Mission: Impossible - Happy Ending...?

We had started in the winter and I worked with him like this for months. Having put all of this time into Mellon, gaining his trust, making him a respectable riding horse, I then had to leave for college in the fall, and had no idea what would become of Mellon. Now that he had become somewhat rideable, people started to come out of the woodwork wanting to ride him again. I suppose they figured if I could do it, they could surely do it better. When I returned home, I discovered that the old yahoos were back riding him, and he was slowly regressing to his former self again. One of the new riders was a so-called “professional” who had only recently snapped her own horse’s spine jumping him in draw reins and was happy to tell me, “why should I put the wear and tear on one of my horses when I can practice on someone else’s?” I had been riding him in a hollow mouth eggbutt. She bitted him with a Jimmy Williams. Needless to say, he started refusing fences and acting out again.

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.

Happy Ending:

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.


  1. I'm actually sitting here with tears in my eyes after reading this installment. Mellon is so lucky to have found you, I hate to think what could have happened to him otherwise.

    I'm a firm believer in the motto "everything happens for a reason" and I think the reason you and Mellon found each other may be twofold: Mellon needed a caring and sensitive rider to save him and he helped you become the wonderful, insightful and questioning rider and trainer you have become over the years.

    I hope you and Mellon go on for years to come, he's a unique horse to say the least.

  2. thanks GHM :-) i hope so too!

  3. What a wonderful story! He's a perfect example of why it's so important to "ride the horse you have today". You found a way to connect with him and get him to offer up himself as a partner - he must have really trusted you. I'm glad he found you and you found him - may he be with you for years to come.

  4. Ugh, I saw the Jimmy bit and the first thought in my mind was, "That's not that bad." Granted, I'm boarding my dressage pony at a "Western" barn and watch the frightening pieces of metal that routinely go into horses mouths! (I am counting the days until my move!)

    It always makes me happy to hear of the unique horse that makes a rider. I've always thought that an instructor tells you how to ride, while the horse shows you. Thank goodness Mellon found you!

  5. Of course it's a happy ending,he's with you for life and no one else will ever abuse him. He probably has taught you more than any trainer or clinician.He opened his heart,trusted you and has saved your ass when it mattered. That's what the good ones do.....even if they are deemed unrideable or unsafe by those who do not understand them.Give him some pats from me and i hope he has many more feisty years left.

  6. Me too, with the tears in eyes. What a story - in some ways like LOTR - what an appropriate name. I think it was always that name - you just were the one person who realized it and corrected the spelling.

    In the last photo he reminds me of Keil Bay, so handsome and regal and in that moment the photo captures the essence of what the two of you have done/can do together.

    My daughter's trainers have all told her that sticking with her pony, who can sometimes be a challenge, would make her a better rider, and I think it's true. She has learned to negotiate things she never would have on a push-button pony.

    I have so enjoyed reading this series. Thanks for sharing it.

  7. What a great end to the story. In my serious days I evented an unpredictable appaloosa. Nothing as dangerous-sounding as Mellon, but I also never could be sure what horse I would have today, tomorrow or in five strides. I always used to tell people that I was only competing against myself, but I'm pretty sure they heard it as an excuse to suck. I clearly remember crying with pride over a 68 dressage score.

    Anyhow, your perspective is very refreshing. The horses couldn't care less whether they place first or last. I firmly believe that they just want to go out and have fun with their monkeys.

  8. What a lovely happy ending - and a great way to "rename" him. The challenging ones are so much more fun in the end!

  9. Even so-called difficult horses have the perfect person out there waiting to find them. There are some horses who are easy to get along with and everybody loves. There are some, like Mellon, who have quirky personalities or certain difficulties; it takes special people or the right person to love them.

    I always thought it was similar to getting married. You are never going to find a perfect spouse. But you find one who has lots of good characteristics you can appreciate, and weaknesses that you don't mind dealing with.

    We don't all appreciate the same good characteristics. And we don't all despise the same weaknesses.

    Sure keeps the world a lot more interesting!

  10. tammy and kate - thanks!

    wolfandterriers - oh, i know there are much worse bits in circulation :-\ i'm ok with curb bits (used properly) but the jimmy williams disturbs me because of that long upper arm that prevents the bit from rotating normally - all of that leverage goes directly against the bars. yikes!

    i think horses are the best instructors - i was lucky enough to have 2 great teachers early on - lifeguard and mellon. i learned so much from both of them... it never would have occurred to me that i could go professional, but after seeing what i did with mellon, people started asking me to work with their horses too. i think if it hadn't been for mellon, i never would have pursued training so seriously....

