Melissa and Fly

On January 18, I  had the honor of being the guest of Melissa DeCarlo Recknor, former Adoptions and Volunteer Coordinator at the MMSC, and her wonderful husband, Russell at the Mid South Eventing Association year end awards dinner. Melissa had earned first place in beginner novice senior horse trial division and second place in beginner novice senior combined test with her MMSC graduate, Fly Lite.

Melissa and Russell

I wanted to be at the ceremony to show my appreciation for what Melissa and Fly had done together to raise awareness about the MMSC specifically and about the athleticism and value of off track Thoroughbreds in general. I also wanted to be there to show my admiration for her commitment to a tough and talented little mare. 

When Melissa (or “M” as I often called her) approached me in the late summer of 2009 about adopting Fly Lite, the small (15.1 on a good day) and willful nine year old chestnut by Fly Til Dawn out of Feodalite, I thought for a bit and meted out my response carefully. 

Fly always knows where her admirers are.

“If you do that, M, be prepared. Fly will make you cry. She’ll make you mad. She’ll tax your patience. You’ll want to give up on her, and if you do, that would be ok. But if you stick with her, she’ll teach things that take several lifetimes to learn as a horseman and as a human being. And if you want to show her, it will take about three years before she settles and you truly see results as a team.”

Melissa came to the MMSC in 2008 first as a volunteer. When she graduated in from the College of Music at the University of Kentucky the following May, I hired her to help in the barn and the office. I liked what I had seen:  She was a smart, quick, talented, compact bundle of spitfire with a ton of heart, like Fly Lite in two legged form.

Fly came to the MMSC before Melissa with a checkered past and an uncertain future. After a short bit in training at the track, but not showing promise, she was sold as a sport horse.  She proved to be a challenge there as well and landed, at age five, at the New Holland auction in February 2005, a sobering destiny ahead.

Enter Jo Deibel director of Angel Acres Horse Haven Rescue who is the regular and indefatigable angel of mercy for so many horses who end up in these dire straights. She noticed Fly’s cute face and clean legs, and using Fly’s tattoo, located her breeder, Barbara Rickline. Together she and Barb rescued Fly and placed her with friends in the racing industry to see if maybe Fly wanted to be a racehorse after all. Alas, she didn’t. ( 

So Barb and Jo found an adopter, who after two years of dealing with Fly’s authoritarian attitude and antics, felt that maybe New Holland was the right route for the feisty little mare after all. Once again, however, Deibel stepped in, this time contacting the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and pressing for a solution. Because the MMSC was managed by the TRF at the time, Fly arrived at the MMSC in November of 2007.

When I became director in 2008, I inherited a band of tough horses. I had a chronic rearer, a bolter, a malcontent that bit, struck out, and had broken one MMSC volunteer’s arm. There were  several unthrifty, nervous and mistrusting horses right off the track, and then there was Fly. 

Petite and well proportioned with a copper coat that gleamed like a newly minted penny, Fly had “mojo.” The best thing about her, however was her eye, a clear window to a “horse-ona” that bespoke of  a smart, self possessed individual that was several steps ahead of the crowd, and yes, “creative” in the sense that she was always assessing her impact on those around her. Think DIVA with a political sense, i.e. the love child of Hilary Clinton and Lady Gaga.
Riding her was an experience. She was agile as a cat, sensitive and reactive, and because of her conformation, quite naturally balanced. She also could jump… if and when she wanted. Impatient, high strung, and unwilling to suffer fools AT ALL, Fly had to have an ever changing scenario of requests and challenges. If not, she’d toss her head, pace, pull, or as a last resort, dump you. No endless drilling of leg yields or cavalletti for her. If you wanted to get along with her, it had to be interesting and it had to be on her terms.

Fly got adopted that summer to a lovely person and a good rider but unfortunately was returned to the MMSC about the time we were shutting down for the winter. I put her in a foster home and decided that I’d have to be even more selective about her adopter when she came back in the spring.

Melissa was the protege of an A show hunter barn in New York. She rode with impeccable form. The trouble was she didn’t understand the “function” part of the equation "form follows function," and wasn't well versed in how to use her seat, legs, and hands to train a horse, especially not a hot Thoroughbred mare. And she was scared to ride outside of a ring.
Melissa and Fly in 2009

I had tried to steer Melissa towards a young, affable gelding, something reliable and steady, a horse that might make a nice show hunter down the road. I thought his temperament would be a compliment to her ever  percolating, exacting one. But as I said earlier, although M is small in stature, she’s a titan in spirit, and when she decides to do something, one had best get out of her way!  Physically, she and Fly were a well matched, eye catching elegant pair. Temperamentally they were very similar, which could be the best thing that ever happened to Melissa (to Fly, too, for that matter), for, we only can truly ride our horses once we intimately know and have trained our difficult selves.  This is one of the great gifts that horses give to us. On the other hand, the two of them had all the ingredients necessary for the perfect storm. It was clearly a match made in heaven, but I suspected that there would be a whole lot of hell to go through to get there. It occurred to me that if Melissa was really going to adopt her equine alter ego, I had to do something to help them survive each other.

