Mellisa Davis Warden still remembers the day in December 2015 when she first saw a photo on social media of an Arabian mare located at Kaufman Horses in Forney, Texas. Often a last stop before shipping to Mexico for slaughter, the horses at Kaufman tend to be inexpensive, a bit beat up and full of unknowns. But the 10-year-old gray mare looked well filled out—“a round little porker”—and seemed to be a nice type.
“I had recently been introduced to ride and tie, which is where you and a partner each take turns running and riding a horse,” said Warden, who is a U.S. Equestrian Federation eventing judge and technical delegate. “I had just come off from doing the East Coast Ride and Tie Championships with a friend, and a top-10 finish.
“My husband is an ultramarathoner and not much of a rider, but he has grown to love the horses enough,” Warden continued. “I was also running ultramarathons, and so I got to thinking I should get a ride and tie horse, and my husband and I could be a team.”
Although Warden loves Thoroughbreds, she thought the Arabian mare in the photo might be perfect for ride and tie competition. The fact she was at a known “kill pen” and had an unknown history didn’t deter Warden in the least.
“I’ve pulled quite a few horses from auctions, or even as they were about to be loaded onto slaughter trucks, where it was very well known where they were going,” she said. “This wasn’t the first time I’ve done this, and it definitely wasn’t the last time either. But I saw her, and I thought, ‘This could be a really cool thing.’ ”
Inspired by a story she had read earlier in the year about a barn community coming together to save a horse from the slaughter pipeline, Warden shared the mare’s photo on her own feed and asked if any friends wanted to help. She was shocked by the response.
“People just started sending me money,” Warden said. “Checks were arriving in the mail from people I hadn’t seen in years, with a note, ‘You have to get this horse.’ ”
Feeling as if the universe had spoken, Warden purchased the mare, sight unseen. But she still needed to coordinate the logistics of getting her safely from Texas to her farm in Aiken, South Carolina. Another serendipitous social media post connected Warden with Ginger McGalin, an equestrian living just outside of Houston, about four hours south of Kaufman. McGalin was already planning to pick up two other animals from the yard and had room on her trailer; she also offered to quarantine Warden’s new mare until she was able to come collect her.
Warden named the mare Folly, in tribute to one of her favorite scenes in the movie “National Velvet.”
“Mr. Brown doesn’t want Velvet to have a horse, and he’s being difficult,” Warden explained. “So Mrs. Brown says—and I won’t get the quote just right—‘everybody in this life needs and deserves to have a folly.’ And it’s true—we do.”
Warden and a friend made the long drive to collect Folly late in December. It was an eventful journey, which included navigating tornadoes and downed electrical lines along Interstate 10 in Louisiana, making their return trip nearly 17 hours long. But Folly hauled perfectly, and upon arriving in South Carolina, continued her quarantine in a neighbor’s empty barn.
“That was a good thing, because she had the gamut of shipping fever and other respiratory stuff they pick up at auctions,” Warden said. “Fortunately, I worked for a vet, so I had access to all the care she needed.”
Warden gave Folly nearly a month to fully recover from illness, regain strength, and have her feet trimmed before attempting to discover what—if anything—she knew of being ridden.
“I didn’t know when she’d last been ridden, other than in a halter and lead rope at the auction,” Warden said. “I didn’t even know how she moved. But the first day I watched her trot, I just thought, ‘Aren’t you the fanciest little horse?’ She looked like a little warmblood with a dishy face, and a mane that was mangled and stuck together.
“I think I got on her for the first time bareback,” Warden continued. “Everything she did was perfect. I rode her all over the place, bareback, or with a blanket on, and she was just the happiest horse ever.”
Folly was so calm and cooperative that Warden’s husband, Steve, was soon riding her on hacks with Mellisa, as did her daughter, Ainsley, who was 10 at the time. One day, Mellisa decided to free jump Folly.
“She jumped with her knees to her nose,” Mellisa said. “I never really pushed it, because she was still weak from being at the auction and being sick. But I started to decide she was too nice to be a ride and tie horse—not that they’re not nice horses. She was just a fancy, fancy little horse.”
In March 2016, serendipity struck again. Mellisa’s good friend and fellow trainer, Erin Williams, traveled from her base near Columbus, Georgia, for a visit. One day during her stay, Mellisa looked out of the barn to see Erin sitting on Folly, the mare wearing only a halter and lead, happily grazing in the courtyard.
“She was like, ‘Mellisa, I know you’re not planning on selling her, but … I really want this horse for my daughter,’” Mellisa recalled with a laugh. “I felt bad, because I hadn’t done much with Folly. But then Erin said, ‘By doing this, it will, one, open up a stall in your barn, and, two, provide you the money to take another horse in that needs an opportunity.’ ”
“She was absolutely correct,” Mellisa continued. “The next week, I was with my boss and needed to draw Coggins on some horses heading for auction. The first one we pulled blood on was Deadpool, a little red horse that eventually competed to the two-star level. He’s now with his third or fourth kid after me, bringing them up the levels.”