    LMTBs - thanks, will do!

    billie - i always wonder about horse's names... sometimes i do think they name themselves, or at least the names mean more than we initially think. we had a horse who came with the name 'lifeguard' because he had a pink nose and needed to wear zinc on it in the sun. but that name ended up meaning so much more...

    i like that photo too. i have so few photos in general, but i just love the relaxed, confident expression on mellon's face - that's the mellon i know and love :-)

    i'm glad your daughter is sticking with her pony - it will definitely make her a better rider.

    dp - your appaloosa sounds great :-) i love the challenging horses, and i know what you mean about people assuming you're making an excuse to suck, but my guess is they've never had the pleasure of making a breakthrough with a challenging horse or passing some personal milestone.

    i cried too the day mellon bailed me out of that bad jump - to everyone else it probably just looked like a bad distance, but i knew - and mellon knew - that any other day i would have eaten that jump, and it was a huge deal to me that he jumped it for me. and yeah, i'm sure mellon didn't care about our time or jumping clean - we were just having some fun ;-) that's the only way i've ever enjoyed showing...

    funder - agree! which reminds me i need to catch up and see what's up with your ponies :-)

  11. jackie - what a great way of looking at it! i guess in a way it is like marriage - no two partners in any relationship are ever a 100% perfect match (THAT would be boring ;-) but compatibility has to be about more than just liking the good stuff - you have to accept and appreciate the less-than-ideal stuff too. after all, compassion is loving someone partly because of their weaknesses, not in spite of them...

  12. You're right, it's not that terrible when it comes to the scale of awfulness! However, I don't think there is an appropriate way to use that bit. Granted, I work my horses in a simple snaffle.

    My cannibalistic fence jumper has rather clearly reinforced the idea that the aids are developed through training and repetition. I've been riding her off of a modified Dr. Cooks bitless bridle and have slowly been introducing the feel of rein aids throughout movements. My pony has a lot of potential, but the really aggressive personality that would take it out on her rider if she felt mistreated. I'm glad that no one was ever brave enough to work with her, as the things she can think of are rather scary.

    I think we should all vote for more patience and less force. Our horses would be happier for it!

  13. wolfandterriers - your pony sounds really cool and she's lucky to have you :-) those are the kind of horses that you just can't force - maybe more riders would learn patience and less force (not to mention humility ;-) if they had to ride a horse like that once in their lives! good luck with her!

  14. Page 36 Chronicle of the Horse, 2/27/09: George Morris extols virtue of Automatic Release. Someone must have alerted him to your entry on the subject!

    It is interesting that he decries that "throw everything forward" look in the article but all his students do it

  15. OT: would you mind putting up a widget with your archived blogs somewhere on the side? It makes it a lot easier for me to cruise around and read your old posts. Under layout its one of the first widgets in the list, I think.

  16. amy - that is too funny! i hope someone did tell him ;-) but of course he'd never admit it - he probably thinks it's all HIS idea, lol! i didn't renew my subscription to COTH because every edition had something in it that made me want to write a strongly worded letter :-\ but i may try to get my hands on a copy now - after all, i can always rant on my blog now when i read something that makes me nuts ;-)

    gillian - thanks for the suggestion! i have added an archive to the sidebar below horse news and above awards. you can also search by specific topic in the labels section if you do not find what you are looking for :-)

  17. amy - ps, i am using a pathetic crest release in these photos (poor mellon,) but at that point in my career it was the only thing i knew - i have since amended my ways!

  18. They would tell me, “you’re too good a rider to waste your time with a horse you’ll never get anywhere with.”

    I think that makes you an even better rider by "dancing with the date that brought you" so to speak.

  19. bay horse - i hope so. for me it became less about proving to everyone else that i was a good rider and more about being the best rider i could be for my particular horse. i mean, we didn't really 'get anywhere' - at least by their standards, but if i had gone out and won all the big classes on some other, easier horse, i wouldn't have felt i earned it. i really think mellon helped make me the rider i became because he made me earn it :-)

  20. Hi -- Just found your blog recently and love your posts. Would you consider doing one on longe line training as a follow-up to your helpful description of working a horse "long and low"?


  21. Moving story. I'm so glad Mellon is with you. He deserves his new name.

  22. ho horseredux - thanks! i would love to do a post on longe training! i'm in the middle of starting my horses back after having the winter off, so the timing is perfect :-)

  23. bhm - thanks. i'm glad he's with me too :-)

  24. Awesome story! I love the part when he jumped that final jump when he clearly didn't have to...what a guy. You have a wonderful relationship. Thanks for reminding us to appreciate the horse in the moment.

  25. Enjoyed the Mission Impossible story! :-)



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