LOWELL, MICH. - It all happened so fast.
"My step father was letting the dog out and saw the flames," founder of The Barn for Equine Learning Kay Welton said. "I ran down from my house to the barn, and the horses -- the fire had taken the barn."
Welton forced her way into the flames.
"It wasn't a doubt in my mind that i had to get in that barn," Welton said. "I had to check...I had to open stall doors, as many as I could."
But it was too late -- 13 of her horses had died from smoke inhalation after an early morning barn fire on Saturday. Fire crews spent hours putting out the fire and removing the horses from inside.
"I knew after I opened that first stall door, and she was down. Princess Fiona, she was one of our ponies she's been a staple here and she was down already, I could feel her fur," Welton said.
"13 souls, 13 different personalities, some would drive you nuts, Grandma -- one of our best horses, was worth her weight in gold," Welton said.
The horses at The Barn were used in therapy with the at risk youth and young adults, as well as for riding lessons.
"They gave so many kids their first rides, they gave a lot of people hope, a lot of people in need a way to reach out and connect with versus traditional counseling and therapy and these horses opened so many doors, they were giants for what they did and how they opened," Welton said.
Welton mourns the death of her horses -- not only for the sake of her non-profit, but because many of them were considered members of the family.
"Some of the horses I had since I was 14-years-old and they had moved with me from high school to college to living with me and to the barn," Welton said.
Of all the horses at The Barn, two newer additions survived. They are held in a smaller, separate barn and were unharmed in the fire on Saturday morning.
"Those two horses are our next start -- that's our next generation right there," Welton said. "That's our next stepping stone is to get those horses ready to rebuild, to keep doing what we're doing because we work with people who need us."
And there's no doubt that Welton will rebuild, but when is the question. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help raise money for The Barn to start again. The organization does have insurance.
Welton says she, her family and staff are planning a funeral for the 13 horses -- the date had yet to be determined.
"You can't give up on those kids that have had so much taken away from them and young adults that have had so many trials that don't have another place to reach or connect to and the work that we've done in the therapeutic setting with the horses," Welton said.
"I can look at that barn and it's a barn that we've had a huge loss and we will grieve those horses that have passed and they will be laid to rest and when that process is done -- we will rebuild."
Authorities are investigating this fire as a criminal matter and anyone with information is asked to contact investigators at the Kent County Sheriff's Office at 616-632-6125.
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