Young Horse to Grand Prix Talent – How to Produce a Champion

The newest columnist for Phelps Sports is owner and trainer Michael Meller, who has become known for finding young horses and helping to produce them to become winners at the highest levels of the sport. He is a lifelong horseman who has dedicated his career to the pursuit of excellence in the sport of show jumping. Meller has helped bring along some of the top horses in the sport, including Robin De Ponthual, Chance STE Hermelle, Sam 1091, Quilimbo, Upperfield CH, Waterloo and Carneyhaugh Manx. In his first article, Meller focuses on what it takes to find the right young horse and how to help them achieve greatness.

I became passionate about developing young horses early on in my career because I believe that in any sport, in any industry, if you do the basics correctly and start with a solid foundation from the beginning you will be successful. Of course, there was a financial piece to it too – as a young professional, I didn’t have the funds to go out and buy the best 6-year-old or the best 7-year-old, but I had the funds to buy the best young horses as a yearling or a 2-year-old or a 3-year-old. I quickly learned that when you start a young horse, you inevitably learn everything about it, and you also come to enjoy every step of the process – that is something that just cannot be replicated.

Upperfield CH competing as a young horse in Europe

In my experience, to be successful, you need to have proper milestones in place for teaching young horses specific lessons at their respective stages of development. With a baby or young horse, I am a firm believer that you have to teach them basic ground work and desensitize them to tasks that will later become a simple habit. These lessons are essential in ensuring the horse’s wellbeing as a high-performance athlete and range from getting clipped to loading on the trailer, and being handled by different people in different environments.

When I purchase a young horse, I spend a month just getting to know them. I learn their personalities and start training with long lines so that I can watch them move correctly under their own weight. It is crucial to remember that the rider is only a small piece of the equation, they sometimes spend only an hour a day with a horse. The other 23 hours that a horse spends with grooms and handlers is just as important, if not more, for the horse’s well-being. As a true horseman you want to believe that if the horse is sold later in life, it will be well cared for because it has good manners and all the correct basics that will allow it to assimilate easily into different types of programs. Of course, it’s also always important to remember that if a good horse starts behaving differently, the reason can often be linked to pain and that is something a vet or physio can often help remedy.

Flairvona and Spencer Smith competing at WEF

As the horse develops in training, you have to honor the horse’s innate talent and allow them to progress at a rate that makes them the most comfortable. For instance, if you have a 5-year-old and it jumps around perfectly over the standard height for that age group class, do not push it to do more. At the risk of sounding cliché, the Europeans have really perfected the art of developing young horses. They never ask them to jump more than they need to at a young age, but they still expose them to multiple rings at different venues so that when they are 8-years old, they are not overwhelmed when they step into a big competition ring. Too often in America, horses are trained for the rider rather than training the rider for the horse. To have a successful horse, you must respect every aspect of its being.

Currently, I have an 11-year-old mare, Flairvona, who I purchased as a 4-year-old and who is now showing at the CSI4* level. She is exactly the same quality horse today that I saw as a 4-year-old because of the key milestones we allowed her to hit before moving onto the next level. Although she showed immense talent from the beginning, we jumped her to the height that she should jump at her age and some friends of mine did us great favors along the way by showing her so that she could truly learn it all at a pace that was right for her.

Flairvona competing as a 5-year-old

Flairvona is very Type A. If there is a Nations Cup that has six rounds, she’s going to try to jump six rounds with the same amount of effort. The focus with her has always been to keep her relaxed, calm and find the right riders that are a suitable match for her, which is another essential for any young horse’s success. Fitness is another key element as they continue their training, so we spent the last two years focused on her fitness as she has moved up to bigger heights. Last summer, Flairvona spent the season in Virginia, which was really beneficial to her training because of the hills and the trail riding she was exposed to. If those types of landscapes are not available, I’m also a huge fan of that water treadmill, which really improved her fitness and helped get her ready for the bigger 1.50m tracks.

As I mentioned earlier, finding the right rider for a horse is also key. Alison Firestone has been a long-term and important partner in Flairovona’s career because she recognized the mare’s talent but also knew she wasn’t the right rider for the mare. Alison had the professionalism to know that Flairvona needed a different type of rider and helped me to pinpoint other professionals that might be a better fit. That type of self-awareness as a professional is hard to find and impossible to replicate. Recently, Spencer Smith became a professional with his own business and took over the ride on Flairvona. They are an excellent match and as a young person, he is the future of our sport, as is this special mare. Spencer grew up with his parents, Ken and Emily Smith, who run Ashland Farm and have an impeccable program. He has a lot of education about being soft yet firm, and Flairvona is a horse that thrives under the leverage that his body type provides her. It’s exciting to see what they will achieve together. The positive feedback loop that I have managed to achieve with Flairvona’s team cannot be underestimated, and it is something I try to achieve with everyone I work with, from Alison and Spencer to Dennis Sisco with QBS Equestrian.

Flairvona competing during the 2021 Winter Equestrian Festival

As in all things, patience is the cornerstone of development, and it is something that I believe in very strongly. I want to honor the horse so that I know that if it is sold later in life it will still be cared for correctly. There are many great riders and trainers in the industry, but too many aspects are driven by money and achieving goals without putting in the work. I believe in making sure a young horse has the correct basics will help protect it the rest of its life. Finding an exciting young horse is about putting all of the pieces together – a horse’s breeding, personality, and helping to mold their raw talent in a way that is careful and thoughtful, so that they can find their own way to excel. – M. Michael Meller


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