Riding With Life: Melanie Smith Taylor

Photo © Tish Quirk

BY ANN JAMIESON

The cover photo on her website says it all. It’s not of Melanie Smith and Calypso earning the gold medal in L.A., or of Melanie on the Olympic podium. Instead, Melanie Smith Taylor is cuddling up to one of her broodmares in the paddock. To Melanie, it’s all about the relationship between horses and humans.

Melanie explains, “I want my students to understand how a horse thinks and feels on the inside, with better awareness of what’s important to the horse. The horse’s well-being is foremost in our thoughts. What do I need to do to maximize his athletic ability without causing tension or concern?”

Learning to Ride

Born in Germantown, Tennessee, Melanie’s first introduction to horses came about on her parents’ small farm when her mother started a riding school.  “She got all the books out of the library to learn how to teach English” Melanie recalls, “as she had ridden only Western growing up on an Iowa farm.”

Melanie began riding at around two years old, and “rode anything and everything I could get on.” She participated in Pony Club, and attended Pony Club rallies. Formal lessons were strictly with her mom until she attended clinics with George Morris in 1968 and 1969 on the other side of the state in Knoxville. In 1970, Melanie became a working student for him.  “I had to talk him into taking me,” says Melanie, “because he called me a country bumpkin with just a plain bay horse.”

That plain bay horse was The Irishman, who became the A/O National Jumper Champion that year.

Success at the Top

After working for George, Melanie moved to Stillmeadow Farm in Stonington, Connecticut, owned by Neil and Helen Estace. “They had bought my hunter, Bootlegger for Helen’s daughter Pamela, who also rode with George. I had been champion at Madison Square Garden in the A/O Hunters in 1971 with Bootlegger and George thought he would be a good fit for Pamela. George then suggested the Eustaces buy the  jumper prospect, Radnor II, for me to ride. We had a lot of success and I enjoyed a wonderful relationship with Neil and Helen for many years. They continued to buy a string of jumpers for me that included Val de Loire, Vivaldi and Calypso.”

Along with the horses, Neil Eustace’s niece, Syd, became her groom. “I was really lucky to have her throughout the years,” declares Melanie.  “Syd was the ultimate hardworking, reliable, and true horsewoman. We were a team.” Radnor II (Radar) was the first horse Syd groomed. Melanie and Radnor II were the leading money winners on the AGA tour in 1976 and were the second reserves for the 1976 Olympic team.

In the 1970’s, importing horses from Europe was a brand new idea. Melanie’s horses were so successful that they helped inspire other riders to search for horses abroad. Val de Loire was Horse of the Year in 1978 and Melanie won the American Grand Prix Rider of the Year that same year.  The duo won a Gold medal at the Pan American Games in 1979.

Calypso, sired by Lucky Boy, one of the pre-eminent sires of the era, competed with Melanie in his first Grand Prix at Southampton that same year. They won, and followed their win with a victory in the American Jumping Derby later that month.

In the winter of 1980/81, the Eustace’s daughter Pamela, along with her husband, decided to take over the business at Stillmeadow.  At the same time Melanie was offered and took a position at Windrush Farm in Litchfield, Connecticut.  Calypso did not come with her at first. “I was heartbroken to lose my wonderful string of horses, especially Calypso, but incredibly fortunate that Windrush later purchased Calypso from Stillmeadow for me to continue to ride.”

Melanie is one of only two riders to win the Triple Crown of Show Jumping: the American Invitational,  the International Show Jumping Derby, and the American Gold Cup, and the only one to win them all on the same horse, Calypso. She was named the US Olympic Committee Sportswoman of the Year after winning the World Cup Final in 1982, and was also inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.

Melanie and Calypso winning Olympic gold. Photo © Tish Quirk.

Olympic Gold

Although Melanie and Calypso were chosen for the Olympic Show Jumping team for the 1980 Olympics to be held in Moscow, they were unable to attend when the United States, along with 64 other countries, boycotted the event due to Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. Although Melanie understood, it was still “a huge disappointment.”

She did compete with Calypso at the Alternate Olympics in the Netherlands, bringing home the Individual Bronze in Show Jumping.

Four years later she got to experience “one of the most special moments an athlete can have” when she was chosen for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

“My goal had always been to win the team gold medal over the individual gold,” Melanie explained. And that’s just what she did.  August 7 is a day Melanie will always remember. Calypso  had suffered an injury upon arrival in L.A., but he put in the round of his life. “Sheer heart and determination” resulted in a clear first round while anchoring the team and bringing them from the back to the front of the pack as they headed into the second round. The brilliant rides of her teammates Leslie Howard on Albany, Joe Fargis on Touch of Class, and Conrad Homfeld on Abdullah, allowed them to finish the competition with no further need for her to jump: they had already captured the gold medal.

