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Therapy horses die in Ohio fire

| Friday, March 22, 2013, 6:24 p.m.
Six therapy-riding horses were killed on Thursday, March 21, 2013, in a fire at an equestrian center barn in Oregon, Ohio. The cause of the fire is not yet known, but investigators don't suspect arson.

OREGON, Ohio — Therapy horses killed in an Ohio barn fire were more than companion animals for the disabled adults and children who rode them. One taught an abused girl to trust others again; another inspired a little boy with autism to say his first words.

“They were doing God's work,” said Mike McGee, whose family owns the Vail Meadows Equestrian Center that has offered horse-riding therapy programs for people with cerebral palsy, autism, and emotional and learning disabilities for two decades.

Six of the center's eight therapy horses died on Thursday when a fire tore through a century-old barn at the center, which is along Lake Erie and just outside Toledo. Four privately owned horses, along with a few goats, ducks and a pot-bellied pig, also died in the blaze.

The cause is not yet known, but investigators don't suspect arson.

The therapy horses were specially trained; they had gentle natures and enough patience to handle riders who might thrash around with flailing arms and legs. Only one of every five horses donated to the center has what it takes, McGee said.

Riders almost always develop a special bond with the animals, and some have a hard time riding any other but their favorite.

McGee recalls a young girl from years ago who had been abused and didn't trust men. She finally got to the point where he could help show her how to ride.

“That horse brought that little girl out of that,” he said. “There's thousands of stories like that.”

Some researchers have found that the horse's rhythmic movements stimulate and strengthen the riders' unused muscles and improve their stability. There's also the belief that therapy horses help with speech, memorization skills and compassion.

“Our biggest challenge is going to be telling those kids,” said McGee, a Toledo police officer who lost his own special horse in the fire — a retired member of the department's mounted patrol unit named Harley.

An indoor riding center and another stable were not damaged in the fire. Many owners of surviving horses boarded at the farm, along with other horse owners in northern Ohio, have offered to donate their animals to keep the therapy program and the center's special mission going.

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