By Ruby Tevis
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
For Melanie Doughty, balance is more than a principle of dressage; it’s a way of life. As a top FEI Young Rider, owner of two horses, sorority sister and international business student at Rollins College, Melanie juggles everything with grace. This summer, Melanie built upon her resume of national accolades with her invitation to the European Young Rider Tour. Melanie gained lifelong memories, education and a bronze medal from the prestigious Future Champions in Hagen, Germany.
Born in England, Melanie was introduced to horses as a young girl. While her parents weren’t equestrians, Melanie’s mother had some horse experience and developed a love for the animals. “When my parents got married, they made a deal that my mom had to learn to sail, and my dad had to learn how to ride trail horses,” Melanie said. “When I was born, my parents exposed me to both of these so I wouldn’t be afraid when I got older—except I never stopped riding!”
After four years in England, Melanie relocated with her family to her mother’s home state in Florida. Though she’d moved halfway across the world, Melanie didn’t leave her love for horses behind. Soon after her move to the United States, Melanie was given a pony of her own, a Welsh-American Warmblood cross. “Kane was a typical cheeky pony,” she said. “He was absolutely adorable, but he was always a step ahead of me!”
Though Kane was purchased as a hunter pony, he happily followed Melanie in her switch into the dressage world after she began taking dressage lessons. “He was very athletic, so making the switch was easy for him. He tried his heart out for me when we started training and competing in dressage,” Melanie said. “For me, dressage fed into my perfectionist side, and I enjoyed the connection with the horse, so it was an instant love.”
Following her newfound passion, Melanie and Kane joined Anne Gribbons’ Knoll Dressage in Chuluota, Florida, to train under Tamra Brown. With her beloved first pony, Melanie got a taste of her championship future, leaping into the FEI Pony Riders division at the U.S. Festival of Champions in 2013. Hooked on the thrill of competition, Melanie set her sights on even bigger goals—but she’d need a bigger horse to take her there.
The Chestnut Mare Unicorn
With Melanie’s legs rapidly outgrowing her pony, she knew it was time to start looking for a taller partner. With plans to compete in FEI Juniors, shopping for a schoolmaster made sense, but Melanie wanted more of a challenge. “A young horse would be an exciting project, and an opportunity to learn together, taking each level one step at a time,” she explained. “This also meant I could have more time with the horse since it wasn’t in its prime yet.”
Sales horses frequently came through the barn doors at Knoll Dressage, so Melanie didn’t have to travel far to shop. “Trying horses was a very fun and interesting process,” she said. “I tried three at Knoll Dressage before I found the one—Fascinata. I felt connected to her immediately. Anne Gribbons was really helpful in this process. She’d imported Fasci a few months prior, and she has a really good eye at matching pairs, which I’m so fortunate to have had.”
Now paired with the 5-year-old chestnut Rhinelander mare, Melanie jumped head first into training. Together, the pair made their Third Level debut just one year later, and worked diligently in the FEI Junior tests to eventually capture Team Gold with Region 3 at her first North American Youth Championships. A short few weeks later, the pair returned to compete at the U.S. Festival of Champions in the FEI Junior National Championship, where they took the Reserve Championship title.
With their resounding success in the Junior division, Melanie began preparing for a step up to the Young Riders. “The Young Riders has higher expectations for the movements, and a higher degree of difficulty, so that needed to be considered in our training. For Fasci, adding the upper-level movements was a matter of her building strength,” Melanie said.
“Fasci progressed rather rapidly at this point since she was understanding the Juniors more and more,” she continued. “I hadn’t ridden these movements before, so she and I were learning them all together, which was really fun and rewarding when we finally got it right.” Melanie and Fascinata joined Region 3 once again for the North American Youth Championships, this time on the Young Rider team to secure a team bronze.
Dressage in Europe
After a successful first year in the Young Riders, Melanie looked ahead to planning for a second campaign in the division—then COVID-19 brought the world to a halt. “I was very lucky that Knoll Dressage remained open during the COVID-19 lockdowns,” she said. “I was able to spend a lot of time out there with Fasci.”
Spending time in lockdown brought Melanie a longing for normalcy and the desire to travel. She set her sights on the European Young Rider Tour, a USEF program that sends three elite-level young riders to attend national and FEI competitions in Europe. “Coming out of COVID, I really wanted to get back into the ‘normal’ swing of things, so we did a CDI in Wellington at the beginning of the season to feel it out and as a qualifier for the European Tour,” Melanie said.
“Honestly, I was surprised when I was selected. It was on my bucket list, but I never got my hopes up in case it wasn’t possible,” she explained. “In light of COVID and everything else, I was surprised it was going to happen. To be invited was such an honor and a feeling I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”
Alongside fellow young riders Christian Simonson and Katherine Mathews and Chef d’Equipe George Williams, Melanie made the journey to Europe with Fascinata. “We were based out of a beautiful farm in Belgium, Begijnhoeve,” Melanie said. With 2021 an Olympic year, the senior United States Olympic team was also in Europe. “It was incredible to get to watch everyone train there, including our senior team and other young riders. Everyone was so kind and genuinely interested in our plans.”
With both COVID-19 and EHV-1 restrictions on European horse shows, competitions were limited, but the team still had the opportunity to compete at the Future Championships in Hagen, Germany. “The caliber of competition and excellence in riding was like nothing I’d ever seen before,” Melanie said. The team held their own amongst the European riders, earning a bronze medal in the team competition, the highest finish in program history for the United States Young Rider Team.
“The atmosphere was so supportive, and I really enjoyed every second over there,” Melanie said. “The whole trip was ideal because not only did it revolve around horses, it allowed me to get credits toward my degree in international business. Going to Europe allowed me to actually see how different businesses and barns are run in other countries.”
Melanie’s interest in international business was born out of her passion for the horse industry. “I plan on a being active in the horse world, in some aspect, for the rest of my life,” Melanie said. “This degree allows me to expand the ways I can stay involved, regardless of what the future holds for me. I’ve also been interested in finance and accounting, so international business also opened up possibilities for me to explore these industries.”
Just as Melanie’s decision to attend college felt like a natural next step, it also made sense for her to stay close to home for her education. “Rollins College stood out to me since it has a great business department and has a beautiful campus,” Melanie said. “It’s also located close to Knoll Dressage and is near my hometown, so I can still go home to see my family.”
Although Melanie is an elite dressage athlete, she still makes time for a traditional college experience, including participation in her sorority. “My sorority has helped has helped with balancing horses, school and having fun things to do,” Melanie said. “I’ve been planning my course schedules in advance so I can allow time for the barn and time to study. I also ride early in the mornings to help with scheduling—and to avoid the Florida heat—so that’s been really helpful.”
Balancing college with one horse can be challenging enough, but on top of it all, Melanie welcomed a new addition to her barn with Amperio, a 7-year-old Oldenburg. “Perry’s a completely different ride than Fasci, so it’s a great learning experience for me. Our plans with him are to move into the Developing Prix St. Georges for next season and to boost his confidence at shows,” she said.
With Fascinata, Melanie is looking ahead to competing in the U25 Grand Prix. “She has been training well at home, but showing is a whole different story, so I’m very excited,” Melanie said. “She is getting quite spoiled right now after the exciting summer she had and is loving the extra attention and goodies.”
She hopes Perry will follow in Fascinata’s footsteps. “I’d love to see Perry go through the Small Tour and eventually move up to the Grand Prix,” she said. “I’m really excited to see my horses
progress and to be on this journey with them!”
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com