He wasn’t my horse, so there was nothing I could do about it, but it broke my heart to see him used this way, and the stress it was clearly causing him was ruining all of the hard work we had done. I felt responsible. After all, I had been the one who convinced him it was okay to trust a human. I had taught him how to respond to a rider’s requests. And he had made a huge leap and trusted me. Now I felt like I had betrayed him. Here he was, struggling to do what was asked of him while these morons brought bigger bits and spurs and chased him over huge jumps again. It made me sick.
At the time, my mother was riding and showing my old equitation horse Lifeguard, so when I came home for the summer I had no horse to ride. They offered to help me out with leasing Mellon for the summer. I was ecstatic! Mellon would be all mine!
I realized I missed being away from the horses while I was at school, so I transferred to a school closer to home and got a job mucking stalls at another stable so I could still be with the horses. And my parents (the greatest parents a horsey-girl could have - thanks guys! you're the best! :-) took pity on me -and on Mellon- and bought him for me so I’d never have to watch him be abused or betray his trust again. I was able to keep my promise to him that I wouldn’t let anyone else abuse him.
The first thing I did once he was mine, though small, was to change the spelling of his name. He had been called “Melon.” Like the fruit. Or like that ridiculous “head battle” name he had been given. That just wouldn’t do. I am a bit of a Tolkien geek, and I remembered how, in The Lord of the Rings, the inscription on the stone West-Gate of Moria read, “Speak, friend, and enter.” The magical password that opened the gate was the Elvish word for “friend”- Mellon.
Now, mind you, it wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows either. I don’t want to give the impression that everything was perfectly fine from then on. I made my share of mistakes, tried some training methods I regret, and did a lot of stupid things along the way. And, Mellon never transformed into a docile, bombproof school horse from the feisty, emotional and complex Trakehner he was in the beginning; that’s his personality and I never expected it to change or go away. I had to learn to ride through the rough patches and stay on for all of his acrobatics, which I can tell you was no small feat. He was definitely not your typical amateur horse.... As a result, showing was more for our entertainment than for real competition – he was so unpredictable from day-to-day, ride-to-ride and course-to-course that I never went into it expecting to win or chasing prize money. We competed against ourselves, and I lived happily with the fact that some days we were just lucky to get around, and other days we would be dead-on and no one could touch us.
He never became a truly safe horse, and he’s never been easy to ride. My old trainer would get on him when I asked him to, but he would usually get off gasping for air and clutching his chest. He was a tough rider, famous (or infamous) for riding anything, and he said the horse gave him palpitations. And I have had several highly respected trainers refuse to train me on him, calling him “hopeless,” “dangerous” and a “waste of time.” Later, another trainer of mine – and international open jumper rider – insulted him and complained about him being too difficult; I suppose we embarrassed him at the horse shows because we never presented the “perfect” picture all those $100,000+ “made” horses did; but we still had fun, kicked a little ass and won some decent money. When I did ask him to ride Mellon he told me he’d never ride him because he couldn’t “afford to get hurt.” He was used to riding tried and true “made” horses, and I suspect he was more worried about his ego being hurt than anything else. I think Mellon was just the kind of horse that gave him nightmares, and he would have been terrified if he ever had to ride something so challenging, especially in front of his students and his fan club. At one barn where we boarded, he earned the nickname "the Terminator," and I think that's how everyone viewed him - except me....
Of course I would have loved one of those fancy jumpers that I could take out to the shows and win with every time. I would have loved a predictable outcome. But sometimes we have to work around the horses we have. There were plenty of trainers who tried to talk me into selling him (like anyone would buy him ;-) and getting an upgrade. They would tell me, “you’re too good a rider to waste your time with a horse you’ll never get anywhere with.” But I never felt my time was wasted. I suppose in their dollars and cents world, it was a waste in their eyes. For me, it was the time of my life, and I learned more from riding that horse than I ever could have from years of lessons on easy horses, even with the best trainers in the world. Not only that, but I felt I had a responsibility to him to make sure he never ended up in the wrong hands. No, he was staying with me, and I was sticking by him. If it meant changing my priorities and my goals a little, so be it.
Sure, we had our showing successes, but it wasn’t about that. It was the challenge that made our little, successes count so much more. For example, there was the time I took Mellon on a hunter pace, and my trainer was riding an experienced foxhunter who kept refusing the cross-country style jumps in the woods; it was Mellon who took the point position and led the spooky horses over every fence in the course!
