How Nicolette Merle-Smith is Carrying on the Legacy of Her Family Farm by Producing Top Quality, Amateur-Friendly Horses

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Fortune Cookie at the Rocking Horse HT in January 2021. Photo by Xpress Foto

BY April Bilodeau

Nicolette Merle-Smith has always had a place in the saddle. As the daughter of well-known horsemen Grosvenor and Rosemarie Merle-Smith, the Mongol Derby veteran developed a strong foundation with horses at a young age. Her first love has always been foxhunting, but she also rides and trains for eventing, hunters, jumpers, and dressage.

“As a kid and young teen, my mom would have me ride the sale horses because people were more likely to buy horses a kid could ride, but it was a really great experience for me. I rode loads of horses,” Merle-Smith tells The Plaid Horse.

Her parents were importing horses from Ireland as well as PMU babies from Canada. Merle-Smith found her first big success on the offspring of a PMU mare named M-S Reddy Fox. She and the Appaloosa/Thoroughbred cross rode and competed in several disciplines including first level dressage, preliminary eventing, hunter derbies, and foxhunting first flight.

Nicolette Merle-Smith at home with Chinggis Khan – Photo courtesy of Nicolette Merle-Smith

“He wasn’t the type that was going to be an upper-level horse, but he put my name on the map,” says Merle-Smith of the gelding. “Together, we got my lowest dressage score to date, a 20.5.” M-S Reddy Fox went on to inspire the annual Safe Harbor Award, which is given to the most amateur-friendly horse in the Young Event Horse Series, before being sold to the UK in 2009.

Following her success on M-S Reddy Fox, Merle-Smith purchased the large pony Ganymede as a six-year-old. The Connemara/Thoroughbred cross took her to the CCI* Eventing level, and in 2012 they competed together in their first Intermediate.

“She is only 14.2 hands, but she would jump anything I pointed her at,” she says. Produced by Merle-Smith, Ganymede went on to win the Theodore O’Connor Trophy for the USEA Pony of the Year title twice with her new Junior/Young Rider owner, and the Tre Awain Halfbred Hall of Fame Award (American Connemara Pony Society), for a lifetime of competition achievement in the United States Equestrian Federation. “It took me a long time, but that pony made me believe in myself,” she says. “I truly believe now that I can produce one heck of a horse.” And now, she’s added breeding them to her resume.

Fortune Cookie

Merle-Smith began her breeding journey at her family’s Merle-Smith Sporthorses in 2013 with her first ever homebred, Fortune Cookie.

While Merle-Smith was competing one of her mother’s homebreds on cross country day at Red Hills Horse Trials in Tallahassee, FL, in March 2013, Cookie was born. She won her division that weekend and went to celebrate the victory at a Chinese restaurant. “At the end of dinner, the waitress handed me a fortune cookie. I said, ‘That’s her name! Fortune Cookie!’” The 15.3 hh chestnut mare is special to Merle-Smith not only because she is her first homebred, but also because she is the daughter of her famous and beloved Ganymede. She is sired by her mother’s late stallion, Concerto Grosso, a Holsteiner with whom Merle-Smith did a bit of competing in eventing as well.

A young Concerto Grosso

“I like starting them from the very moment they hit the ground,” she says. “Teaching them to lead, teaching them how to pick up their feet, getting on a horse trailer, how to stand on the cross ties. Everything starts from the very beginning.”

“Cookie isn’t what I expected when I bred Ganymede to Concerto, but she is exactly what I needed. She is an actual jack of all trades, and literal master of them all,” adds Merle-Smith. Fortune Cookie is a wonderful lesson horse, novice eventer, amateur hunter, second level dressage horse, and very safe foxhunter. “She is one of the most fun horses I have ever ridden, and she will never be for sale, but I will offer custom foals from her because there needs to be more of these horses in this world,” says Merle-Smith.

