“A barn is a sanctuary in an unsettled world, a sheltered place where life’s true priorities are clear. When you take a step back, it’s not just about horses – it’s about love, life and learning.” This is a quote by Lauren Davis Barker on the Facebook page of Misty Morning Stables in Cherryfield, Maine.
Cherryfield claims to be the Blueberry Capital of the World. And you may get the most delicious, reasonably priced lobster you ever had there. But if you are a horse crazy kid, the best thing this town has to offer is a blue barn and arena nestled next to a salt water river on Millbridge Road. Misty Morning Stable is the realized dream of Melanie Gay. It is her warm caring spirit that envelopes you the minute you set foot on the well-worn path to her door.
There is a smile in her voice, not just on her face. She laughs easily and often and she’s regularly surrounded by people that obviously worship her. When she shares her story, it is apparent that the joy in which she lives was not handed to her or easily attained. It is an impressive account of a woman who didn’t give up, didn’t settle, and battled bravely against what would have destroyed most of us. Melanie acknowledges she didn’t fare well in school because of dyslexia. Then she discovered the beloved children’s book, Misty of Chincoteague. She devoured it along with the rest of the series and then every horse book she could find. Subsequently, a pony with a red ribbon around its neck she received on Christmas morning had to be named Misty.
Love of horses became passion, obsession and total immersion. Because she was lucky enough to be raised on a farm, she had 20 horses by the time she was sixteen and ran a hack line out of her family’s dairy farm. She admits being self-taught and realized eventually she had much to learn. She attended 5-H Acres School of Horsemanship in Cortland, NY under the tutelage of Susan Harris. Upon graduation, she headed to Connecticut to work for Barbara Johnson, a woman who ran an extensive lesson program
“That is really where I learned how to run a successful lesson program. I learned to juggle all the pieces of a top notch program, the upper level kids helping with the lower level riders, the organizing and the showing. After five years, I felt confident enough to go out on my own and leased what became the first “Misty Morning Stables”. ” Melanie remembers. “It was a ten stall facility and I had a successful team on the statewide show circuit.” A woman who took some day camps and clinics with Melanie became interested in owning a lesson business. In due course, Melanie sold her business to the woman and went to work for her. Eventually, a serious farm accident left Melanie with a badly broken leg and jobless. “I ended up in retail sales, but never quit freelance teaching” she recalls. “It was a good way to earn extra money and to keep my finger in the horse business.”
In December of 1998, Melanie was diagnosed with cancer. It would change her life in what ended up to be a very positive way, but that wasn’t apparent initially. The struggle, both physically and financially, drove her home. By January of 2000 Melanie, broke and broken, returned to her family’s farm in Maine. It was now empty of livestock and in disrepair after a fire had badly damaged some of the buildings. She considered becoming a teacher, but the universe had other plans for her. In June of that same year, two donated horses showed up and Melanie eased back into the horse business.
Her dad agreed to build five stalls, but was convinced the area would never support a thriving horse business. Technically he was right, but that didn’t stop Melanie. “This county is one of the poorest counties in the country. Even though it is bigger in area than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, there are no stop lights in this county. These families don’t have the money to participate in this sport the way other people do. I fund-raise for kids to go to horse shows” she states openly. “What I decided to do here has more to do with offering opportunities than with horses, although we sure have fun with the horses.”
In a community that has a higher drug use per capita population than most cities, many kids have found Misty Morning Stable to be their portal to a better life. “I brought some students to a clinic in southern Maine ten years ago. One of the girls who was 12, had never been out the county. She saw her first mail truck and rode on her first elevator.” Melanie says. “This has been my vehicle to change lives.”
“Jasmine Bruno, another one of my students now has her Master’s degree and works for Bill Gates. The man who gave her the scholarship to make that possible was worried she would get eaten alive when she went to a prestigious expensive college with privileged students. I assured him she would be fine. She had already gone from being the nervous kid at a local state fair who didn’t think she had a shot, to a competitor with the ability to win at Eastern States in Springfield, Ma. She beat kids who spent more on their show clothes wardrobe than she did on her horse, saddle and bridle. “Melanie declares proudly.
Today, a healthy vibrant Melanie attacks the day’s work with the grit of a third generation farmer. The initial five stalls were quickly expanded by six more and then again until the total reached twenty-six. In time, an arena was added. The once drooping fences have been replaced with neat tight fencing.
