OREGON, Ohio (AP) - Therapy horses killed in an Ohio barn fire were much 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 when a fire tore through a century-old barn Thursday at the center, along Lake Erie and just outside Toledo. Four privately owned horses along with a few goats and 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 no ordinary animals. 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 them, and some have a hard time riding any other but their favorite.
McGee recalls one young girl from years ago who had been abused and didn't trust men in particular. 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."
Michael Leister's 6-year-old son, Britain, would only say a few words when he started riding last fall.
"It was a struggle to get him to say anything," Leister said. But since then, "he's been starting to bloom more and get some sentences out. He somehow got this instant bond with the horse that got him to pull those words out."
The family lives about a mile from the center so visits often, sometimes taking Britain to the farm to soothe him when he was having a bad day. His son's favorite horse, Buddy, was among those killed.
One of Buddy's horseshoes hangs on the boy's bedroom wall.
"I'm not sure how to break it to him," Leister said.
That's something all of the volunteers and the operators are struggling with as well.
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 also lost his own special horse in the fire - a retired member of the department's mounted patrol unit named Harley who was once punched in the face outside a rowdy concert.
"He didn't even flinch," McGee said proudly.
Riding instructor Chelsea Adeler spoke with an adult rider hours after the fire who was relieved her horse had survived. But then the woman, struggling to comprehend the devastation, asked about the others.
"Did Cherokee make it?" she asked. "Did Merry make it?"
"No, they're all gone," Adeler answered.
An indoor riding center and another stable were not damaged in the fire, and 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.
The equestrian center plans to open Saturday for its weekly therapy lessons with the two horses that survived. A grief counselor will be there for the riders, volunteers and employees.