By Olivia Airhart
The equestrian industry is constantly undergoing transformation as seasoned veterans of the sport pass the baton to the next generation of young and hungry athletes. As the industry evolves, new philosophies and aspirations for the sport’s future are starting to take root.
In between these two driving forces there are a select few professionals who are bridging the gap in an effort to keep the craft of horsemanship alive in an ever-changing sport. Longstanding equestrian industry icon, Michael Meller of MMM Horseman and QBS Equestrian, is one of them. From his prestigious ‘M. Michael Meller Style of Riding Award,’ to some of his most famous mounts—such as Chance STE Hermelle, who was developed with QBS Equestrian veteran Michael Morrissey and just recently sold to Natalie Dean, as well as other CSI5* mounts such as Flairvona, who was developed by The 500 Hats LLC with Alison Firestone Robitaille—Meller owes his success in developing some of the most successful Grand Prix show jumping horses in the United States to his unique approach in developing a solid mount from the ground up.
Meller’s primary focus in running MMM Horseman as well as QBS Equestrian—which he operates alongside his friend, client, and fellow owner, Dennis Sisco—is sourcing and developing young horses for the highest levels of the sport. While this is the goal for nearly all equestrians involved in the ownership ring, Meller’s methodically precise methods for sourcing, partnering, and training mounts are what draws eyes from the rest of the equestrian community. Once a prized achievement, riders developing and training their own young horses seems to no longer be the mainstream method for reaching the Grand Prix level.
“When I was young, riders were starving to develop a young horse, starving to bring a new one along,” says Meller. “Now, people just want the plane to land and have the five-star star Grand Prix horse waltz into their lap. They just want to go to the big horse shows and go to the top of the sport right away, even though they have so much talent to bring along young horses behind them.”
“It is no question as to a lack of passion from the new generation of riders, just a choice in how to apply that passion. Not every rider wants to be or has the time to train and develop these young mounts. If they learned how to do it properly like we used to, they would have a train behind them, and like a caboose, year after year they would have a new top mount. I believe that the truest form of horsemanship is to leave a legacy for the next generation, and I feel it is my duty to pass on my niche to the up and coming athletes and future leaders of the sport in an effort to not lose the art of horsemanship. The behind-the-scenes efforts, mistakes, and hard work come before the glamour. Some aren’t patient enough to learn the craft and perfect their craft. There is nothing wrong with that approach, it is not for every rider, but when I am developing a young horse, I look for the riders that love the sport as a whole, and not just the high intensity shining lights aspect of it. They want the attention and the fame like all the riders do, but they want to work for it, and are willing to wait for it.”
Continues Meller: “The sport has become a revolving door, passing one Grand Prix champion through to the next. To make it to the top of the sport it is no secret that a special mount is required, but the process in which these mounts are now acquired has drained the sport of its gritty nature beneath the glamorous surface. Jumping straight into the winner’s circle has left a shallow puddle of the sport that used to be about more than a blue ribbon performance.”
Meller adds that he believes there’s nothing wrong with the direction the sport is headed—but stresses the importance of following a successful European model in bringing up young horses. “I think the approach that horse shows take in developing and offering these young jumper programs has to be unilateral throughout the world. We have to be jumping the heights comparable to what everyone is jumping in Europe and show them in the rings that you’re developing them to ride in. They get that experience more frequently being in the big Grand Prix rings.”
“They can’t just get bumped in the little satellite rings at these shows for the bulk of their development, because when they turn seven years old and they have to start to jump big and go into these massive, intimidating rings, and nothing was done to prepare them for it and that’s a tragedy. I see huge variations in the height of the course as well as the technicality of the courses. There is no clear structure. The Europeans are setting their horses up for success as if they were going to compete in the finals in the FEI WBFSH Jumping World Breeding Championship for Young Horses in Lanaken, Belgium. We don’t set it up that way here in the United States. There’s no education. Not every horse is cut out to be a Grand Prix horse and that is okay, but you cannot change the model so that everyone can get around. The model is a means of weeding out the horses that do not make the cut.”
It has long been known that most of the top young horses are being sourced from Europe, and with the saturation in the market of top breeding, and reasonable price tags, a potential buyer is sure to toss a coin and hit a dozen top-level mounts without even looking. But Meller notes that the key to uncovering the inner champion of each horse lies in the ability to match a horse and rider.
“My program is more of a collaboration because I like involving the riders with the horses. They are symbiotic. Most people buy a talented horse and pair it with their rider no matter if the pair aligns, the rider learns how to manage that horse, and the goal at the end is to sell them,” Meller says. “For me, I try to buy the horse while always thinking of the sport, thinking that sometimes you sell the dream and sometimes you go and you can keep it in the sport for the rider. This allows the rider to take their time, get to know the horse, not rush it and be invested, then they are all in it for the right reasons.”
“I’m doing it for the horse and the sport—that’s my engine. That’s my core. And, I think if you do it right for the horse, you buy the right horse, you give it the best care and the best home you can give it, that is enough to develop a champion. You just have to really invest and believe.”
While Meller’s investments in the sport do turn a profit, as he has aided in producing some of the sport’s most successful mounts, he ultimately sets his sights on the betterment and progression of the sport with hopes of making the young jumper divisions more educational and competitive in the United States. Meller has harnessed the sport’s brightest young talents, crafting teams that function as one, working with talented riders such as Ali Wolff, Catherine Tyree, Daisy Farish, Heather Caristo-Williams, Kamille Marcussen and Matt Williams. He’s also partnered with and invested in athletes such as Andrew Bourns’ young horse program.
The end result of the development of horses by the MMM Horseman and QBS Equestrian? Young horses who become stellar Grand Prix mounts, and a system that is sure to continue to produce top mounts well into the next generation of athletes.
“An Extraordinary Feeling”
“The winners are not always the best horses,” says Meller. “It takes time to develop a horse and I have great sponsors and partners, like Dennis Sisco, allowing us to give the horse that time. You can’t rush it. You see so many failures in rushing it. There are no shortcuts.
By giving these riders and the athletes an opportunity to ride a future Grand Prix horse as a young horse, that is an extraordinary feeling, watching them progress and become what you dream and work so hard for. That is something a lot of riders never got the chance to do.
Imagine having the chance to ride a CSI5* mount when it is four or five years old, use all of your tools in your skillset, feed the horse, nurture it, and help it grow. It requires so much information and knowledge and an extreme amount of patience and attention to detail.
Once these riders have experienced that, they have a formula for true success in the sport. They know what it’s supposed to feel like. All they have to do is just keep on encouraging the good and that is what being a true horseman is all about.”
*This story was originally published in the March 2022 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!