“Some local farmers told me about some grant money that was available to farmers from the ASCS for fencing and soil erosion improvements. I applied for and was awarded a grant. Because I got help installing and building the fence from my barn families, I was able to stretch the money to include grading of a new outside arena.” Melanie reports.
The camps at Misty Morning Stable operate largely on a mentoring system. While the regular show kids have their own weeks of camp, i.e. Get Ready to Show Camp, it is the beginner weeks of camp that each of the experienced students are eager to help with. With up to thirty beginners, the staff runs five different stations throughout the day with each camper rotating through each station. Melanie teaches the riding station aided by her older students who man the lead lines of very young and inexperienced riders. It is their goal to get these riders off the lead line by the end of camp, although that may not always happen. Other more accomplished students may give grooming, bathing or leading demonstrations.
Melanie figures just about every one of her boarders started out as a camper. She currently has a barn full of nationally ranked Appaloosa Youth Exhibitors that started on the end of those lead lines not so long ago. She is proud of what they’ve accomplished given the socio-economic make-up of her area. She concedes that they are often competing against exhibitors who have spent a lot more money to get there, but she has great confidence in the talent her kids have and the hard work they’ve put in.
“I love that my kids can go the Appaloosa Nationals and be competitive, but I know it’s about a lot more than that” she says. That philosophy becomes evident when she is asked how young she starts children. “I start them as soon as they are old enough and coordinated enough to operate a wheelbarrow. I also figures that after four days in summer camp, kids know whether riding is for them or not..”.””
A very special kid who had no question riding WAS for him is Noah Carver. He came to Misty Morning four years ago with a simple desire – to ride a horse. “I noticed a billboard ad for a horse camp and called asking if our son, who was born blind, could register” said Suzanne Carver. “Melanie first wanted to meet with our son, Noah. The rest, as they say, is history”.
Melanie remembers that meeting. “Honestly, I had no experience with blind people. I wanted to just meet him and get a feel for what he was capable of.” What she found was an extremely bright, outgoing, and athletic little boy. Melanie and her crew committed to doing whatever they could to get Noah riding .
Noah also remembers his start. “I really warmed up to the horses the first time I went there. Riding makes me feel like I’m flying through the air. I like getting to know the horses by being with them. It makes me feel happy when I’m working with them. When I’m riding I feel like I’m on top of the world.” At his first camp, Melanie assigned two people to assist Noah as he rode. One to lead and one to walk beside him. Other than that, she taught him as a typical student. Noah quickly improved, in part because he was so attentive and adept at following directions. Melanie noticed his good balance right away.
“One of the things he learned in his riding lessons that has helped him in his everyday life is, that as a blind child, Noah always walked with his head down. There really is no reason for a blind child to keep his head up. “ When Melanie pointed out that holding his head up improved his balance while riding, Noah carried that improvement forward to the ground and into his next accomplishment, which was skiing.
A joyful young man, Noah is happy to share his enthusiasm for riding with anyone who asks. “I really enjoy horseback riding the sport and also the part behind it, taking care of the horses. I also like showing because I get to show off what I’ve learned. I’ve shown at Misty Morning Stables for two years and this year, for the first time, I showed without a leader. I felt really proud of myself for trying it. It was a big accomplishment.”
I was lucky enough to be at that show where Noah showed on his own. It was awe inspiring. What struck me beyond this child’s great achievement, was the entire stable crew’s support and pride in the goal that was being reached. It went way beyond just Noah’s aim, the other kids, the instructors and all the related spectators beamed with pride over what was happening. They were all obviously invested.
“The people here are always ready to help me out and teach me something new.” Noah explains, “Melanie taught me to jump and now I really love to jump and would like to do more. At first, I was scared to canter, but Lisa Blanchette (a volunteer at Misty Morning) helped me overcome my fear and now I canter every day I’m here.”
Although his needs may be slightly different, Noah is the same as many kids finding their passion and joy in a loving barn atmosphere. There is always someone close by, should he need it, but Noah is completely efficient at grooming, saddling, bridling and even getting his own helmet.
“I’m just one of the pack at Misty Morning Stable and am not treated differently from anybody else. They have the same expectations for me as the others. It’s a positive can-do attitude here which encourages me and drives me to do more things.”
His mom mirrors his praise for this stable. “Over the past four seasons, Noah has grown in confidence and ability. His dad and I couldn’t be happier with his progress. We look forward to what the future holds as Noah continues working with Melanie, Lisa and the exceptional young women of Misty Morning Stables.”