Melanie Smith whips professionally with her upper-level three-day eventing mount, Mouse, and attributes his heart and bravery on course to eight seasons in the field.
As the sun was rising over a dewy cross-country course, deer grazed in the galloping lanes. Melanie Smith and her off-the-track Canadian Thoroughbred, Shakedown Street, known to his friends as Mouse, cantered around the warm-up ring in preparation for their trip around the Intermediate level track. The announcer’s voice rang over the loudspeaker and informed competitors that the start would be delayed because of those deer on course.
“I walked up to the starter and told them I would volunteer to go first because I knew Mouse wouldn’t care at all about the deer,” Smith remembers. Sure enough, the pair galloped out of the startbox and Mouse didn’t so much as bat an eyelash. For him, it was just another good run across an open field, with plenty of jumps to play over.
The 15.2-hand bay gelding stands but has competed in three-day eventing up to the Advanced level. He’s also whipped with Smith for six seasons for Bear Creek Hounds in Moreland, Georgia. While Smith acknowledges he’s one of those rare, multi-talented horses of a lifetime, she attributes much of his bravery, conditioning, and heart in eventing to his seasons in the hunt field.
“In addition to the life lessons that hunting provides it is, in my opinion, the absolute best way to condition a horse for eventing,” says Smith, who’s never felt the need to do gallops in order to condition for an event. “You cannot recreate in an arena the types of life lessons you find out in the hunt field. Mud, rocks, wind, snow, rain, traffic, dogs, guns, deer, pigs… you name it and Mouse has probably dealt with it.”
Smith started showing in hunter and equitation classes as a child and eventually transitioned to low jumpers. When she realized her Quarter Horse at the time was more suited for endeavors outside the ring, she joined the Huntsville Pony Club, which introduced her to eventing and foxhunting, as well as Mooreland Hunt in north Georgia.
In addition to foxhunting, she trained with top-level eventer, Jim Graham, who lived nearby and helped her earned a Pony Club ‘A’ rating. During college, a friend loaned her horses to hunt. Since they were typically green, she reciprocated the favor by schooling those horses for her and also started training with eventer, Werner Geven. After college, she worked as a burn unit nurse and had considered graduate school until Eglinton Caledon Hunt in Ontario, Canada, offered her a full-time position as a whip.
“So, I went up north for a few years and learned all about hunting from the professional viewpoint with the legendary Steve Clifton,” she says. “While up in Ontario I was able to obtain a couple of off-the-track Thoroughbreds to train and hunt. One of the horses was Mouse.”
The three-year-old had arrived with only three shoes. Smith figured she could tune him up, give him some miles in the hunt field, and then resell him. Though his ground manners needed some polish, he was always quiet under saddle and it only took one hunt for Mouse to prove his prowess in the hunt field.
“He took to the jumping immediately,” Smith says. “He hunted a full season as a four-year-old.”
That’s when she and Steve decide the cold northern winters weren’t for them. They both sought and accepted jobs back stateside with Bear Creek Hunt in Georgia. “I was happy to be back in the south and surrounded by shows,” she said.
Only a 60-minute commute from the eventing facility, Poplar Place Farm, and 50 minutes from its equally prominent counterpart, Chattahoochee Hills, she continued schooling Mouse as his knack for jumping grew on course and in the hunt field. After one Beginner Novice schooling show, he won his subsequent Novice schooling show.
“That’s when I knew he was ready for recognized shows,” Smith says. After completing four USEA-recognized Novice level events, he moved up to Training level and Smith started working with Geven again.
“Mouse had always been a phenomenal jumper and he kept getting better with time,” Smith said. “When he moved up to the Intermediate level, I hunted him less frequently but still on a regular basis.”
Now in his eighth hunting season, Mouse completed his first Advanced level horse trials in 2019, as well as three CCI3* events that year. He’s always been a whip horse in the field and enjoys the independence that position offers him to gallop and jump away from the pack, though stepping around thirty-some hounds underfoot has never bothered him anyway. Though he likes to work alone, on the ground, “he has a very sweet and charming personality,” Smith says. “He loves attention and begs for it.” In fact, his favorite treats are Scotch Mints, but Smith laments that even though the candy is everywhere in Ontario, she has a hard time tracking them down here in the States.
This fall, Mouse won the USEA Area III Intermediate Championship held at Poplar Place Farm. “The hunting is the reason why Mouse is such a phenomenal cross-country horse, nothing phases him,” she commented after winning. “And through the hours we have spent together out in the woods and trails all over North America, our partnership is just awesome.”
Melanie Smith owns and operates MJS Equestrian where she teaches lessons, trains horses, and has a sales program.