Last summer when the U.S. team was picked for the World Show Jumping Championships in Aachen, West Germany, Melanie Smith wasn’t on it. “The team,” she says dryly, “has always been known to prefer men.”
The team’s selection committee is learning, though. While their countrymen were in Europe placing third, Smith, 29, won three firsts and two seconds in Grand Prix events in her specialty, jumping. To prove that she did not win simply because the best riders were overseas, Melanie took a first and a second after the team returned, and most recently placed highest among U.S. riders at the National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden. She was crowned the Grand Prix 1978 Rider of the Year.
She rode as part of the U.S. team in New York, but that’s no guarantee she’ll stay on it. Even her longtime coach, 1960 Olympian George Morris, says, “When they are picking a championship team they are not going to bond over backward for a woman.” But he adds, “Melanie is a powerful big rider. She’s one of the few who can do it as well as the men.”
Smith has made no secret of her ambition to ride in the 1980 Olympics. It won’t be easy. Since 1952, when the Army stopped fielding the U.S Equestrian Team, only two women have made the show-jumping squad. Despite this discouraging history, Melanie vows, “I won’t give up.” (International competition is broken down into three categories—jumping, dressage and a combination event—and each rider enters only one. Men and women compete against each other equally.)
Melanie’s whole life has been riding, beginning with the pigs and cows she clambered onto at her parents’ pony farm in Germantown, Tenn. She rode only bareback until she was 12, but soon thereafter began entering local shows and won the Mid-South Equitation Championship at 16.
After she had spent two years at Southwestern University in Memphis, studying psychology, Morris offered to take her on as a pupil. That was in 1970. “I dropped out for a semester,” Smith says. “The semester has extended until today.”
Since 1974 she has been sponsored by Neil and Helen Eustace, a wealthy Stonington, Conn, couple. In return for providing Melanie with room, board, expenses and horses (estimated at more than $50,000 a year), they receive any prize money her horses win. That’s $60,000 so far in 1978. There is also, of course, the prestige of backing a champion. Melanie, like all riders, can accept only medals and ribbons in order to preserve her amateur standing.
Her life would not suit most young women. She usually gets up at 5 a.m. to train, groom and talk to her horses. What about a social life? “People worry too much that I don’t have enough dates,” she replies. “I have fun.”
In any case she isn’t the complaining sort. Even when she failed to survive the cut for the 1976 Olympic team, she recalls, “It only made me more determined. My grandfather used to say the more you fall off, the better a rider you’ll be. Well, I fell off all the time when I was little.”