Raven Sky

In 2012, a friend of Merle-Smith’s introduced her to equestrian legend Denny Emerson. Emerson was teaching lessons to a student who rode an offspring of Concerto Grosso. Merle-Smith told him that they had the stallion back at the farm, and they bonded over his wonderful temperament and talent. One day, Emerson called her up and asked her to come look at the coming two-year-old Thoroughbred colt he had acquired.

Raven Sky earning his stallion license – Photo by Farm Fresh Photography

“It was February, so he was scruffy and really didn’t look like anything particularly special at the time,” says Merle-Smith. “But I trusted Denny’s eye.” Emerson sent Merle-Smith the colt on the condition that Merle-Smith would raise him and prepare him for a career as a breeding stallion. Merle-Smith has raised Raven Sky to be an exceptional breeding stallion and a fierce competitor, and in 2022, Raven Sky was awarded his temporary license withthe ISR/Oldenburg NA and the American Warmblood Registry.

In 2019, Merle-Smith and her husband Joel were visiting New England for a wedding and visited Emerson on his farm. He gave them a farm tour that ended in his office where he gave her the ultimate present. “He sat me down and put Raven Sky’s Jockey Club papers on the desk and said, ‘You’ve fed him, you’ve housed him, you’ve put the time in. I think we’re even now,’” says Merle-Smith. “Just like that… he just signed the papers over to me. I still pinch myself every day.”

Emerson encouraged her to get the stallion a Facebook page to attract attention and, with Emerson’s promotion, Raven Sky’s book was completely filled for the year. Raven Sky’s foals are now starting under saddle. “There’s something really special about being able to say I’ve ridden the mare, the stallion, and now the offspring,” says Merle-Smith.

Breeding With a Goal

In 2018 Merle-Smith bred her favorite field hunter, an off-track Thoroughbred named Empress Lisa, to Concerto Grosso, which produced a colt. “He was supposed to be a filly for me to keep, but I figured he’d be a nice gelding to eventually sell.” Shortly after Chinggis Khan was born, the Merle-Smiths lost his sire to EPM. Before he was gelded, Merle-Smith’s mother suggested he remain intact to see if he could continue Concerto’s legacy.

Chinggis Khan competing in the Young Horse Show Series – Photo by Purple Horse Designs

“He’s truly the epitome of our breeding program, and has just never had an ugly day in his life!” says Merle-Smith. In 2022, Chinggis was also awarded his temporary breeding license with ISR/Oldenburg NA. A temporary license must be made permanent by competing in recognized horse shows within two years of licensing. Merle-Smith has plans to compete in eventing in 2024 to obtain these permanent licenses.

In 2019, in order to round out her colection of stallions from which to choose, Merle-Smith couldn’t help but bring in another young stallion to her string, a 2017 Connemara stallion named BSF Golden Snitch: “After having my amazing Super Pony [Ganymede], I’ve always wanted to breed Connemaras and crosses.” Snitch’s damsire is Ganymede’s sire, so he is very special to her breeding pro- gram. Among foxhunting and eventing, Snitch is also learning how to be a driving pony. “Who knows, maybe you’ll see us in single pony driving events!” Merle-Smith says with a laugh.

Merle-Smith breeds horses with the primary goal of producing lovely, good-moving, attractive, well-bred amateur horses for any discipline. Her three stallions, Raven Sky, BSF Golden Snitch, and Chinggis Khan, are all slightly different in their movement, body types, and more subtle characteristics, but they all have incredible brains and pass that onto their offspring.

BSF Golden Snitch – Photo by Catchlight Artistry

“I am continually fascinated by the outcomes of certain pairings, and I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. I hope to breed and produce horses that people love and enjoy,” she says. “And I want them to come back to me for their next horse.”

Merle-Smith has a stallion for everyone, and will continue to breed her favorite mares, producing offspring that demonstrate all of the attributes she hopes to foster under the Merle-Smith Sporthorses name.

For more on Merle-Smith Sporthorses and their stallions standing at stud, please visit www.merlesmithsporthorses.com.