Feelings of grief and loss weighed heavily on Northern Virginia's riding community yesterday following an early morning fire that killed 10 horses inside a Clifton barn.
At the Clifton Saddlery, a tack store specializing in equipment for English-style riders, owner Sue Clairmonte said riders were in mourning. The horses that perished, she said, were cherished by their owners not as investments or prize-winners but as family pets.
"Yesterday a girl came in to buy a blanket for her horse," Clairmonte said. The horse died in the fire the next day. "Everyone is very sad and weepy. It's devastating for us."
Officials said the barn, on the Little Full Cry Farm, at 6429 Clifton Rd., was used primarily to board horses.
Fire officials said the blaze was reported yesterday at 2:40 a.m. by a neighbor who spotted flames shooting from the 60-by-40-foot structure. Officials said the neighbor called 911 and tried to save the horses before firefighters arrived but was unsuccessful.
"He climbed the fence and tried to get in [the barn], but there was too much fire," said Fairfax County Fire Department spokesman Lt. Jeff Trice.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, officials said.
Reporters were turned away from the property yesterday afternoon by farm workers who draped yellow tape across the driveway and would not comment except to say, "It's an emotional time here for everyone."
According to property records, the farm is owned by the heirs of Jane Marshall Dillon, a Northern Virginia equestrian, riding teacher and horse breeder who died in 2000.
Dillon established the Junior Equitation School in Hayfield in 1950. She moved it to Vienna in 1955 and to Clifton in 1989. Over the years, her students included U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team medal winners Joe Fargis and Kathy Kusner.
Dillon wrote several books on riding, including "Young Riders" and "Form Over Fences." As a horse breeder, she owned the mare April Dawn, who was a three-time Virginia junior hunting champion and a trophy winner at shows in the 1950s. In 1997, she was inducted into the Virginia Horse Show Association Hall of Fame.
Jane Dillon left the farm to her son Randy, who took boarded horses on the property, residents said. A message left yesterday evening at Randy Dillon's Clifton home was not returned.
Residents and horse riders in the rural community in western Fairfax spent much of yesterday talking about the blaze, consoling owners who lost horses and speculating about the cause of the fire. They noted that damp hay can combust if packed too tightly and electrical wires can give off sparks if gnawed through by mice.
Clairmonte said a veterinarian was at the farm yesterday afternoon examining the animals that died in the blaze, which reduced the barn to charred timbers.
"I heard it was horrific," Clairmonte said. "Even the plastic buckets were melted."