all Tennessee walking horses; TJ, a palomino; Merry Legs, an Arabian, and Roxy and Buddy, both quarter horses, were buried on the farm.
Oregon Fire Chief Ed Ellis said the state agricultural department agreed that burying the animals on the farm could be permitted as long as they were covered with 4 feet of dirt.
Peggy Fritz, a therapeutic riding instructor who volunteers at the equestrian center, went to the farm Thursday morning after learning about the fire. She said she always purchased apples before coming to the center to treat the horses.
She said she hopes the Vails will continue on. “The riders who depend on our programs, that is where the real loss is,” she said.
She recalled that Buddy, the horse she liked the most, often came up to her to nudge her with his nose.
“But they were all wonderful,” said Mrs. Fritz, who boards her Tennessee walking horse, Klinger, at the farm. Klinger had been part of the Toledo police mounted patrol before she acquired him.
Staff writer Jane Schmucker contributed to this report.
Contact Mark Reiter at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6009.