Some of you might know me by name, Melina Poole Minnillo, but most of you probably know me as @mpmsporthorses. I just know myself to be the horse mama who has been blessed to share my journey filled with these magnificent animals. I am 24 years old, and I reside in sunny Tampa, FL. I started riding in small pony camps at the age of 4 and by the age of 7, I was riding competitively. I’ve had a love for horses from an early age and despite not having been born into a horsey family, my parents knew I was destined to have horses in my life.
I rode my entire childhood in Arizona at Crossroads Farm, where hooves of all sizes began to leave their prints on my heart forever. Tom, Rose, Teddy, Titan and Simon were some of the lesson horses who had the biggest influence on my riding. Tom showed me that giants could in fact be gentle. Rose taught me the many lessons of mare-hood and how to get back on after a fall. Teddy showed me that behind a teddy bear pony face, ponies were in fact always plotting, don’t let them fool you! Titan was the first horse I ever leased, and he taught me that time together was never promised when his owner moved and our lease was cut short. Simon might have been the grumpy old school horse, but he swooped in after Titan left and dutifully packed me around some of my first schooling shows. If it weren’t for those ponies and horses, I never would’ve learned such valuable lessons to be prepared to own a horse of my very own.
Crossroads Farm was one of most well known hunter/jumper show barns in the area. And with that title, their stalls were filled with beautiful show horses, primarily imported or homebred warmbloods. But one of those stalls stabled a small, golden coated “pony” that would soon hold the key to my heart. This 15h palomino quarter horse, was Missy. She was 10 years old at the time, and had come from a farm in Oklahoma where she had grown up learning the western ropes. But somehow, Missy found her way to Arizona’s Crossroads Farm where she learned the way of the jumper world. She proved to have a golden heart to match her golden coat. I remember one of the older girls jumping her, and I’d always watch with big eyes filled with envy. I’d think to myself, “one day I’ll have a horse like that of my very own!” And to my surprise, the lesson horses had all been used one hot Arizona day, and fate ran it’s course when I was told to tack up Missy. Missy was fierce and fast, far too much for itty bitty 10 year old me, but we jumped those jumps anyways. And somehow, the next few weeks I just so happened to have Missy allotted for my lesson times. To my surprise, on my 11th birthday I was handed an envelope, the envelope that would make every horse girls ultimate dream come true, ownership papers of the beautiful golden mare, Missy.
Financially my parents gave me all that they could afford to pursue my dreams. First, by gifting me Missy herself, and by allowing me to compete in one to two horse shows per year. If I wanted to compete in more shows, I had to save the money to do so myself. This was just another lesson I would learn, the value of a dollar, and to work for the things you want. Missy and I went on to compete in the 1.10m-1.15m high child jumpers which would usually result in a handful of blues and a grand champion when we were extra lucky.
As a teen, I could remember thinking how out of place everyone thought we were in the show world. I didn’t get to show often, and when I did, I showed up with a quarter horse in a world full of fancy warmbloods. I remember how much that stigma frustrated me. Why did it matter what breed your horse was, where it came from, or how expensive it was. But I never let myself think like that. I appreciated what my parents had given me, and what a blessing it was to even be able to lesson, have a horse of my own, and get to compete in a horse show or two now and again. We continued to lesson and compete in our 1-2 shows per year, until I learned that I had an injury unrelated to riding that would require surgery. In 2011, I underwent reconstructive hip surgery at the age of 16. My entire recovery took months and doctors were advising for me to find a new hobby, but I could never give up my passion to ride.
During my recovery I insisted on visiting Missy at the farm, wheelchair / crutches and all. I didn’t have the picture perfect family life, but Missy was the one thing I always had to look forward to. Despite her sometimes frustrating mare-ish antics or the bloodied blistered hands she would give me running all about during our rides, on the ground was where I connected with her the most. Missy was a fierce competitor. She made sure that if I just held on and remembered what jumps to point her at, she’d run as fast as she could, soaring clean over each and every jump. But what I loved most about her, was her gentle disposition on the ground. Throughout my childhood & teenage years, she was my listening ear, my keeper of secrets, my shoulder to cry on, my reason to smile, my teacher of many lessons, my best friend, and my “heart” horse. But most of all, she was my inspiration to recover and get back to the saddle.
