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Melissa Hirt on What We Learned From Medal Finals

The Difference Between Placing and Winning

Paige Matthies earned a fifth place finish in the 2017 Dover USEF Hunt Seat Medal Finals with trainers Melissa Hirt, Ken and Emily Smith and Gabriel Rodrigues.

Wellington, FL – March 19, 2018 – Trainer Melissa Hirt of Northern Pines Farm, just outside of Traverse City, Michigan, is the first to admit the road to the top is an opportunity to learn more.  It truly takes a village to achieve great things, in 2017 proving just that, with rider Paige Matthies, 16, taking the 5th place spot in the Dover USEF Hunt Seat Medal Finals. Hirt shared her thoughts on last year and what she wants to change to try for a big equitation win.
Teaming Up
Hirt successfully trains young riders and young horses to accomplish goals at the highest levels of the sport, including the medal finals. She is one of the most humble trainers you will find with a good sense of humor and is not too proud to reach out and team up with other top trainers to benefit her group. After teaming up with Ken and Emily Smith of Ashland Farm in Lexington, KY, Hirt admitted there’s no other way to get it done.

“Just like any other sport, you get people that concentrate on a particular phase such as the jumpers or the equitation so you look to them for their expertise,” explained Hirt.  “You have access to more horses, more experiences and more arenas. I think it’s beneficial to have that extra experience at the gate with you. It certainly helps with everyone's confidence heading into the ring.”

Hirt explained she teams up with other trainers at all levels, with 80+ horses at home, she really has fun sharing with others. She lends horses out to other professionals as projects, when if she didn’t, the horses would be sitting at home. Hirt has Gabriel Rodrigues as her assistant, who is fantastic at both teaching and riding. When it’s professional to professional teaming up, everyone works together with mutual respect.
“They understand what the goals are and what the budget is and they never cross that line,” said Hirt. “We sometimes call on favors to make things happen but it works out. Everyone has a vested interest in the horses as well, it’s Ken (Smith) who sets the schedule for the horses. He shows his genuine love for the horses everyday, which is great for the kids to see.”


Gabriel Rodrigues helps Hirt train and rides many of their young horses. Photo M4E

Rodrigues rode Louboutin to the Championship in the 5&6 year old Young Hunters during WEF 9. Photo M4E

“It’s around the clock for 9 weeks from the Illinois finals through all of the indoors,” continued Hirt.  “The horses need to be walked, or put on the thera-plate or iced or hacked. One person can’t do all of it so if we can rotate and figure out the logistics of who is riding, who is staying at Capital Challenge, who is sleeping, the clock never shuts downs so you have to figure it all out.”
“It’s also another set of eyes on the horse or the tack or someone watching how the course is riding and what options people are taking. As the team, we’ve got all the horses covered, healthy and sound and everyone pays attention.  We always bring extra horses to so you have more to ride and spares if you need one,” Hirt explained. “I flew Gabriel [Rodrigues] out twice just to have another hand when we were doing the hunters and the jumpers on the same days.”
Hirt recently purchased a farm in Wellington so her riders can spend time training with Smith during the winter months while getting qualified. The riders get a chance to try different horses and figure out which one is the best fit when it comes to the finals. It also gives everyone a chance to learn each other’s styles so the riders can be confident and comfortable in that big moment. Hirt and Rodrigues work with the riders on the road and back home in Michigan. With a second location in Michigan, conveniently located next to the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival showgrounds, it is the perfect location to train in the summer.
Prepping Riders
Hirt has several talented riders that train with her that might all be working for the same goals at different stages of the game. Matthies has two more years as a junior and has been to medal finals five times. Aristea Santoro is just 15 years old but has already ridden in the finals as well.  Matthies was in the hunt for a top ribbon all year but still less experienced than the medal finals winners.
“I think it was just plain maturity and getting out there. Paige had expectations and other people had expectations, I think she will really be riding for herself these next two years,” added Hirt.
When prepping the kids, Hirt wants parents to understand that trainers are not psychologists. They have a great sports psychologist they use and believe it helps with the mental organization and training.


