Looking to 2017 With 2kGrey Sponsored Rider Mel Montagano
By Shannon Fox
2017 is just around the corner and many of you are already thinking about the upcoming show season and setting new goals. Take a page from Melanie “Mel” Montagano, a 2KGrey sponsored rider and one of the most accomplished young equestrian competitors in the US. We interviewed Mel to find out what she’s learned on the road to Grand Prix and what advice she offers other riders hoping to compete at the highest levels of their sport.
(Answers edited for clarity)
2KGREY: How did you get into horseback riding?
MELANIE MONTAGANO: My grandfather owned racehorses when I was a child and my grandmother would take me to the barns. I was mesmerized by them so she started me in lessons when I was 6 at a local barn in New Jersey. I never stopped riding after that.
2KGREY: Tell us about your horses.
MM: Deva and I have been together for 10 years now. We purchased her as a Young Rider hopeful, but I got so much more than expected. She’s a Dutch/Gelderlander cross, her sire is Gambol. Deva is the kindest horse I’ve ever encountered, [she] doesn’t have one mean bone in her body. She’s 16 now and fitter than ever. We’ve done Juniors, Young Riders and Brentina Cup together. Now that I’ve aged out of Brentina Cup, we’ll do the Open Grand Prix this winter 2017. She also enjoys hacking regularly around Wellington and babysitting her baby sister, Vie.
Vie is a Dutch Harness horse by the stallion Alex. Vie turns 3 in February, but I backed her at 2.5 years old. She was already 16.1 hands at 2.5 so my trainer, King Santacruz, and I decided to back her sooner rather than later. I’ve never seen any horse be backed as easily as her. As I would lie on her back to get her used to the weight of a person, she would turn her head around and look at me as if she were saying, “get on already, let’s go for a ride!” I’m the luckiest girl in the world to have 2 amazing mares that would jump through hoops for me.
2KGREY: Where do you train out of right now and how much traveling do you do for shows?
MM: I am based year round out of IDA Farm in Wellington, FL. IDA is a top class facility with the most professional and kind staff. My best friend, Lauren Knopp, provides excellent care for my girls so I can fully devote myself to my work and my horses. Since I’m based in the horse capital of the country, I don’t have to do much long distance travelling. I primarily show at Global and sometimes White Fences for my younger mare to gain experience in a quieter setting. The big competitions that require some travel are Regionals, Dressage at Devon, and US Dressage Finals.
2KGREY: What’s your training schedule like?
MM: Very relaxed. I train 4 days per week and hack them out 1 day. They always have 2 days off per week. My horse’s learn incredibly fast and are so willing so most of the time I have to slow down training. I let Deva tell me what she’s comfortable doing at this stage. I don’t want to pressure her to perform right now since she’s getting older and is still very fit. She knows all the Grand Prix really well so it’s more about keeping her fit and happy. She’ll let me know when it’s time to show again. Vie is really ahead of the game with training since we backed her a little early. This winter is more about getting her used to going to shows, riding with many strange horses in the ring, and having a good time doing it. I’ll probably pop her in a few Intro classes in February and March.
2KGREY: What have you learned from making your own horse on the road to Grand Prix? What worked? What didn’t work?
MM: The most important advice I can give to any rider is to not be in such a hurry. Riding horses is too expensive not to enjoy it. Don’t ever let your aspirations outweigh your enjoyment of the sport and your horse’s well-being. Rushing it will never work and you might end up with an injured horse, pushing your training timeline back even further. Be patient and consistent. Horses are creatures of habit so don’t change the training methods frequently. The clearer their job gets, the easier they will learn and be more willing to work. Horse’s that are confused about what their job is end up resistant to work. Find a trainer that works for you and understands your horse and stick with him or her. Trust the program and take your time.
2KGREY: You recently were able to get on your young horse. What do you enjoy most about the process of starting a horse?
MM: Vie has been the most rewarding and wonderful decision I’ve ever made. She was the first horse I picked out totally on my own and fully on intuition. Many top trainers encouraged me to look at other options, but I knew she was going to be my partner from the moment I saw her. She was exceptionally easy to start. As I was lying across her back and my trainer, King, was holding her on the ground she would turn her head to look at me as if she was saying “get on already!” I enjoy starting her the way I prefer to ride. She knows only me as her rider and trusts me fully which is an amazing feeling and a true honor.
