STEWARTVILLE — The 15 horses from Long Awaited Acres in Stewartville were homeless after a storm ripped through their facility on Sept. 24.
But that lasted for less than a week, thanks to support and word of mouth from the local horse community.
As of Oct. 1 all of the horses, which are owned by Shelly Long and leased to Olmsted County 4-H students for shows, have a roof over their heads and an arena to practice in.
"There's a good Samaritan in Stewartville who offered us a pretty nice facility at utility cost," said Pam Whitfield, instructor at Long Awaited Acres and the person who created the GoFundMe page the day after the storm. “It was kind of a miracle."
All but one of the horses are now on the 40-acre farm that's currently up for sale.
“She's still paying the bills to use the space temporarily," said Whitfield, who’s also an educator at Rochester Community and Technical College, where she helped create the equine science curriculum.
After hearing of the damage at Long Awaited Acres, the owner of a vacant horse farm near Ironwood Springs Christian Ranch in Stewartville who's currently living out-of-state agreed to let Long keep her horses there.
"We're very thankful that people in the horse community are so giving,” said Long. “And that they come together in tragedies.”
No animals were injured in the storm, but Long's most valuable horse, a multiple world champion, was probably the most traumatized of the group. He was moved down the road to an open stall the following day.
"He was the one where the roof was torn off right above his head," said Whitfield. "I walked in his stall and looked up at the stars."
Whitfield said the makeshift location isn't the answer to all of Long's problems though, because winter is coming. If the property were to sell in the next month, she said they'd be in a tough spot again.
"It's a chance we're willing to take because you can't leave 15 horses out in the pasture over the winter," said Whitfield.
The day of the storm
Whitfield was at the barn teaching until about 7 p.m. on the night of the storm. Long said she went out to warn Whitfield and the riders taking lessons at the time about what was on the weather radar. She told them to head home and finish the lesson another time, and everyone left the facility before the severe weather started.
According to Sept. 24 reports from the National Weather Service, wind speeds near Stewartville hit 60 mph and several trees were reported down that night. Long got a call from a neighbor about 9 p.m., who told her she needed to get out to see her facility.
"And by 9:30 p.m., the barn was gone," said Whitfield.
Whitfield said that when she returned there were already about 10 other vehicles with volunteers, including 4-H riders, ready to help.
"Everybody came out, and there were a lot of tears," she said.
The storm-wrecked property on 80th Avenue Southwest is pretty much a shell now, said Long.
"It looked like there were vampire stakes everywhere, it was weird to see so much stuff ripped open ... Metal wrapped around trees," Whitefield said.
The 10-stall barn was ripped half open during the storm and lost its roof, while the full-size arena was half gone. Both have to be rebuilt from the ground-up, Long said.
Everything that could be salvaged was put into a semitrailer. The facility was no longer safe for horses after the storm, so Long and Whitfield quickly started plotting relocation plans.
"We were afraid a horse was going to get hit, or impaled," said Whitfield. "Because if you walk out there, you can see where stakes were driven into the ground and screws were driven through walls."
Whitfield said she woke up the next morning, grieving.
"I thought 'there goes the next three horse shows,' my second income, and all these plans for these kids," said Whitfield. "So I just got up, got on GoFundMe and made the page in 15 minutes."
She invited about 150 people on Facebook and let the local horse community do the rest of the work. By now, it's been shared on almost every 4-H horse page in Minnesota, she said.
The GoFundMe started on Sept. 25 has raised $4,740 from 61 donors and has been shared more than 300 times. Donations came from families of past, current and future riders, neighboring farms and from as far away as Tokyo.
“We donated because of the generous spirit of Shelly and her family,” commented Argene and Marilyn Treder with their donation. “Always doing for others. Now it is time to help her!”
On top of the GoFundMe drive, there will be a show the first weekend in November, hosted by DW Productions of Houston, Minn., and all proceeds will go to Long Awaited Acres.
Long has immediate needs now, including the rental of a semitrailer to store equipment and for getting hay for the horses.
"There are just so many things you need when you care for animals," said Whitfield. "And it gets exponentially more expensive when it's not on your own property anymore."
Riders renting horses for shows didn’t miss out on their lessons, said Long, as class was back in session the Monday following the move.
“We just tried to get right back on track,” said Long. “Because the girls were already starting to miss riding their horses.”
Unlike commercial facilities with a legion of horses ready for students to ride after they sign a waiver, Long Awaited Acres is a private facility that focuses on Olmsted County 4-H students. Riders range from kindergarteners to high schoolers.
Long counted on her fingers until she ran out when asked how many years she’d been renting horses to 4-H students. The tally: 12 years.
She said the program has always been geared for “horse crazy girls” who don’t have access to a horse. "City girls" is how Whitfield describes most of riders at Long Awaited Acres. Neither tag is a slight.
"They can figure out how to ride a horse and be on a farm," said Whitfield. "It's very empowering for little girls to learn how to ride a horse and learn how to manage a large animal."
Long has seen a number of talented riders develop in the program. Her daughters are both multiple world champions who now ride at North Dakota State University.
"But this isn't about winning a blue ribbon, this is about building your character and teaching you some really important life lessons," said Whitfield. "And the horse is a vehicle we're going to use for that."