I returned to riding after I was fully recovered, but with school and work it left no time to be as dedicated as I had liked. Fast forward to today, now married and relocated to FL, I am blessed with different circumstances. With the help of my loving husband's support, I was fortunate enough to return to riding and commit everything I had to pursue more of my equestrian dreams.
At the beginning of 2016, my heart would be crushed in a way I never saw coming. I had finally been able to get back to a committed riding schedule with Missy, but my time riding my golden girl was cut short. Missy was diagnosed with degenerative suspensory ligament disease, known as DSLD. This diagnosis meant my time in the saddle with Missy was over, and she had earned her retirement status. Shortly after this diagnosis, I had returned to riding and showing with a horse I temporarily leased. By the end of that year I had purchased my new show partner many of you know and love, Caraszini.
When I began horse shopping, I traveled and tried so many horses, but I couldn’t find any worthy of filling the shoes Missy had left for them to fill. Until one day, I stumbled across a picture of this beautiful dappled bay jumper in a sale add that read, “coming soon to America”. I made an inquiry, only to find out his importation had fallen through with the broker, and he remained in the Netherlands. There was something about him, something I could just feel in my soul, that he was meant to be mine. I followed my heart and made the decision to purchase him, sight unseen and completely in the dark. There I was, importing this tall dark and handsome gelding that I had never ridden before, but nonetheless, I did it. And what stepped out of the trailer a few weeks later, was my beloved Zini.
Caraszini and I spent the rest of 2016 getting to know one another. At first, I felt uneasy thinking that I had bitten off more than I could chew. Zini was a spirited 7 year old at the time, he was green, and so was I. After plenty of ups and downs, we finally started to click. In the beginning of 2017, we had our show debut in the jumper ring. Jumpers was the only discipline I knew, yet somehow it felt like unfamiliar territory. Z and I went from the .65m-.85m classes, all the way up to 1.15m in our first year together. As fate would have it, we took home Mid Circuit Champion in the Low Adults at HITS after our first few shows. From there, we climbed the levels with many successes along the way. One of our greatest accomplishments was winning the CFHJA 1.15m M&S Jumper Classic. Shortly after that, we competed in the HITS 25k M&S classic and were one of 16 of the 70+ competitors to make it to the jump off, claiming a 13th place finish overall. In April of 2018, I was given the best birthday present of all, Zini helped making a debut in the 1.20m-1.25m Low JR/AO jumpers come true, on my birthday nonetheless! Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d ever make it to that level, but with Zini under my saddle, I knew that the sky was the limit. He was the horse that would take me all the way, that was until our world came crashing down all around us, piece by piece.
In the fall/winter of 2018, Zini slowly began to present behaviors completely out of his norm. We completed routine maintenance injections and several physicals/lameness exams, but with no significant changes to his behavior, I was determined to get my parter back. I sent him to a well renowned clinic in Ocala where they performed a lameness locator test and a full body bone scan / soft tissue scan in addition to several radiographs. All of this led us back to where we started, desperate and answerless. With no physical lameness present, many of the veterinarians he had seen believed it was truly just “behavioral” and “in between his ears”. But I refused to settle with that diagnosis. I went back to the drawing board, continued my own research, and found myself asking my primary veterinarian for a referral to a Large Animal Hospital that had the capability to perform an MRI.
In February of 2019, Zini was sent to this hospital in hopes we would finally get the answers we had been searching for. After additional lameness exams and a neurological work up, the staff agreed an MRI would be beneficial to pin pointing something, if anything at all. He was admitted to the hospital, where he stayed overnight and was prepped for his MRI taking place the following morning. I kept thinking once this test is concluded, we’ll have an answer, I can help him get the treatment he needs, and we’ll be back jumping even bigger classes before we know it! But unfortunately that wouldn't happen, and the MRI findings would become the least of our worries when I was called with heart breaking news. Suddenly, all of the possible complications they had read off to me that morning before the procedure were racing through my mind. Surely these couldn’t have happened to my Zini boy...they were just scary things that didn’t actually happen I thought? Wrong, very wrong. Zini’s MRI was complete, and he had been relocated to the padded recovery stall where he was to wake from anesthesia. But upon his awakening, the staff was met with our worst nightmare. Z was fully awake and coherent, but unable to get up. What did that mean? Was he just being lazy and taking his time getting up? Sadly, no. It was then that they realized Zini was suffering a severe complication from the anesthesia known as neurapraxia. The neuropathy was in his hind limbs, and he was struggling to regain function over them. To summarize in laments terms, neurapraxia is an injury to the peripheral nerves (I.e. not the spinal cord). The damage was in Zini’s hind legs due to pressure/inflammation/inadequate blood flow while being under the anesthesia. While they had taken all of the precautions of laying him down carefully to relieve pressure points for this very reason, sometimes in larger horses it’s inevitable. Neurapraxia can vary in severity and in location, but anti inflammatories and physical therapy are the mainstays of treatment. In rare cases, horses nerves are unable to regenerate or heal at all. I couldn’t help but feel responsible. I had been the one pushing for more tests and to find answers. Was I so blinded by my selfishness to desperately find an answer to help him that I had jeopardized his very health?
