May 26, 2024

How Foxhunting Paved Melanie Smith’s Path Up the Levels of Eventing

Melanie Smith and OTTB Shakedown Street. USEA/Lindsay Berreth photo

“I always say that my secret weapon out competing is bad weather and bad footing,” said Melanie Smith. Though the Georgia-based rider is a competitor by nature, having completed three 50K Ultramarathons, it was a non-competitive sport that made the most profound impact on where she is today. Decades of foxhunting taught her to trust her horse, fine-tune her cross-country skills, and navigate tricky conditions.

As a child, Smith rode at a hunter/jumper facility in Huntsville, Alabama, but her first Pony Club partner, a little Quarter Horse named Sue, kindled her love of cross-country riding. He was game to tackle anything, though Smith soon learned his real joy was found outside the ring. Since several of her fellow Pony Clubbers had close ties with local hunts, and the club’s summer camps were based at the Mooreland Hunt Club (Leighton, Alabama), she got a first-hand look into the sport.

“We had fun shows on the kennel grounds, and our Pony Club volunteered for hunt club trail clean up days and various other hunt fundraisers,” Smith said. “Sue just loved being out on those trails and took right to hunting like he’d done it his whole life.”

She and Sue dabbled in Pony Club show jumping rallies, but her attention turned to eventing and she did her first recognized horse trial in the mid 1990’s at Flat Creek Ranch in Georgia. Former U.S. team member and team selector Jim Graham lived nearby in Florence, Alabama, and Smith began riding with him when she was 12 years old until she went off to college at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. “Jim was also, at the time, a Pony Club national examiner, which was a huge help for my Pony Club ratings,” said Smith.

Smith also connected with two other lifelong eventing supporters: Ann and Roger Haller. After a few years of their coaching and guidance, she passed her Pony Club HA and A ratings. Soon after, she began riding with Werner and Marjolein Geven at Poplar Place Farm in 2000. “Werner was very helpful with my quirky and hot Thoroughbred Tommy,” Smith recalled.

Melanie Smith and Shakedown Street completed the Cosequin Lexington CCI4*-S for the second time this year.

In college, Tommy injured his shoulder, but Smith was still able to get saddle time, catch-riding her friend’s sale hunt horses in her free time with the local Full Cry Hounds in Tuscumbia, Alabama. After finishing up college with a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a Bachelor’s in nursing, she worked as a Burn ICU nurse for five years in Mobile, Alabama, and Greeley, Colorado. She then moved back to Alabama with the idea of getting a masters in critical-care nursing, but an opportunity to take a job as a professional whipper-in, in Caledon, Ontario, sounded like a better idea, so she headed north to Canada.

Foxhunting professionally opened Smith’s eyes to a whole new way of enjoying nature and wildlife. “I’ve always been a very outdoorsy person, but this was next level,” she says. “It is an incredible experience to learn the individual hound’s personalities at home in the kennels and to ride beside them out in the woods and see the strengths and weaknesses of the individual hounds while at work,” she said.

Smith returned south a few years later, taking a whippers-in position in Georgia. She brought her two off-the-track horses with her, one of them being her beloved one-eyed chestnut, Red, named for the outdoor amphitheater Red Rocks in Colorado. The other gelding she brought was her current four-star horse, Shakedown Street, whom she got as a 3-year-old in 2013.

Known as “Mouse” because of his 15.2-hand stature, the little bay Canadian-bred gelding (Survivalist x My Dear Rose) had raced unsuccessfully four times and needed a new career. Smith sought a second hunt horse, and Mouse looked like he could fit the bill, so she brought him home on a handshake. “From day 1, Mouse was curious about the hounds,” she recalled. “He would march across the pasture to greet them in the mornings when we were out walking them.”

Even though it seemed as if he’d found his calling, it took the pair a little time to forge a partnership. “He had a bit of a temper and broke countless halters and lead ropes when he was tied,” said Smith. Fortunately, he was straight forward under saddle, and by the fall of his 3-year-old year, she was hunting Mouse independently. The gelding loathed being close to others, so going in the field with other riders was never an option for them, but he served as Smith’s whip horse for the next eight seasons.

