Melanie Smith Taylor is Working From the Ground Up

How often does a person get the opportunity to sit across a table from one of the true icons of our sport, and hear them describe something so compelling, you wish the whole world would just stop and listen with you?

If only the people rushing in and out of the Wellington Starbucks on a recent Saturday morning had known that I was sitting across from a visionary. If only they had paused and listened to just what she was saying.

I first met Melanie Smith Taylor last fall, when I was sent by my friends at The Chronicle Connection to write an article about the groundbreaking work she was doing with upper level hunter/jumper riders and what she didn’t like to call natural horsemanship.

This Olympic gold medalist, Pan American Games gold medalist, AGA Rider of the Year, and otherwise highly decorated show jumper believes that her deepest connections with horses didn’t actually begin until after she retired from competition.

Melanie and Calypso, anchors of the 1984 Olympic show jumping team 

But she competed successfully at the very highest levels of show jumping for 15 years – what could she possibly have been missing?

A whole world of knowledge, it turned out.

In 1989 her late husband Lee Taylor introduced her to Ray Hunt and later Buck Brannaman, both of whom regularly visited the Taylor’s breeding farm in Tennessee to work with their young horses.

Melanie was struck by the connection that these cowboys were able to have with horses. She felt that all the time she’d been competing and winning grands prix, she’d been blind to an entire world of horsemanship.

“I’ve learned that there were a lot of horses in my life I could have helped more,” she says. “And I kind of feel guilty about that. There are all these extra pieces that I had never been exposed to before.”

So she absorbed their horsemanship philosophies and soon began teaching concepts of lightness on the ground, a sense of feel, and simply understanding the horse’s mind. From that point on, there simply was no way to work with horses other than from the ground up.

Ten years ago Melanie connected with Mindy Bower, a close protégé of Buck’s, and continued working with her as Buck rose to fame and could no longer visit the farm in Tennessee regularly.

Mindy Bower

In the meantime, Melanie had taken on an active second career as a television commentator for Olympic Games and World Championships, coach and clinician. Melanie has long been a popular clinician for aspiring hunter/jumper riders around the country, and spends much of the year traveling and teaching.

In 2009, Melanie helped to create the USHJA’s Emerging Athletes Program, incorporating a horsemanship element taught by Mindy that proved to be highly popular among the riders. Melanie’s mounted sessions paired with Mindy’s groundwork and horsemanship lessons (along with those of other clinicians) made for a uniquely intensive program for the recipients, who were all A-circuit riders with big ambitions. Melanie believed so deeply in this combination of teaching perspectives that when the USHJA decided to cut the groundwork sessions from the program in late 2011, Melanie exited as well.

Which brings us back to Starbucks. Melanie wanted to catch my ear and follow up on our first meeting, because a pledge she made during the interview last fall still rings true. “I will always be teaching this to as many people who want to listen.”

And so Melanie has joined forces with Mindy and created TaylorMade Horsemanship, a series of total immersion clinics scheduled for this year that pair elite hunter/jumper training with groundwork awareness and horsemanship.

“If people want to use the natural horsemanship term, I think of it as what people of my generation learned naturally,” says Melanie, who believes that the term ‘natural horsemanship’ has been too watered down and over branded to mean much anymore. “I want people to realize that we as horsemen and riders of our generation, we did it all. We didn’t just ride and teach. We knew every cowlick on our horses. Now it’s a different world. People seem to be so rushed, they don’t take the time to work on the symptoms of the problem. They just tighten the martingale, or get a new bit.”

There is a gap, and it begins at the root of the problems that cause people to reach for quick fixes. It’s hard to believe that natural horsemanship, groundwork, whatever you want to call it, will ever fit in with our high performance show jumping world when you consider the longe lines, earplugs, and medication boxes that are staples of nearly every barn on every A-circuit showground in the country.

But Melanie believes that perspectives can change, one rider at a time. She’s got a book coming out in the spring that details her journey and horsemanship methods. Big names from the h/j world such as Jen Alfano, Linda Allen, and Callan Solem have offered to act as co-clinicians at TaylorMade clinics (participants will have to pay to attend the clinics this year, but Melanie's working on developing a nonprofit so that next year, riders can apply to attend for free.)

And she’s talking. To people like me, and to others who will listen. She’s going to be the voice of the equestrian world this summer in London, where she’ll be lead commentator for NBC on the show jumping portion of the Olympics. It’s a guarantee that millions of people will be listening to her voice for those four days in August.

With luck, perhaps some of them will start listening to what she has to say right now.