A call about the fire at Foxwood Trail Farm, 2006 Marions Ford Road, was placed at 3:37 a.m., EMS workers said. The horses were dead when firefighters arrived about 10 minutes later, and the barn was a total loss, Orange Grove Fire Chief Tommy Holmes said.
"(The barn) was totally burned up. There wasn't no roof left," Holmes said.
Farm owner Layton Wheeler said he was awakened by his dog barking, then ran to the window to see flames shooting from the barn.
"I thought I was having a nightmare. It's just unbelievable," said Wheeler, who lives in a house on the farm.
Nine horses were safely moved from an adjacent barn. No person was injured in the fire.
Three of the horses that died belonged to Wheeler, and 10 belonged to people who were boarding them at the farm, which has been a riding school for young girls since 1996.
The horses' owners struggled to process the news.
"She was like the best horse you could ever have," said Brooke Leadbetter, whose horse, Cricket, was killed in the fire. "She was so sweet and, I don't know, you couldn't replace her."
"I can't even think about other horses at this point or being around them," said Molly Brooks, who rescued a horse named Beau and boarded him at the stable.
"It's kind of bittersweet. You want to be with them, but then you think, 'But, no, you're not mine.' It's like losing a child," Brooks said.
The fire spread from the barn into 2½ acres of surrounding woods across the street. Fire officials said the flames in the woods were spotty and scattered, but firefighters were concerned that dry conditions and gusty winds could spread the fire.
The Orange Grove, White Cross, Carrboro, New Hope and Orange Rural fire departments battled the fire. South Orange Rescue and the North Carolina Forestry Services also responded.
The brush fire was finally brought under control at about 4 p.m. Thursday, although firefighters were monitoring the area to ensure it didn't flare up again. Marions Ford Road was reopened to traffic at about 4:30 p.m.
The Orange County Fire Marshal's Office and State Bureau of Investigation were investigating the cause of the fire. SBI agents brought a dog to check for the presence of any chemicals that could cause a fire to spread quickly, Holmes said.
Wheeler said the barn contained no straw and little sawdust, and his barn manager had turned off the lights hours earlier when closing the stables for the night.
Most of the boarders didn't have insurance on their horses. Members of the local equestrian community stopped by Foxwood Trail Farm on Thursday to see what they could do to help.
"I just couldn't believe that it happened, and I thought that it had to be a mistake, but it wasn't," horse owner Savannah Kennedy said. "It's just horrible. You can't even imagine. So, I don't know what we are going to do at this point."
"We are kind of just like a family out here," Leadbetter said. "Everyone supports each other, and we are going to help each other get through it one day at a time."