2KGREY: What’s different about riding at the FEI levels?
MM: The competitive nature. At least in the CDI ring, the competitiveness gets a little out of control. Yes, we all need to do well. We’ve spend an obscene amount of money on just one competition, but the best rides I’ve ever had were the ones where I was relaxed and having fun with my horse.
2KGREY: What have been your biggest accomplishments in your equestrian career so far?
MM: With Deva, there were many accomplishments during our 10-year journey together. But my biggest accomplishment was training a horse from training level to Grand Prix. She was my first one and I learned everything from her. I wouldn’t be where I am today without her. I also consider the purchase of Vie a huge accomplishment. Many top trainers advised me to keep looking and not buy her, but I knew she was mine from the moment I saw her.
2KGREY: What’s it like to compete at Wellington?
MM: Wellington is a rare breed of beast. I used to let the watching eyes rattle me, but as I’ve gotten older and more confident in my riding abilities that slowly faded away. [I] realized that everyone has an opinion, but you don’t have to take everything to heart. Decide whose opinion you value and don’t let your imagination stray. Imagination is your biggest enemy in the ring. I ride how I ride every day at IDA and it may seem weird or unconventional to some spectators, but at the end of the day, I know my horses better than anyone in this world and my opinion is the only one that truly matters.
2KGREY: What have you learn from starting your own business, Prestige Performance Horses? What worked? What didn’t work?
MM: Be picky with the clients you take on. I [took] on so many clients because I [was] young and needed the income, but my gut was telling me it was a mistake. I’ve also ridden a ton of dangerous horses to keep a client. Don’t do that. Some clients had the mentality that because I was young that I could afford to fall off a dangerous horse or two. Money is not worth getting injured over. It may just be a light fall one time, but what if I broke a bone or worse? Then I really wouldn’t be making any income since I couldn’t ride. I also learned to not take on horses that I didn’t enjoy riding. I’ve trained a ton of horses that were so backwards in their training, but had a fantastic attitude so it made them fun and rewarding to ride. If you don’t like the horse, you’re not going to do a fair job to them or the owner. Be a positive person! Positivity attracts other positive people.
2KGREY: What is your must-have horseback riding gear for your horses and yourself at shows?
MM: I can be pretty [superstitious] when it comes to competing. I have a very particular routine calculated down to the minute. The organization keeps me calm. Deva has particularly difficult mane to braid so I cannot survive without black beeswax and waxed thread. I also go through an incredible amount of towels! Electrolytes are the most important for the horses, showing is very stressful and tiring so I keep my girls hydrated as much as possible. As for my show wardrobe, I’m in love with the 2kGrey Avatar and Pas Op! white breeches. Show clothing can be so stuffy and unoriginal, but the flair on the 2kGrey breeches make me feel unique and confident. Most of all, my tack trunk. It was custom made in Canada when I was there training with Jacquie Brooks and it has been my savior. It holds all my tack, supplies, and anything else I could possibly need.
2KGREY: What advice do you have for other girls who want to follow in your footsteps and pursue a professional riding career?
MM: Education first. One of the best decisions I’ve made was to pursue a “normal” educational path. I went to a public high school where my mother expected me to keep a Dean’s list status in order to keep riding. I would drive an hour to the barn after school to ride and complete homework when I got home. My high GPA allowed me to attend a college that had a major that I was passionate about. Life brings unexpected changes, some good and some bad, but having an education gives you OPTIONS. Options are priceless in this world.
2KGREY: What are your goals for 2017 and beyond?
MM: 2017 is a transitional year for my horses. Vie is just coming 3 so my goals for her are just to have fun in and out of the ring. She learns faster than any horse I’ve ridden so the challenge with her is slowing down the training. Deva will most likely do the Open Grand Prix and I’d like to qualify for US Dressage Finals. My long-term goal would be to make the Olympic team. I know that is a long shot and every rider’s dream, but why not me?
We are excited to see what great things Mel accomplishes this year and are confident she will secure a place on the 2020 Olympic Team!
Shop Mel’s Favorite Breeches:
All photos courtesy of Cory Hammons from altamirafilm.co