Late on February 18, Kelly Felicijan was getting ready for bed after a 12-hour shift at the Geauga Medical Center in Ohio, where she works as a nurse. The last thing she expected to see when she took a final look out the window at her barn was flames.
“I pushed my dog off the bed, I kicked my boyfriend on the way out, and I don’t think you’ve ever seen somebody move that fast,” said Felicijan, who owns and operates Morgan Valley Sport Horses in Rock Creek, Ohio. “I could only see flames in the back of the barn, but when I opened the door, I tried to go in. I tried three times. Then the nurse in me kicked in and took over and said, ‘The barn is awfully quiet. There’s nothing.’ ”
Still, Felicijan’s boyfriend, Jake Williams, burned his hand trying to get into the first stall on the right where her preliminary-level eventer, Cocoa Vino, lived. The warmblood-cross gelding was one of five horses lost in the fire.
(Felicijan and Vino)
The tin roof on Felicijan’s barn probably hid the fire from sight for some time. The cause of the fire is unknown. They didn’t have a heated tack room and think that the fire could have started as an electrical issue or from static caused by the dry, cold air.
“I know it’s super morbid, but I had to go out and make sure they were all there for myself. I had to look,” said Felicijan. “My mom didn’t want me to, but I said, ‘I experience pain, suffering and death on a daily basis.’ It’s never OK, and truly never OK when it happens to somebody you know, but I had to go out and make sure they were all in their stalls.”
The horses were unrecognizable when Felicijan walked through, but she could identify them from their locations. The farm lost the barn, hay, equipment, tack and two trucks in addition to the horses. The fire was also a learning experience.
“When you call 911 from a cell phone—I didn’t know this—but it doesn’t pinpoint your exact location,” said Felicijan. Their neighbors had called at 1 a.m., but the fire trucks were accidentally dispatched to a town about an hour away. The mistake wasn’t fixed until 1:22 a.m., when the alert was sent to the correct fire department.
“My horses and everything in the barn were gone, but we may have been able to save our trucks. And our house is really close to the barn, and the snow was starting to melt off our house,” said Felicijan. “I mean, you’re helpless, standing out there. And I’m supposed to protect them. I know it’s not my fault, but I feel like I failed.”
Felicijan dedicates much of her time and resources to rescuing and rehabilitating auction horses and off-the-track Thoroughbreds. She’s found new homes for more than 30 of them over the years. One of the rescue horses that was lost, a mare named Rayne, had only been there for a little more than a week.
“Somebody said she needed a home, so I hooked up my trailer and drove an hour and 15 minutes to go get her. Everything with four legs is welcome on our farm,” said Felicijan. “A lot of people will call me and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a horse, something’s wrong with it—this or that. And I’m like, ‘Maybe it needs some love or turnout or different food program. Maybe we need to train it a little better.’
“The new horse was getting her alfalfa cubes and beet pulp every day. She looked so dejected and sad when she got here, and now she whinnied when you came to feed her and got excited to go outside,” Felicijan continued. “She had three blankets on, and I’m sure she hated that, but she was too skinny to not have any on.”
Another horse lost was a 4-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred named Heza Royal One, who was entered in the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium (Ky). Alabanter, or “Astro,” another off-the-track Thoroughbred who’d been schooling at the preliminary level, also died in the fire.
(Heza Royal One. Photo by Snap Happy Photography)
She also lost Nitro, a Haflinger that she’d had since he was an 8-year-old stallion. Felicijan taught him to drive and trained him into a successful 4-H horse.
“He was just the most beautiful horse you’ve ever met—mane down to his knees. Just everywhere he went, everybody loved him,” she said.
Felicijan had received “Vino” as a high school graduation gift from her mother’s best friend and competed him at preliminary.
“Those were our horses in there, and we couldn’t save them. It’s not something you would ever imagine happen to you or wish on anybody else,” she said.
In addition to the horses, a goat and a barn cat were lost in the fire. Felicijan described Tom the cat as “the most annoyingly friendly cat you ever met.”
He was buried with Rayne, since he’d spent much of his time in her stall, purring and rubbing against her legs. Felicijan’s goat was also a beloved family member.
“I’d ordered my goat a new blanket,” said Felcijan. “I don’t think people love their goats like I loved my goat. I took him trick-or-treating when he was a little goat; he was a pirate. He rode in my car with me.”
The community has already reached out, offering emotional support and offers to help rebuild the barn. Local 4-H volunteers even brought over a machine to help bury the horses in spite of the frozen ground, and a kind stranger from Nebraska has already offered to send Felicijan a project horse and a new goat.
“I’m so overwhelmed with everyone wanting to help. I didn’t even know so many people loved me! I can’t get over it; it’s amazing,” she said. “My brother’s not much of a horse lover, but he said, ‘I’m going to build you a barn since you’ve helped so many horses, and you’ll continue to help so many horses.’ ”
They plan to rebuild as soon as the weather permits. In the meantime, Felicijan still has four other horses that were boarded off the property to care for.
“I’m very thankful that I do have them, and my family and our house is safe,” she said. “Just keep going forward is what I tell myself.”