Community Rallies Around Ohio Eventer Who Lost 5 Horses in Barn Fire

Kelly and Vino. Photo courtesy of Brant Gamma Photography. Kelly and Vino. Photo courtesy of Brant Gamma Photography.

Our deepest condolences are with eventer and OTTB advocate Kelly Felicijan, whose Jefferson, Ohio, farm tragically caught fire last night. Among her losses were five horses, a pet goat and a barn cat — all much beloved.

“It’s not something you ever think is going to happen to you or your family,” Kelly said when we spoke with her this morning. Working as a nurse she sees a lot of suffering but says that experiencing it firsthand is much different. “It doesn’t really prepare you for your own loss.”

A neighbor who spotted the fire called the fire department and then Kelly at around 1:30 a.m. Kelly, whose house is near the barn, looked out the window and ran outside. Ordinarily the horses would have been turned out with access to their run-in, but with temperatures hovering around 0 with a -25 degree wind chill last night, she had decided to keep them in.

Cocoa Vino, an Arab-Trakehner she’d had for 10 years and evented through Prelim, was in the first stall on the right. Kelly tried to go inside the barn three times, but the smoke was too thick, and she emerged with singed hair and eyes.

“He’s irreplaceable,” she says of Vino. “We did our first three Prelims last year. He was a pretty phenomenal horse — he could pretty much pack me around his first Prelim and my first Prelim with my eyes closed.” Despite standing 17.2 hands and possessing a strong gallop, he recently escorted Kelly’s neighbor, who had never even gone through a water jump, around her first three-phase event. “I told her to trot every jump,” Kelly recalls. “He took great care of her.”

“Vino was supposed to live until he was 35,” she says, still understandably in shock about his passing. “He was supposed to live forever.”

By the time the firefighters arrived, the barn was a total loss. The cause of the fire is unknown; they speculate that the source could have been an electric fence charger, a power surge or even a mouse chewing through a wire, and that the barn’s tin roof held the smoke in. Kelly takes comfort in knowing that the horses likely lost consciousness from smoke inhalation, minimizing their pain.

The other four horses included a Haflinger named Nitro …

Kelly's Haflinger, Nitro.

Nitro. Photo courtesy of Kelly Felicijan.

… and three OTTBs: Astro, Royal and Rayne.

Kelly is active in the OTTB community and in particular is involved with Finger Lakes Finest Thoroughbreds, Inc., a nonprofit whose mission is to help OTTBs from Finger Lakes Race Track find post-racing homes and new careers. FLF volunteer Alex Walker, a friend of Kelly’s, wasted no time in giving well-wishers an outlet for their outpouring of generosity. A YouCaring fundraiser was set up this morning under the name “Help Us Rebuild Morgan Valley Sport Horses After the Fire.

Alex wrote of Kelly’s support of the organization and beyond:

Kelly is an integral part of our family here at Finger Lakes Finest. We can always count on her to take in the horses needing extra love, that most would pass by,  not seeing their potential. She has helped countless animals find forever homes because of her compassion, excellent horse care and tireless work.

Over the past few years, she has taken in and found homes for over 30 off-the-track Thoroughbreds, auction horses and others just needing a soft landing. When Kelly isn’t caring for her four-legged family, she is taking care of other peoples’ family members as a nurse at Geauga Medical Center. She volunteers her time while serving as a 4-H leader in her community.

“I just can’t say no,” Kelly says. “Show me the barn with the horses that nobody else wants.”

She recalls the story of an OTTB she brought home from the track despite knowing that he had a fractured ankle. Rather than giving the broken horse time off to heal, his trainer was regularly injecting it to keep the horse running despite the fact that he wasn’t even winning. Kelly rehabbed the horse herself and found him a loving home.

“Anything from ponies to Thoroughbreds — if it has four legs, I’ll give it a chance. I don’t pick my horses; my horses pick me.”

Astro

Astro. Photo courtesy of Kelly Felicijan.

One of the OTTBs Kelly was most excited about was Astro (Jockey Club name: Alabanter). Before the fire, Kelly had just gotten 300 pounds on him (he had trouble keeping weight on because of a stall-walking habit), and he was beginning to reveal his potential: “He could jump 3’6″ like it was a cross-rail. He had an amazing future in front of him.”

Astro

Astro. Photo courtesy of Kelly Felicijan.

Another exciting prospect was a striking OTTB named Royal (Heza Royal One), who she’d recently entered in the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover. Royal was a perfect fit for the competition, which is eligible to OTTBs with nine months of training or less and culminates in a national gathering at the Kentucky Horse Park in October.

Royal

Royal. Photo courtesy of Kelly Felicijan.

“I keep walking out there,” Kelly says. Her family advised her against it, but she says it’s been her own way of dealing with the tragedy. “I needed to walk out there and know for myself that all the horses were in the barn. I wanted to go look.”

What she saw — what was left of the barn — was mostly blackened rubble. “The were six beams and a metal cart we used to pull hay,” she says. “The horses aren’t recognizable.”

She brushes off the loss of everything besides the animals, describing the rest of it as “just material possessions.” But for a horse person who has been riding since age 5 and eventing since age 8, that’s a lifetime of accumulated equipment. The tack room was stuffed with years worth of, as Kelly describes, “hoarding”: blankets, tack including her good saddle and, she notes, a prolific bit collection.

In addition to monetary donations, the YouCaring fundraiser encourages the donation of equipment and supplies to replace those lost in the fire. Suggested items include tack, brushes, wheelbarrows, blankets, feed/hay, barn equipment, etc.

Other losses include a fueled-up tractor that blew up behind the barn, as well as her and her boyfriend’s trucks, which were parked outside. She only had liability insurance on her truck but says that the loss seems insignificant in comparison. “I don’t care about the truck,” she says.

Yet, less than 12 hours after the fire, Kelly already has her chin up. She points out the bright side of things: She is safe. Her boyfriend and family are safe. Her home, which was in danger of catching fire itself, is fine. She still has four horses to love — two that were boarded at a facility with an indoor and two horses that were babysitting other horses elsewhere.

Kelly says she has been floored by the kindness the equestrian community has shown her in the fire’s aftermath. Her vet, who was away at a conference, called in the middle of the night and offered to drive home. She’s been overwhelmed by sympathies and well wishes from friends and strangers alike. At the time of this publication, the YouCaring fundraising campaign had already raised more than $4,500 (you can visit the campaign here).

“There has been a big outpouring of support,” she says. “I feel loved.”

When Kelly shared the news on Facebook this morning, she included this request:

Please hug your horses and animals a little tighter and give them a few extra kisses. Sometimes life isn’t fair. But the only option is forward … always forward.

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