Paige Matthies tackles a medal course at WEF. Photo M4E

“I’ve seen the results,” said Hirt.  “They have to have space at the gate to get their head together. I can often see the kids with their eyes closed going over the plan in their head. They have to be allowed that time and space without interruption. This year, I learned that I need to give them more space at the gate so they can go over it and rehearse it in their head. I don’t need to keep coaching them until they walk into the ring. My calmness, along with Ken's, helps them settle into the job.”
Hirt also wants parents to realize the finals are such a special time for young riders and the stress level is incredibly high so any added stress can send the kids reeling.
“I need to take it step by step instead of jumping ahead of myself. I need to stay focused on the what the job is today, at this moment,” said Matthies. “If I go late in the order, I watch some go, I go out to ride, I eat breakfast and go over my plan. I also have to eat before I ride. You have to eat to keep up with the grueling schedule although I have been scolded for eating a bagel during the course walk!”
“There are so many details that people going the first or second time don’ t know, it’s a mileage game,” said Hirt. “With the 3’3” medal now, kids can get mileage earlier to get a jump on the feel of the finals. We all learn something every year.”
Those Wonderful Horses
“We also learned that we need more horses,” stated Hirt.  “One horse just can’t do it all. I also think you have to have three horses to win. The more you have the riders in the tack and working, the better the kids are and the more you can spread the work across multiple horses, the better they are.”
“The kids that win have been in the ring a dozen times before the day of the finals on junior hunters and jumpers so it’s just another time in the ring for them versus kids that only get to come for the equitation and only have one shot to get it right,” continued Hirt. “Kids having the experience in the jumper ring at bigger heights then shifting to the hunter ring for the smoothness is definitely a plus.”


Paige Matthies has been winning on her jumpers, Dirkie Z (pictured above) and Climbus, who earned a High Junior Jumper Championship at WEF. Photo M4E

“Melissa provides a lot for us to ride, sale hoses, young horses, Nancy Whitehead has horses we use and we ride anything we can,” said Matthies. “We all take on projects at home and practice riding green ones and being hands on in the barn.”
Hirt explained that you don’t have to own them all but a variety of leases can be an affordable way to get the extra mileage. Even leasing a jumper for a few months or adding an extra equitation horse for a short time can benefit. The really great equitation horses are scooped up early or saved until just before indoors, but there are still plenty of horses available to learn on.

"We have been very fortunate to be part of Melissa Hirt and Paige Matthies' team," said Ken Smith. "The key to success is teamwork, hard work, the right horse and strategic planning. We try to plan the best shows and not over-use the horses. We appreciate Melissa's trust in Ashland Farms, we are part of her team and working together for the ultimate outcome."
Hirt has a great track record going and is one of the many trying for that big equitation win for one of her riders. She summed it up best by saying, “It takes a village and we’ve got one of the best villages anyone could ever ask for. You can’t let your ego get the best of you as a trainer and think you can make it happen on your own. You have to be confident enough to ask for help as riders have to be committed enough to put in the work and parents have to be in the boat for the long haul, but the experience is worth every minute.”

About Northern Pines Farm
Melissa Hirt is a native of suburban Chicago and moved to Leelanau County in 1995, completing construction of her Northern Pines equine dream in 2000. Today, Melissa's students are winning numerous top honors at the zone, regional, and national levels through her experienced training and remarkable skill of matching riders and horses to create impressive teams.

Northern Pines Farm boasts 32 stalls with spacious heated viewing room, large indoor and outdoor arenas and 15 paddocks set in the beautiful countryside of Maple City, Michigan. Amenities include Theraplate and treadmill along with a roomy wash stall with heat lamp. The farm has a location next to the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival show facility in Traverse City and now Wellington, Florida/
For more information on Northern Pines Farm please visit or "Like" them onFacebook. #LoveWhereYouRide

Northern Pines Farm
7347 S. Stachnik Road
Maple City, MI 49664

Traverse City Location
Next to Great Lakes Equestrian Festival

Northern Pines Farm (South)
14903 Paddock Dr.
Wellington, Florida



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