So I proposed that Fly become the MMSC mascot.
Fly, as mascot, loved greeting MMSC visitors.
Melissa had done a lot of showing and was interested in doing more. MMSC horses came and went to new homes so quickly that we rarely had a chance to take them to the show ring which was unfortunate because we wanted to show off their versatility. It would be wonderful to have an MMSC ambassador.  I would pay all entry fees, and cover the costs of clinics too, to help the the pair get ahead. It was a win/win/win situation. M got to keep her horse at the MMSC and ride it during working hours. The MMSC had a very pretty horse and rider team that would be regularly seen off campus promoting our program. I could keep an eye on both of them and make sure that the two didn’t implode.

Implode they did, however. There were outbursts of  frustrated tears and rage. There were refusals and low scores and humiliations and eliminations when they first started showing. My heart sank with every one of them. It was hard on Melissa. Fly didn’t look too happy either. I kept telling M that it took time to gain the experience and the trust, but if ever she felt she had hit a wall with Fly, it was ok move on to another horse. M turned a deaf ear to me and all other naysayers. She simply dug in and dedicated herself to Fly and to mastering her own fears and inadequacies as a horsewoman

Although at one point I know she found dressage arcane, she reconsidered her position, both mentally about the discipline as well as physically about her seat. She bought an excellent dressage saddle and learned to ride long and sit tall.

She took clinics and lessons. She  worked on her jumping and struggled to overcome her own fear of riding outside of a ring. She started trail riding. Then she started schooling cross country.  She had professional event rider, Lara Knight, ride Fly in her first two events. And, then, one day, Melissa evented herself. I watched their first cross country run with my heart in my throat and met M on the finish line, holding my breath.

"And? How was it?"  I asked nervously.

'THAT WAS SO MUCH FUN!," she exclaimed, breathlessly excited and smiling.  Fly, prancing and shaking her head with exuberance and pride, clearly loved the cross country experience as well.

When M left the MMSC to pursue a career in her chosen field of music, she found a wonderful trainer in Whitney Morris with whom she boards. Carefully and systematically Whitney continued to build both Melissa’s and Fly’s confidence and experience. With Whitney's vigilant daily guidance, the pair starting trusting each other, showing regularly and, slowly, the ribbons started to float in. You can look at her results below and see just how far they have come.  And there is no telling where these two will go now, either!

Seeing M’s big smile when she walked up to the dais at the MSEA was sight to savor. I knew from whence they had come. I had had a good idea about how arduous their journey was going to be. I witnessed many of their trials. If M had given up on Fly, I wouldn’t have blamed her. But she didn’t. I can say for sure that these awards represented an Olympic feat of determination, hard work, courage, and faith from both members of a  truly 
winning team. It’s the kind of story between a horse and her girl that inspires us all. 

Cheery bye, 


Melissa and Fly Lite
- USEF Silver Stirrup National Reserve Champion, BN
- USEF Silver Stirrup Zone Champion, BN
- USEA BN Amateur, 8th place
- USEA Area 8 BN Amateur, Reserve Champion
- USEA Area 8 BN Rider, 8th place
- USEA Area 8 BN horse, 9th place
- MSEDA BN Combined Tests, 3rd Place
- MSEDA BN Horse Trials, 3rd place
- Jockey Club TIP Award at the Kentucky Dressage Assoc. spring warm up show (May)

- USEF Silver Stirrup Zone Champion, BN
- USEF Silver Stirrup National 3rd place, BN
- USEA BN Amateur, 6th place
- USEA Area 8, BN Amateur, Champion
- USEA Area 8 high point thoroughbred champion
- Jockey Club TIP Award at the KY Dressage Assoc. fall classic (October)
- 7th Area 8 BN Championships
- Midsouth Eventing and Dressage Association (MSEDA) 1st Placed Beginner Novice Senior Horse Trials
- MSEDA 2nd place- beginner novice senior combined test
- Jockey Club TIP Performance Award Program- 1st place Beginner Novice Combined Test Division
-Volunter Jockey Club TIP Performance Award Program- 1st place Beginner Novice Eventing Division
- Jockey Club TIP Performance Award Program- 2nd place Combined Test Overall 
- Jockey Club TIP Performance Award Program- 4th place eventing overall