BY NINA FEDRIZZI
Barbecue is serious business in the Midwest, and St. Louis, Missouri might well be the capital. At Mechlin Farm in Wright City, less than an hour from St. Louis’s iconic downtown Gateway Arch, barbecue is still religion, but with a higher sense of purpose.
Here, the invitation is open to everyone. It’s just about showing up, maybe bringing a dish or a case of beer, and pulling up a chair. “We have dinners, and barbecues, and everyone in our program [is welcome]—whether it’s a staff member, team member, student, parent, owner. They know that whatever they need, big or small, they can call Kenny, and he’ll do it for them,” says rider/trainer Sarah Mechlin Duhon of her father.
‘Kenny,’ might be the Midwest’s equestrian equivalent of Prince, Madonna, or Cher, in that he needs only one name and little by way of introduction. The Mechlin family patriarch has a hand in horse hauling, hay and grain sales, and manure removal, and if you’ve attended any shows within a stone’s throw of the Mississippi River, you probably have the name ‘Kenny Mechlin’ saved in your phone contacts. Even still, if you happen to be from a town a little further from the flatlands and nearer to a coast, the ‘Mechlin’ name still might ring a bell, and there’s a very good reason for that.
After leaving home at age 20, Sarah Mechlin had the chance to work under top professionals including Patty and Richard Rogers, Mindy Darst, Heather Irvine, and Otis Brown, climbing the ranks from groom to barn manager, and eventually into an assistant rider/trainer position. She’s since made her name in the national hunter derby ring, with big wins at Country Heir in Kentucky and the Gulf Coast Winter Classic in Mississippi. In 2012, Sarah was the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) High Performance Hunter Champion and was also named the High Score Emerging Professional at WEF’s Palm Beach Hunter Spectacular. But training has always been Sarah’s primary passion, and in 2012, she returned home to her family’s farm outside St. Louis to set up her own shop, much to her mother’s delight.
When Sarah moved away to work, says Sarah’s mother, Connie Mechlin, “that was the saddest day of my life. I just thought my world had ended. Kenny kept saying, ‘She’ll be back. She’ll be back.’ I said, ‘No she won’t! She’s riding amazing horses and she’s with wonderful people! Why would she want to come back here?’ Low and behold, Kenny was right, as usual.”
The reason for the prodigal trainer’s about-face? A subtle and supportive push from her soon-to-be-husband—and all-around horse show Renaissance man—Mo Duhon. (“God bless Mo!” jokes Connie).
“I wanted so badly, my whole life, to be a show rider, and to be a top-level trainer,” Sarah says of her initial hesitancy to return home. “My biggest fear was that I would come back to St. Louis and be a big fish in a small pond, and never really see the kind of success that I had dreamt about having as a professional horseman.”
“I had no intention of starting my own business at home. I was maybe going to own a couple of horses, and then go catch ride, which I did for the first year and a half or so. But then I moved home, and my friend [and client] Sue Busse said, ‘You can’t do that, you need a business here, this area needs you.’ The rest is history.”
Today, Mechlin Farm boards anywhere between 20-25 horses at a time, training 10 or more clients, and carrying a few young hunters for sale. In recent years, Sarah’s horses and riders have earned numerous accolades at top venues around the country, including Reserve Champion in 2015 in the 3’3” Juniors at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show; Champion in 2016 in the 3’3” Juniors at the National Horse Show; and 2019 and 2020 Reserve Circuit Championships in the Older Small Junior hunters at WEF.
According to Sarah, a general flexibility and “big picture” mentality is what sets Mechlin Farm apart. It’s a mindset that extends to training duties, as well, with Assistant Trainer Ali McCool sharing equally in the coaching of juniors and amateur riders at every level. “We [don’t] have a mold that we expect each horse and rider to fit into,” Sarah adds. “It’s a program that tries to adapt itself to each horse and person that we teach.
“Sometimes, the kids respond better to the pressure I put on them,” says Sarah, while other times, “they respond better to a little bit more laid-back approach with Ali. We don’t ever expect it to be one way or the other. We kind of let them find their groove.”
Though Sarah says that top veterinary care, careful management, and making sure her horses “feel good in their bodies” is a cornerstone of her program, she also understands that there are different types of riders. “I feel like there are two different kinds of juniors: kids that want to know everything that I know, and then kids that want to have the results that I can give them. I don’t begrudge either one.”
Two kids that do want to know everything that Sarah does—and more—are her 16-year-old working student, Katrina Shulda, and her niece, Emma Mechlin. Shulda, the reigning Zone 7 Equitation Champion, owns a horse with Sarah and homeschools while assisting with grooming and managing duties at the farm. Meanwhile, Emma Mechlin, 12, is quickly making a name for herself in the Junior hunter divisions, earning numerous wins and tricolors in St. Louis, WEF, and beyond. “The girls spend every day at the barn. When we’re at horse shows, they get up at 5 a.m. with the grooms, and [sometimes], they don’t finish the barn until 10 p.m.,” Sarah says. “I’m 100 percent trying to teach them all those things that I know.
