Erin Longworth Performance Horses stands along Bernier Road, just past the intersection where Main Street becomes Westford Road and starts winding east toward the Milton Town Forest.
Horse pens trace the path to a longhouse of stables, where a sign – bordered in a matte purple – welcomes boarders and riders to a barn of some 35 horses.
Trainer Erin Longworth has owned those stables for nearly 16 years now, long enough for former students to have children of their own attend their first riding lessons in her indoor arena. It’s the kind of longevity that makes Longworth sigh about her age and reflect what’s changed in the years since she first opened.
“I sometimes think about how much Milton’s changed since we started,” Longworth said almost to herself. “The only thing we had to eat here was the diner and McDonald’s.”
On Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017, a spark from the heater in the barn’s chicken coop almost ended that history abruptly. It ignited a blaze that soon overtook the south wing of the stables, wrapping around 30 years of show supplies and tack, medicine, an empty storage room for hay and six occupied stalls.
By the end of the night, even though Longworth made sure all 35 horses would survive, hundreds of thousands of dollars in property were lost.
Crews extinguished the fire before it could spread farther, and Longworth managed to rescue the horses trapped inside, but the fire was the kind of shock that drives farmers and ranchers to shut their doors for good.
“That was the do-or-die. If you were ever looking for an excuse to be done, that … was it,” Longworth said.
If it wasn’t for the huge community response that followed, she would have likely had to close ELPH and walk away.
LONGWORTH WAS JUST 12 years old when she became a farmhand. As one of four daughters to a single mother, she really didn’t have a choice: It was the only way she could afford to ride.
Now herself a mother of three, Longworth has come a long way. After 20 years teaching riders, her business is a familiar name in the area.
She bought the former West View Stables in 2002 with a $20 down payment. At age 24, she had a $4,000 a month mortgage.
At the time, the barn was smaller and its herd bigger than today’s riders and boarders may know.
Longworth tended the 50 horses by herself, not hiring help until well into her first pregnancy.
Slowly but surely, the barn grew into a larger indoor arena, at its height holding 70 horses before ultimately being scaled back to the current 35 who call it home.
The changes kept ELPH open in an industry where things only get more expensive and fewer people ride: A recent National Pet Owners Survey cited a 1.7 million household dip in horse ownership since 2007, and a 2012 U.S. agricultural census notes horse farms are also on the decline.
“You change with the times,” Longworth said. “In growing and expanding, sometimes it means cutting back.”
As life at the barn changed, so too did Longworth’s family. Ten years ago, she married Greg Foss, a pressman at South Burlington’s Lane Press. Their three boys are now regular faces at the barn, and her sister, Lindsay, left a set of stables in Maryland to train in ELPH’s colder Vermont pastures.
An average day at ELPH is a planned affair. Longworth keeps track of her workers’ and her so-called 1,200-pound toddlers.
But she remains nimble, ready to respond to the unexpected – a sick horse, a smaller staff. Horses, as anyone in the industry will tell you, are a fickle industry.
There’s a reason, though, that only four members of her college class of 30 remain in the horse business: Surprises can break you.
THE MORNING OF NOVEMBER 25 started normally. Longworth was already awake with her sons when, at about 6:30 a.m., she received the unexpected phone call. Within minutes, Longworth was in her car and on her way down the hill toward the barn.
“I had the plan before I even ran out the door,” she said.
With a surge of adrenaline, Longworth sprinted past Milton firefighters already on scene, stormed into an opening in the barn and made for the three horses she thought had a chance.
“Adrenaline is a powerful thing. It can make you do some stupid things. Some real stupid things,” Longworth reflected, throwing extra vibrato into her voice for emphasis. “[Milton Fire Chief] Don Turner said I took 10 years off his life when he saw me go into the barn.”
Soon, six horses emerged from the burning wing of the barn. They had somehow survived long enough for Longworth to pull open the gates and, in some cases, physically drag them out of their pens to turn them loose. Some of those pens, she said, were already engulfed.
Milton police and fire departments, alongside ELPH’s crew, had likewise cleared the rest of the barn. Assisted by fire crews from Colchester, Essex, Fairfax, Westford, Georgia and St. Albans, MFD managed to suppress the fire in the wing before it spread any further.
All 35 horses, including two foals, survived.
SINCE THAT DAY, Longworth’s business has made a dramatic recovery. Just days after, ELPH employees, community members, boarders and alumni volunteered to build a new wall and ceiling, mostly from donated materials.
By Tuesday the following week, Lindsay was teaching classes in the barn’s indoor arena.
In hard numbers, the damages from the fire were in the hundreds of thousands. Longworth estimates the lost tack alone cost more than $100,000. A $70,000 pick-up truck also caught fire, and some $10,000 worth of blankets burned away. Her insurance, Longworth said, couldn’t cover it.
Supporters almost immediately stepped in after the fire. A GoFundMe page earned almost $15,000 in less than a month. The Vermont Quarter Horse Association published a list in Longworth’s name to replace whatever tack was lost. Local stores opened ELPH’s accounts for donations and provided Dumpsters for the clean-up.
“It came pretty close with the fire in November. That day, I broke,” Longworth said. “[But with] the amazing amount of support we had …we’re still here.”
The donations were almost overwhelming. In some cases, like with the lead lines and halters, Longworth received more than she needed. Those she sent with a friend to California, where wildfires destroyed other horse farms and tracks, to be donated.
Today, Longworth still has some difficulty sleeping after the fire. She says it’s still not easy talking about that night, and sometimes overanalyzes the “should of, could of, would of” leading up to it.
ELPH has largely returned to business as usual. Dry erase boards with hastily scrawled horse names still point the animals to their pens. A few extra wheelbarrows, donated during the clean-up, still crowd the barn’s entrance.
The call of guinea chickens – one of the hens, now named “Phoenix,” survived the blaze – still rack the barn’s rafters in the afternoon. Save for the times when the cold is too severe, lessons continue as usual.
ELPH is already planning on building an extension to replace the space lost in the fire. Longworth expects they’ll break ground once winter lets up.
“If I was going to throw in the towel, it would’ve been now,” she said. “So I figure, if we’re still here, we have to keep going.”