CHERRYFIELD, Maine — When Melanie Gay was a little girl, her dad bought her a $50 pony named Misty, and when Melanie rode Misty, something magical happened. She became self-confident. She stood taller. She felt powerful.
By the time she was 16, Gay had 25 horses. By the time she was in her 20s, she was a champion rider and moved to Connecticut to build her horsemanship. As she honed her skills, she discovered she was an adept teacher and began passing her love of horses and riding on to children.
Then she got cancer.
Broke and broken, at 44, Gay returned to Maine.
“What do you have to lose when you’ve lost everything?” she said.
Life is a circle, Gay said in a recent interview, and she found herself right back where she started — on her family’s dairy farm in Cherryfield. The cows were gone, the fences drooped, and the barns were full of junk, but it was in this place that Melanie Gay — the third generation to work the farm — took the time to heal.
But healing without horses wasn’t really healing at all for her, so while she was receiving treatment, the horses began arriving. She started with two donated mares.
Today, 10 years later, a healthy Gay operates Misty Morning Stables and is not just training riders — she is training national champion appaloosa riders.
Three of the country’s top 10 appaloosa riders come from Gay’s stables. One girl is in the top 10 in six different divisions.
“It is different here,” said Eleni Wakeman of South Addison, the mother of one of Gay’s students. “Melanie teaches them everything from medical and dental needs of the horse to how to clean the barn.”
On 92 acres bordered by the Narraguagus River, amid rolling pastures, hills and woods, Gay said that teaching riding and horsemanship is not what she does. It is not her profession.
It is who she is, in her deepest soul, with the deepest passion.
“This is what I have done all my life,” she said. “It has been so nice to put my footprints in the same place my grandfather did. It’s coming full circle.”
There are 26 horses at the stables, which were completely remodeled last year, much of the work done by volunteers and parents of her students.
“Last year we had our first show in the new arena,” Gay said. “It was like coming home.”
‘A dream come true’
Gay’s passion is rubbing off on her pupils.
A school bus pulled up to the dirt driveway at the stables on a recent afternoon, and the girls came running. A few sat by the manure pile to enjoy a pizza.
They slipped off their shoes, exchanging them for boots, sweatshirts and brushes and began grooming their horses. Only when the horses have been cleaned, brushed and rubbed can the girls ride.
Once out in the arena, the more expert girls gently provided advice to the younger novices, all under Gay’s watchful eye.
Gay said that when she was training and teaching in Connecticut, she gained a reputation as an expert horsewoman and instructor.
“I am a master at starting beginners,” she said. “I know how to develop a love of the horse through my work.”
“Because I’m fairly well-known, my stable has a reputation as a good place to retire horses,” she said. “I’ve had five national champion horses donated to me, including Prince Skip I, who is 32 years old and still showing.”
Gay quieted for a moment, watching the riders work their horses and themselves around the arena.
“A lot of lessons are learned here, life lessons,” she said. “Responsibility, setting goals, dedication to something, how to run a business.”
Eleni Wakeman is Wren Wakeman’s mother. Wren ranks among the top 10 appaloosa riders in the country in a total of six divisions.
“Wherever we go and [Wren] is in front of people, they remark about how poised, confident and self-assured she is,” Eleni Wakeman said. “Most of these girls play sports and are active in theater, music and beyond. Their lives are not just riding, but they are all dedicated to riding. They have discovered a real sisterhood in a lifetime sport.”
“These kids here in rural Maine are just as talented as any,” Gay said. “They just don’t have as much money. We can go to a horse show out of state and they are competing against and beating girls whose clothes alone cost as much as my girls’ tack, saddles and all.”
Although Gay said 6 to 7 is the perfect age to begin teaching riders, she has accepted children as young as 3½. “I start them as soon as they are old enough and coordinated enough to operate a wheelbarrow.”
Gay said that after four days in a summer camp, youngsters know whether riding is for them.
The key, she said, is that the students must have a love of the horse and the passion to compete. “Some have more talent than others, obviously, but they all want to ride.”
Slowly looking around at her riders, her arena, the neat farm and new barns, Gay added, “This place is a dream come true.”