The 24 hours that followed this news looked quite grim, but 48 hours later, all of the love, support and prayers had uplifted him and he had shown some miraculous improvement. His left leg was strong, but the right leg tried to play catch up. Zini's recovery was much slower than most horses with the same injury, but we were hopeful that with enough time, he would prove to us the fighter he was. He remained in the ICU receiving the best care until he could regain enough strength to withstand a trailer ride back home. Eventually he was cleared for release and we brought him back home where he would begin a slow and steady recovery program consisting of stall rest, hand walks, tack walks to gradual flat work.
Fast forward to today, Zini is back in full flat work after 8 long months of recovery. However, the MRI did in fact finally provide us with closure to Zini’s on going behavioral issues. He was born with a small birth defect in one of his front hooves that was undetectable during his PPE. But having found this, we decided it would be in Zini’s best interest to have an early retirement from his show jumping career. It was devastating to say the least, but having gone through all of this it reminded me what mattered most, life’s smallest of blessings. I was one of very few people that ever got to feel Zini “fly”. Z gave me two of the most memorable years in my riding career and helped me to accomplish dreams I never thought possible. And although he can no longer jump, he is still here with me, happy and healthy.
Through all of this, I have decided to retire from showing as well. I chose to step down from the glamorous show world to instead pursue a full time roll being a devoted horse mama. In this industry it’s normal for riders to replace their horses should they ever need to retire, but I’m not there yet, and I don’t know if I ever will be. Especially with starting a family in our near future, the timing couldn’t be better. Not everyone supported my decision to retire him from jumping at such a young and promising age, but at what cost is a silly ribbon actually worth it? Sure, I could inject the area and see how long it lasts. I could even have a procedure I had never heard of known as a “neurectomy” performed that would deaden the nerves in his foot in hopes he’d last a few more shows before irreparable damage would occur. But for what? A few more ribbons? Zini was otherwise sound and healthy, and if I could ensure that he would stay that way why wouldn’t I? It felt like the day Zini’s jumping career ended, mine did too in some way. He was my partner, my teammate, and grieving that loss was incredibly hard. And we went through it together. But through these life changes it has made me take a step back and remember why I even started a career in this sport in the first place, my love for the horses. How many girls get to say they own not one, but two heart horses in their lifetime? I do! And I don’t know what I did to deserve them, but I make sure to spend my days living up to just how grateful I am to have them in my life. Whether I’m taking them out on a hand walk to enjoy a few extra nibbles of grass, or putting in some elbow grease with a curry comb to make them shine. Loving on Missy & Zini is such a blessing in itself, and I never want to lose sight of that. The fact I still get to saddle up and enjoy a good flat with Zini is more than I expected, yet another blessing. But what I want you all to take away is that horsemanship is just as rewarding as winning a big jumper class. So whether I’m teaching them a new trick like “bowing” or “kissing”, or getting their dapples to shine with thorough grooming, I find pleasure in those rewards more than I ever did taking home a ribbon.
So what’s in store for our future? Well, I am happy to announce my husband and I were fortunate enough to purchase a piece of land. And not just any land, it’s the land of all other dreams. This piece of grass will soon be the foundation of our future entirely. It is here that we will build our dream home and barn. What’s a dream home you ask? It will be our forever home, where we will someday raise babies of our own and hopefully have the opportunity of getting to grow old and gray together. But we made sure to keep our four legged babies in mind as well, making sure this land was large enough to have a private barn built right beside our house. This way our entire family can be together, two legged and four. I’ll be able to care for my horses and give them the best life possible till they earn their wings in heaven. But until then, they’ll be getting fed carrots from my kitchen window, plenty of spoiling, and maybe someday they will be the “school masters” that leave hoof prints on my own children’s hearts.
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