NOVAWE volunteers have had the good fortune to experience the super organization skills of Melissa Smith. Melissa, who goes by Mills, is starting her second year as NOVAWE’s Volunteer Coordinator and her second year as a NOVAWE Clinician—she is amazing in both roles.
Mills, originally from South Africa, came to the States over 20 years ago to pursue “Equine Studies” at Averett University in Danville, VA. “I always wanted to teach – it’s my passion,” stated Mills. She also spent 11 years working at an eventing barn, Reddemeade Farm, Silver Spring MD and then 3 years at a foxhunting barn in Middleburg. NOVAWE welcomes her SmartAlex Equestrian as a 2021 Business Member.
Over the years Mills’s riding career has experienced several halts, due largely to a car accident injury where her back was badly broken. “I didn’t know if I would ride again, but after rest and rehab my doctor said I could ride. So, I evented my horse Smart Alex through Novice level,” she chuckled, admitting the “eventing” was probably not what her doctor meant by “riding.”
“About 7 years ago I developed early onset osteopetrosis. My doctor said I could ride but not take ‘unnecessary risks’. I thought eventing might be considered an ‘unnecessary risk’, so I heeded my doctor’s advice,” and thus Mills embarked on different path. “I looked for a quieter (and less risky) way of doing things with horses.”
Her training philosophy now includes the idea to “be a tortoise, not a hare.” She opts to be slower and take the necessary quality steps each situation, each horse, each student demands. “I don’t rush through training, and I don’t want my students to rush through,” Mills explained. Her training business namesake “Smart Alex” (Quarter Horse – Paint cross) is mostly retired after a long and successful career in several disciplines—and still enjoys trail rides. Now with her training business, Mills does a little bit of everything, most recently Working Equitation (WE).
Lucky for NOVAWE, Mills stumbled upon WE in 2019 having watched NOVAWE Founding Member Jessica Williamson’s Facebook post of an Ease of Hand (EOH) Trial. “Now that (the EOH round) was appealing to me, it looked interesting, all encompassing,” Mills said. “One of my students, Jeannie Whitehead, and I decided to attend a NOVAWE Play Day at Bella Vita Stables,” and like so many other WE converts, Mills caught the WE bug.
An example of doing the right thing by the horse and taking it slow, she related a story of how Jeannie, in her first WE schooling show at Oak Spring Equestrian, made an error in that her horse hit the bell obstacle with his head, startled himself, and quickly backed out of the corridor, not completing the obstacle. The result was a disqualification (DQ) but Mills was proud of Jeannie for not rushing her horse back in and further distressing him. “I really didn’t know then how easy it was to DQ,” she laughed. Since the early DQ experience, Mills has attended numerous WE events, studied the rule book and other sources, and has become quite expert in correct WE execution.
Several of Mills’ students, including Jeannie and her horse Speight Me (“Spidey”), have had great success at WE. Spidey and Jeannie finished 2020 third in the NOVAWE Year End L1 Awards Program. Several of Mills’ other students, many of whom she coaches out of Stonebridge Equestrian Center in Centreville, VA, have come to embrace WE. Mills’ students include Joanne and Jessica Masterson. Jessica and Shiners Zanna Lucy finished fourth in the 2020 NOVAWE L1 Year-End Awards Program. Jessica’s mom Joanne (who also rides and shows WE) is another valued NOVAWE volunteer who donates her technical talents to NOVAWE’s marketing and communication efforts.
With SmartAlex retired, Mills has not competed herself yet, although she is working with some students’ young horses. With her teaching experience and keen WE interest and knowledge she began her WE clinician career late last year; three clinics are scheduled already for 2021, two at Blue Top Farm in Nokesville, VA on April 24th and June 26th and a clinic for the Clifton Horse Society on June 19th at Laurel Hill Park.
“I like WE, the multiple phases bring so much opportunity. It keeps horses engaged and keeps the riders having to think and plan.” She added, “You have to be thoughtful when entering the obstacles, plan where to do transitions, and all the while the horse has to be balanced.”
For shows, she added that the relative long time each rider spends in each phase in the arena is a plus (for example usually 5 to 8 minutes on a EOH course). Each phase benefits them, as does the written score sheet or “report card,” as Mills referred to it. “The report cards are great tools to leverage for learning and identifying areas I can provide exercises for improvement.”
Being a clinician provides new challenges. “It’s harder than being someone’s instructor,” said Mills. “I have to propel the riders forward and to success in a short time. Often, I don’t know them or where they are in their training, so being flexible and adjusting based on what I see is a must.” She added that the fact that WE is so darn fun helps motivate newcomers. The feedback has been positive, and Mills is working to improve her clinician techniques by taking clinics herself with others as often as possible.
The consummate multi-tasker, Mills enjoys teaching WE and serving as NOVAWE’s volunteer coordinator. “I love doing it all. I enjoy meeting people and like organizing things like that,” referring to volunteer teams for clinics and shows.
When asked about the possibility of becoming a WE Judge, Mills did not rule it out. “Maybe down the road,” she said. For the moment she is excelling at sharing her passion for harmony and quiet and progressive training with her students and clinic attendees as well as continuing her own education. She is currently participating the Suzanne Liscouski’s “Ace Your Obstacle” clinic series and plans to ride in a Patrick King clinic later this year at Briar Creek Farm.
For more information about Working Equitation on all NOVAWE events and how to sign up, visit www.novaw.org/events.