Williams’ daughter Lauren rode Folly for several years, and then she became part of the family’s lesson program.
“She was a favorite,” Mellisa said. “It didn’t matter who rode her; she did everything.”
But when Erin was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, she decided to close her business in order to focus on her health. One day in late 2021, she texted Mellisa to say she had a client interested in purchasing Folly for their daughter.
“I trust Erin, as a friend and a really good horseman, to make a good decision on behalf of the animal,” Mellisa said. “She kind of asked permission before she did it, because she felt really badly. But she thought [selling Folly] was the best thing for everyone, and it was a really good home.”
And that was how, on Christmas Day, 2021, 10-year-old Piper Surber received the present every horse-crazy girl asks for: a pony of her very own.
Surber, of Waverly Hall, Georgia, started training with Erin in spring 2021, and her family began leasing Folly later that summer.
“It just became a match made in heaven,” said Mary Lou Surber, Piper’s mother. “When Folly came for sale, there was no way we could break up the partnership and bond they had.”
The family managed to keep news of Folly’s purchase a surprise until Christmas day.
“I had no idea, and I was super happy and very grateful,” said Piper, now 12. “I was excited to build more memories and continue our journey.”
It was Folly who first introduced Piper to her favorite equestrian sport, eventing. Although the mare had only dabbled with cross-country in the past, the pair quickly gained confidence and moved from starter level to beginner novice. Most recently, they earned a blue ribbon at Poplar Place Farm (Georgia) USEA horse trials in October. Piper has set her sights on qualifying for the American Eventing Championships in 2024.
“I really like her personality,” Piper said. “I have a bond with her, and I trust her and she trusts me. I felt really confident out there [on cross-country]. I knew she wouldn’t do anything to hurt me.”
Piper and Folly have also tested their partnership in the hunt field, riding out with Midland Foxhounds in Midland, Georgia. In March 2023, they traveled to Tennessee to compete in the Junior North American Field Hunter Championships hosted by the Masters of Foxhounds Association of North America. She hopes to ride out with the hounds again this fall.
“She’s very maternal,” Mary Lou said of Folly. “I think that’s why she takes such good care of Piper. She’s not going to put Piper in a situation where she’s going to get harmed. [Folly] is very honest; if Piper is not set up correctly for a jump, Folly isn’t going to jump it.”
On Erin’s recommendation, the Surbers found a new coach for Piper in the husband-wife team of Werner and Marjolein Geven, who are based at Poplar Place. Marjolein, a Grand Prix dressage rider, encouraged Piper to enter a USEF recognized dressage show being held at the farm in September to sharpen her skills. Piper and Folly competed in several training level classes, as well as dressage seat equitation, and qualified for the USDF Region 3 championships being held just three weeks later.
“I did feel a little pressure,” Piper said. “But it was my first [rated dressage] show, and I was going for the experience. I wasn’t expecting to qualify—but I for sure wanted to.”
In early October, the pair made the six-hour trip to Ocala, Florida, to compete in the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Region 3 Championships, the largest show of their career so far. The pair earned scores to the mid-60s and placed second in the USDF Dressage Seat Medal semifinal for ages 13 and under. The experience served to deepen the bond between horse and rider.
“I could tell she was a little excited and a little nervous,” says Piper. “But I was like, ‘It’s OK, Folly; we’ve got this.’ I pushed her, and I thought she was pretty good. We came out really well. She’s really taught me how to ride, and how to compete on her.”
Although Mellisa and the Surbers have never met in person, they stay in touch through Erin, and Mellisa continues to follow Folly’s career. She isn’t surprised to see the mare, who is shown under the name Fortunate Folly, thriving.
“Similar to dogs that come from shelters, [auction horses] really appreciate the opportunity, most of the time,” Mellisa said. “There is usually some baggage there, but they also have so much heart. Every horse I’ve found that has come from one of these situations has had incredible amounts of heart.
“We get so focused on bloodlines, on breeds, these things that at the of the end of the day don’t really matter,” she continued. “I appreciate a good American-bred horse, but I also appreciate a horse that’s had an opportunity to find the right place in life. Just because a certain career isn’t a perfect match—as a race horse, a cow pony, a dressage horse, a show jumper—there is a job out there for it.”
By everyone’s best guess, Folly is now about 18 years old, and the Surbers have no plans to let her ever leave their care.
“She’s really become part of the family, quickly, and we love her to pieces,” Mary Lou said. “She will live with us until the end of her days. Recently, Erin tagged me in Folly’s kill pen post from several years ago, and the difference from then to now is really amazing.”
Mellisa knows it is only a matter of time before she will pick up another horse from an unfortunate situation.
“It’s important you take this chance, and you don’t know what is going to come of it,” says Mellisa. “But it could be something great.”
Do you know a horse or pony who has been rescued from a dangerous situation to become a healthy, trusted competition partner today? If you think you have a good candidate for “From Rescue To Ribbons,” let us know by emailing email@example.com.