“Teaching, for sure, is one of my favorite parts of the job,” says Sarah. “Don’t get me wrong, we do this because we like to show and win, but you have to appreciate all sides of it. Those days at home, trying to get better from the last horse show to the next, to me, are as fun as going to the horse show and feeling that hard work pay off.”
A New Leaf
The 2021 year was a big one for the Mechlin/Duhon clan in more ways than one. In March, Mo and Sarah celebrated the birth of their daughter, Dorothy (Dottie), who joins her 4-year-old big brother Ben. It’s also the year that Mo Duhon will officially take over ownership of the time-honored St. Louis Horse Show Series, a role he’s essentially trained for over decades.
“Learning something new at an older age isn’t always the easiest thing,” says Mo, but “I’m figuring out my years of experience have kind of propelled me toward this path.” Mo cut his teeth working jump crews and in-gates at top shows around the country, including the 2017 Longines FEI World Cup™ Final in Omaha, Nebraska. He went on to found and operate his own jump design business, something he brings—along with his longtime friendship with renowned course designer Skip Bailey—to his new role.
Former St. Louis show-runner John McQueen actually officiated Mo and Sarah’s wedding, so it seemed only fitting that he should also bless this next phase of their professional lives as well. “Queenie is like family to us. Taking on these events was an easy decision, and I think that John trusted me to be able to do a good job here,” Mo says.
In addition to the well-known winter series (held December- February), which provides a more cost-effective local alternative to Florida circuits, St. Louis Horse Shows will also host multiple events this fall, including the Zone 7 North Finals in October. Top on Mo’s to-do list for his first year: working with the National Equestrian Center and GGT-Footing™ to ensure that St. Louis competitors have a top-notch surface on which to ride, and expanding the show’s family-friendly offerings while working to cultivate a rapport with each and every exhibitor at the venue.
“We’re a family-oriented business that has a vested interest in the success of everybody in our area, because our business touches every part of our area,” says Mo, adding that his goal is ultimately to grow the series’ offerings with exhibitor’s parties, expanded prize money, scholarships for young competitors, and creating a developing equitation series and St. Louis circuit final. According to his family, there’s nobody better suited in terms of skill set and natural charisma for the job.
“I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like Mo!” says his mother-in-law, Connie. In fact, Connie says, she knew after their first cup of coffee as a family together that Mo was the guy for Sarah. “He’s just so knowledgeable about the in-gate, and the ring, and how it should all be run.” Mo taking over those horse shows “was an opportunity waiting to happen, and he’s going to take it places it’s never gone before,” she adds.
Cornhole & Life Lessons
For her part, Connie acts as the glue that binds the Mechlin/Duhon clan together, helping (alongside Mo’s mother, who lives close by), to watch the couple’s kids during the day, running errands and navigating airport pick-ups for clients, and even hosting Mo’s family during their permanent move from Louisiana to the St. Louis area. “There was no ‘get acquainted’ period with us,” Connie says of their families’ first meeting. The invitation is now open, all the time. “Anytime we’re fixing dinner or barbecuing, it’s like, ‘Mo, what are your parents doing? We’re cooking!’ We’re very blessed in that aspect.”
To be sure, an emphasis on kindness and good, old-fashioned values, in the most welcoming sense, isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind at a competitive show barn. But if there is a common thread that unites all facets of the Mechlin/Duhon business, that might be it. In fact, when asked about the most important lesson she tries to pass on to her students, Sarah doesn’t hesitate.
“Sportsmanship,” she says. “It’s just about being a team player and wanting your barnmate and their horse to go out and have the best round they can have, not hoping they do poorly. The more good wishes that you have for your comrades, the more success you end up creating for yourself.”
That may seem like good common sense, but at Mechlin Farm, students are accepted as they are. Not every person may be naturally inclined to sweep the aisle without being asked or polish their trophy case of sportsmanship awards, by they are expected to learn by example. “It takes time, it’s delicate,” Sarah adds. “You can’t make every person in the program fit a certain mold, but what you can do is to try to develop an atmosphere that produces a certain type of attitude.”
Two prime examples: one of Sarah’s former juniors, who now owns an investment horse with Mechlin, helps to nanny the couple’s children while they’re at horse shows. Even closer to home, Sarah and Mo’s young son Ben doesn’t ride, but comes to the barn every day just to chat, pitch in, and be a part of the team. “A lot of the juniors that have come out of the program, their parents have called me, and said, ‘Thank you for helping us to raise a productive and confident young woman,’” Sarah says.
“We have our fair share of crazy, like any family does. But we are also a representation of healthy adult relationships, and how a family unit [can] work together. I feel like the respect and the love that we all have for each other kind of helps to carry the momentum through to everyone else.
“They all know that we’re really all here for each other.”
Photos by Andrew Ryback Photography and Courtesy Mechlin Farms
*This story was originally published in the August 2021 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!