Not only did they capture the gold medal, it was the first team gold medal in Olympic Show Jumping history ever won by the United States.

“It was such a thrill to be on that team,” Melanie remembers, “and I’ll never forget the national anthem being played for us as we stood on the podium. I get chills thinking about it to this day.”

The stables at Wildwood Farm

Life on the Farm

Melanie retired from competition shortly after that in 1987, when Windrush Farm went bankrupt and all the horses were sold in a dispersal sale. She moved back to Tennessee where she “met my late husband, Lee Taylor. Lee owned Wildwood Farm where over 100 horses resided. Lee was a businessman who played polo as a hobby and raised all of his own mostly  Thoroughbred horses. After we married in 1989, Lee took early retirement when the family business was sold and together we began to concentrate on developing a better Horsemanship program for our farm.”

Lee also gave her a very special wedding gift. Calypso had been sent to Rodney Jenkins to be sold, and Lee found out where he was all on his own and worked out a deal to get him back to Melanie to retire on their 350 acre farm.

He had been Melanie’s most special equine partner, sharing in Olympic gold and inspiring riders and horse people throughout the world. “His greatest features were his heart and his mind. He had the heart of a lion, and the mind of the greatest athletes…those athletes that can stay cool under pressure yet bring their best game at the most important events. He seemed to be intuitive when it was a big moment as I could feel him “bloom” over the warm-up fences. I always knew then that he was on. I always felt that on “Lyps” I could win any class anywhere in the world against any competition if it were our day. He was just that good and gave me that much confidence.”

“Lyps was quiet and lazy to ride except in parades where he would launch into the air and try to unseat me. But in the ring, he loved to attack the course. He was a small horse, barely 16 hands, that needed a good bit of pace to the jumps to give him scope. I would normally gallop into the ring to rev him up but he would walk out on a loose rein. The faster he went the higher he jumped so I would say jump-offs were his specialty.”

Calypso lived out the rest of his life with Melanie and Lee, reaching nearly 30 before he died of natural causes.

Calypso in retirement

Educating Others

While retiring from competition, Melanie had not retired from the horse world. During the Olympics in LA, she had been interviewed by a reporter from ABC. In 1988, the man had moved to NBC, which had the rights to the next Olympics. The network needed someone to do the equestrian commentary (along with William Steinkraus) at the Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. The man, remembering Melanie, asked if she might be interested and invited her to New York City for an interview. Working with Bill was her “trial” and she passed with flying colors, moving on to do it for the past 31 years for different networks (including ESPN, Animal Planet and NBC Sports) and events including World Cups, World Championships, Grand Prix, and Olympic Games.

“It’s been really fun,” says Melanie, “I still get the same adrenaline rush as if I were riding covering the Olympics.”

In addition to commentating, Melanie judges, and teaches clinics throughout the country. “I enjoy everything I do,” she says, “but I always preferred riding over teaching. Yet now I find I can help more horses through teaching than riding.”

Melanie says her clinics are “a combination of teaching both horsemanship ideals and technical skills. She works on groundwork first, “to help horses develop better balance, fitness and understanding of the aids while the rider maintains a safer vantage point.” In order to influence his body, we must have the horse’s mind with us. Groundwork helps us work on the outside of the horse to get to the inside and become their place of peace before we put a foot in the stirrup. All the exact exercises can then be applied with the rider mounted. Embracing good groundwork and flatwork helps you truly connect with the horse and develop better awareness, feel, timing, balance and accuracy.”

Melanie, along with her husband Lee, playing polo.

Melanie proceeds to poles on the ground and gymnastics or lines and courses depending on the day and the level of horses and riders. Always, she strives for rideability and precision, with the horse adjusting his stride in a calm and relaxed manner.

After Lee died, the idea of writing a book that focused on “a day in the life” with our horses began to emerge for Melanie.  “I have always taken care of my own horses and considered myself a decent horsewoman. But during the years following my competition days, I feel I have developed a more complete connection and understanding of the horse and what is most important to him.

Riding with Life: Lessons from the Horse,” has garnered all five star reviews on Amazon. While a training guide, it also expounds on Melanie’s theory of horsemanship. As her Amazon page for the book describes, it “shares her unique program for setting horse and rider up for success. Blending her in-depth knowledge of groundwork and flatwork with her vast experience in the hunter/jumper discipline, she explains how to achieve a harmonious partnership with your horse and realize his full potential: whether you’re a weekend trail rider or serious competitor.”

Whether riding, training, commentating, or breeding, one statement sums up Melanie’s philosophy. “My goal has always been to be the best horseman I can be.”