And there was our 15 minutes of fame; once we were showing the horses at the Hampton Classic and we realized after entering our Working Hunter in a division that he wasn’t actually eligible for it. Rather than waste an entry (we would not have gotten our fees back anyway) I decided to use the class as a schooling opportunity for Mellon. Mellon, as you may have gathered, is not a typical show hunter type. He was braided for the first time in his life and jumped around as quietly as he knew how. It may not have been the prettiest round, but at least we had the fastest time in the hunters (probably in history ;-) I remember there was a newspaper photographer taking photos in the schooling ring beforehand, and Mellon’s antics had apparently caught his eye. After cantering sideways and bucking his way to a particularly exciting jump and some bronco-like stunts afterward, I pulled up at the rail and tried to quiet Mellon. The photographer approached us and asked, “Can you do that again?” All I could think to respond was, “I hope not!” He didn’t get his bronco shot, but that jump ended up in the paper anyway.
Or, there was this one time when we were turning to our last fence in the jump off – a 3’9 square oxer off a short turn – and I made a huge mistake: I knew our time was the fastest so far and I got greedy - I cut the turn too short, letting the impulsion fade out; we got to the base of the jump at a short distance and with nothing; Mellon had every right to refuse. I threw the reins up his neck as if to say “whatever you decide is fine” and braced for the stop I knew would be coming; but, to my great surprise, he jumped it. Clean. From a standstill. And then cleared the timers. At that moment, do you think it could have mattered to me if we won a ribbon or not? My horse, the so-called unrideable “dirty stopper” – the “waste” – had just bailed me out when he should have stopped – something he had never done before for anyone. I didn’t even stick around to hear where we placed; as far as I was concerned, we won that day. I jumped off, gave him a huge hug, and walked him back to the stables for a cool bath, some grazing and a ton of treats. (My trainer later told me that, even though we lost valuable seconds because of that last jump, we finished 10th out of 150+ horses, including professionals...)
Here’s one caught on film! Garden State Horse Show. The “X” marks the ideal takeoff point for this little 3’6 oxer, but as you can see, Mellon’s hind feet are already well over 2’ off the ground here, which means we left the ground somewhere outside the frame of this picture... it was a timed first round and we were flying – so he just left out that stride like it was nothing (our motto was "when in doubt, leave it out!") And you can see that, even though the long distance made his jump a little flat, he’s still well clear of the rails. He probably should have dumped me in the middle of the oxer, but he didn’t. It takes a brave, generous, talented horse to go long like that, especially in the mud - Go Mellon!
p.s. ignore my bad position :-\
The changes in Mellon took everyone by surprise, not least of all, me – after all, I was no trainer but I could do things with him no professional had been able to. It didn’t make sense. But I didn’t care; I think it is important to remember that horses are who they are, and we shouldn’t try to train their personalities out of them. Mellon is who he is, tough as that might be to cope with sometimes, and I love him for it. Yeah, he’s still a tough horse to manage and to ride. He’s not the right sort of horse for everyone, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t the right horse for someone like me. He deserved a chance, and I’m glad I could give him one. He gave me so much in return.
I guess the point I’m making is that I never gave up on him even when just about everyone else had. I accepted the things I couldn’t change about him, and worked with him as best I could. All of our hard work, all of the trial and error, mistakes and moments of brilliance, happiness and pain paid off. We competed successfully for years in the jumpers at all different levels, traveling all over the Northeast. We also hunter-paced, rode to the beach and went swimming, hacked in the field.... I took Mellon everywhere. And he made me the rider and trainer I am today, for better or worse. Apart from teaching me how to sit any kind of buck or what to do when a horse rears, refuses, panics or throws himself on the ground, among other things, he also taught me how to listen closely, think critically, experiment with different – sometimes unorthodox - techniques, to ride by instinct and appreciate the horse I have at that moment, not the one I had yesterday - or even five strides ago.
He’ll never be an ordinary calm, quiet horse. Even now, in his 20’s, he’s still feisty as ever, and he’s still a sensitive, emotional horse who can get himself into trouble if you’re not careful. But I love him, and he’s got a home with me forever. Everyone else called him a waste; I call him my friend - Mellon.