In the Tack with the Pak – Melissa, Ellie and Gateway

As riders, we know there’s a special connection between us and our horses that’s hard to put into words, but this bond is so strong that even non-riders can sense it. In an effort to better understand this relationship, our staff Photographer, Kristi (one of the few non-riders at SmartPak), will be visiting a different SmartPaker’s barn each month to watch them interact with their horses and learn more about their story as a pair. She will document her experiences in this monthly blog series along with some of her photography, because we all know that a connection so special is hard to describe simply in words.

Ellie emerges from the barn impeccably put together. She’s beautiful, and the way she walks tells me she knows it. Melissa Hamlet takes her reins and tries to give her a kiss on the nose. Her horse of 9 years turns her head in the nick of time, narrowly missing the kiss. “She always does that!” Melissa tells me with a disappointed sigh. “She won’t ever let me kiss her!” Despite this, I can tell she loves this horse.

Ellie finally gets used to the idea of posing

A beautiful day for a walk…Melissa and Ellie take a stroll down the path.

Melissa and I don’t talk much during the shoot. The conversations that happen are mainly between her and Ellie. They are having a disagreement: Ellie would like to eat grass and Melissa would like her to pose for photos. The argument ends with a stroll down a dirt path. They stop at the end and I can see Melissa giving her a firm talking to. They walk back towards me and all seems well now. Ellie poses perfectly, and Melissa is even allowed to steal a quick kiss. “Did you get it?” she asks excitedly. I nod. She squeals. “I can’t believe I got a kiss and you got a picture of it!” We could stop now and I think she would be perfectly content.

Quick, she’s distracted! Melissa takes the opportunity to steal a kiss.

For as long as I have known Melissa (a little over 6 years now) she has been with Ellie. I can recall only a few conversations with her in which Ellie Rose has not come up at least once. Seeing them together makes me think that there cannot be two creatures more perfect for one another. There isn’t just respect between the two of them, there is understanding and compassion. They have been through a lot together, and it shows. Melissa refers to Ellie as her “equine version of a soul mate” and I believe it. “I think she was put on this planet to keep me sane and I was put on this planet to be her cookie dispenser,” she tells me. In her 33 years of riding, she has never had such a connection with another horse.

Melissa, a dedicated hunter/equitation rider, is getting ready for her very first Dressage show in 2 days. I ask her if she’s nervous and she says she is. It will be the first time in 4 years that she and Ellie step into the show ring together. Her decision to try dressage is not a passing whim, it’s a well thought-out plan. A few years ago, Ellie sustained an injury that required her to take a significant amount of time off. Melissa gave her that time to heal. “When she started back to work, she was so sound and so relaxed. As much as I wanted to have her be my partner in the ring, the right decision for was to find a career where she wouldn’t have to jump anymore.” I was amazed at the dedication and courage it must take to change direction and start something completely new, something so out of her comfort zone.

Melissa and Ellie prepare to enter the ring at their very first Dressage show!

The camera is heavy, but I hardly notice and I continue to snap frame after frame. Ellie puts her ears up and raises her head, looking behind me. I turn around and see Gateway (or, the “Spotted Wonder Pony,” as Melissa likes to call him) approaching. He is a 13-year-old Oldenburg/Thoroughbred and totally adorable. He also happens to be Melissa’s way of staying in the hunter/jumper world, while also dabbling in dressage. Gateway is Melissa’s current lease this year to do the Adult Hunters and Adult Equitation. Our next plan is to get some photos of Melissa, Ellie AND Gateway—this could get interesting. Melissa stands in the middle, Ellie on her right, Gateway on her left. I can tell she’s nervous. Ellie looks at Gateway, Gateway looks at Ellie. They both turn their heads in and touch noses, then look away, uninterested. The critical moment has passed and everything is fine. I’m able to snap a ton more photos of the three of them, making Melissa the happiest I have ever seen her.

Gateway (The Spotted Wonder Pony) takes a minute to snuggle with Melissa

Melissa and Gateway showing at Fieldstone Equestrian Center

When I ask her what she loves most about riding, she says that for her it’s the sense of accomplishment. “I love the fact that I’ve been taking lessons for 33 years and still learn something every time I sit in the saddle. On those days when I haven’t ridden my best, I try to learn something from that and apply it to my next ride. That is the thing about riding that always keeps it fresh.”

Gateway shows off his modeling skills

Despite not being a rider, I spend a lot of my time at barns, around horses. Watching the way riders connect with their horses has become my favorite part of these trips. I put the camera down at last, more than 700 frames later. Melissa is sitting at the computer we set up in the barn office previewing the photos. She is so happy with them she’s crying. This is why I love what I do, and on this bright, sunny, cloudless day, I can’t think of any place I would rather be.

Ellie and Gateway were comfortable together right from the start (despite Melissa’s fear)!

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Posted in Blogs, In the Tack with the Pak, SmartPak Features

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7 comments on “In the Tack with the Pak – Melissa, Ellie and Gateway
  1. Storm says:

    Omg, this was so cool to read and the pictures where great. :)

  2. Kristen Broadhead says:

    I love this story—so touching to me! Lovely pictures.

  3. patricia ward says:

    Such a great relationship and riding career. Makes want to start over again. At 80 years old it won’t happen. So good to see young enthusiasm.

  4. Emily Louise says:

    Wow, this is such a beautiful story with beautiful pictures. I hope that one day, I’ll be able to be like Melissa, still riding and still enjoying every second!

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Apparently I've been obsessed with horses since I was born, and I used to beg for pony rides on a regular basis. I started showing in 4-H, progressed to equitation and jumpers in high school and rode on the IHSA team in college where I also discovered the joys...

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