Smith has always schooled her hunt horses in the arena, doing flatwork and polishing their jumping skills, and since Mouse showed promise, she began taking him to events and trained with the Gevens at Poplar every week—which she still does. Mouse thrived in his new job and easily progressed up the levels. “Being smaller in stature, we did not really know how far up the levels Mouse would go,” Smith said, “but he always kept answering all the questions without a fuss.”

Out in the huntfield, Mouse learned countless skills that played a pivotal role in his eventing career. “It’s the life skills like galloping around for three, four, or five hours in the pouring rain while coping with creeks, rocks, hounds, machinery, roadways, road traffic, and everything in between that made galloping on cross-country over a manicured surface feel like a dream,” said Smith.

Melanie Smith and Shakedown Street have competed successfully at Prix St. Georges in pure dressage.

Smith knows that foxhunting also instilled the same foundation for her as a rider. “You learn your horse and what they are capable of and make it work.” And since hunting was her job, she had to make it work. “I had to have a horse that was capable of thinking for themselves and dealing with all the non-perfect environments,” she said.

“It was normal for me to be galloping down a rocky trail with my reins in one hand trying to keep up with the hounds and communicating on a radio, or even stopping the hounds by cracking a hunt whip in the air, simultaneously. Obviously it is not always like that, but you certainly learn how to stay in balance on your horse. You learn how to use your body to help a tricky, fast-paced situation. You learn how to navigate your horse in unusual environments, because you have to or you’ll fall off.”

Now, tackling Advanced-level cross-country courses with gusto is Mouse’s favorite part of the sport, though show jumping has become trickier at the top levels. “Making the distances on a small horse requires such a forward ride and a lot of precision,” Smith said. “Dressage is always a work in progress for a Thoroughbred who is bred to go fast and straight. But bless his giant heart, Mousie does try his hardest.”

Their training paid off over the last few years, and they picked up back-to-back USEF Eventing Thoroughbred of the Year awards in 2022 and 2023, as well as taking home top honors at the U.S. Eventing Association Area 3 Championships at Intermediate in 2020 and 2023. They’re also in their second year competing at the Prix St. Georges level—last year they won the Champion USDF All Breeds Award for The Jockey Club, and Smith earned her USDF Silver Medal.

This year, the pinnacle of their spring season was the Defender Kentucky Three-Day Event, where they completed the Cosequin Lexington CCI4*-S for the second time. Smith competed at the Kentucky Horse Park numerous times in her Pony Club years, but realized that the four-star is quite a different experience. “It is such a legendary show,” she said. “The competitors, both horses and humans, are treated like royalty. I pretty much had goosebumps the whole week and caught myself saying ‘This is so cool’ quite a few times.” Not a bad place to celebrate Mouse’s 68th recognized event.

Melanie Smith paid homage to her foxhunting roots with Shakedown Street at the 2023 Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event.

Mouse may be Smith’s top horse at the moment, but she has future stars on the rise including a 7-year-old Irish Sport Horse she brought over from Ireland a few years ago and two homebred fillies. She also finds time to give her friends a helping hand. Last year, she temporarily took over the ride on the Connemara stallion, TBS Declan Pondi, while his owner Megan Buchanan Lichty was on maternity leave.

Smith describes the talented pony (who also foxhunts with Lichty) as a “super compact sports car,” and after a successful season together, helped him earn a sixth-place finish in the Training Horse division at the USEA American Eventing Championships presented by Nutrena Feeds (Lexington, Kentucky) as well as the USEF Purebred Eventing Connemara of the Year Award.

While Smith runs a small boutique-style training business in Gay, Georgia, she’s also been working towards getting her expired nursing license reinstated after being away from the industry for a few years. “I should be completing that this summer and can be back in the hospital taking care of people,” she said. And while she’s not working, she enjoys cooking, art, and sewing stock ties—though more often than not, she’s using her needle skills to repair ripped turnout blankets. “I guess you could say I am a modern pioneer woman,” she said with a laugh.

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Quick Links: June 15-16

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