Why people are heading to Grange-over-Sands to learn dressage
- Credit: Archant
Interest in dressage continues to grow and in the north we have some of the best exponents and finest teachers. Writer and photographer Sandy Kitching met one.
While her two younger brothers followed their father, Roy Allen, into the car sales business, Melanie Turner had a different kind of horse power in her sights.
For the last 17 years she has been training horses and giving riding lessons at a purpose-built equestrian facility on the premises of a former dairy farm at Lindale near Grange-over-Sands.
‘My parents bought Castle Head Farm in 2000 and still live in the farmhouse in the grounds, leaving the former farm buildings free for me to convert into a large stables with tack room and an area for an outdoor arena,’ said Melanie. ‘Many of my clients have been incredibly loyal, coming to me for years to help them to continue to improve their riding and dressage skills and build a stronger bond with their horses.’
The yard is pristine and riders benefit from the arena having a wall fitted with mirrors so they can see their posture as they go through their paces.
Although Melanie did not come from a horse background, she showed an interest in ponies from an early age, asking for horse riding lessons for her eighth birthday.
Melanie was born in Kendal and went to school at the Lakes School in Windermere. Desperate to be around horses in all her free time, she started helping out at Frances Hay-Smith’s riding school in Windermere and was rewarded by being sent to groom at various events around the country.
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‘The biggest thrill in the early days was riding the horses bareback into their fields at the end of a day,’ she said. ‘I got my first pony when I was 12 and my first horse at 16.’
When she left school, Melanie had thought she would take a year out before going to train as a primary school teacher, but her love of all things equine led her to use the year to train with Judith Buckley at Ings.
‘I started winning dressage competitions and became Judith’s head girl in the stables,’ Melanie explained. ‘While working for Judith, I continued to train with Frances and she encouraged me to go and train with the British Dressage pony team trainer, Ian Woodhead, and by the time I was 19, I knew all I wanted was a career with horses.’
Melanie stayed in Ian’s family home in Grimsby and lived, worked and breathed horses seven days a week at Weelsby Park Riding School. She loved it so much, Melanie ended up working for Ian on-and-off for 11 years.
‘I rode some fantastic dressage horses and started to make friends in the world of dressage. I had some wonderful opportunities,’ she said. ‘I also realised how much money there was involved in competing to Olympic standards, which was quite daunting for someone from my background.’
Ian Woodhead’s yard was run with military precision, something that Melanie has kept with her when it comes to presenting her own stables to clients. ‘The stables were always immaculate and we had a weekly list to polish brasses and tack,’ she said. ‘Saddles were cleaned and saddle pads and bandages washed after every ride. Even the weeds between the cobbles had to be removed. My clients think I am a bit obsessive, but it has become so important to look after every small part of the yard, and it is even more important with the horses.’
Melanie’s horses and the two she looks after and competes on for the owners, Debbie and Kevin Thompson, are washed and groomed daily and their coats are immaculate and shiny. ‘It’s the same even if I am just exercising a horse on my own,’ she said smiling. ‘They are groomed, their hooves oiled and manes and tails brushed through.’
While still working for Ian Woodhead, Melanie bought a coloured horse, Tamberonie, and she knew they had a very special connection from early on.
‘David Hunt started to train me and continues to do so. He put us forward to the Lottery funded World Class Selection Olympic pathway squad of 2012 which I became part of,’ she said. ‘With Tamberonie I won regional titles and national placings, competing to Intermediare II level and we were all ready to enter our first Grand Prix, but he went lame a month before we were to compete and that was the end of our dream.’
Losing horses is part of the harsh reality and Melanie has lost more than her fair share to unforeseen illness and injury.
‘I have recently bought foals, so it can take five years or more to get one ready to competition level,’ she explained. ‘People ask why I don’t just get an older, trained horse, but some people have no idea how much that can cost and, even then, you still have to build the bond, and there’s no guarantee any horse won’t get ill.’
Melanie is currently working with a horse called Frasier FST, taking him through his paces in the arena for me to see. ‘I got him as a foal and he’s still quite fiery at six-years-old, but is showing lots of potential,’ she said. ‘He is British born and was British Hannovarian Champion Foal in 2012.’
Another young contender is five-year-old OFS Pitch Black, affectionately known as Peter, who is owned by Debbie and Kevin Thompson of Flookburgh. ‘All our horses have been bred in Britain,’ said Melanie. ‘Many people go abroad, but there’s no need as we have some excellent breeders in this country. I have great support from Debbie and Kevin, whose horses I hope to train and compete to a high level in the future.’
People of all ages and abilities bring their horses to Melanie for tuition and they travel from as far as Penrith in the north and Preston and Chorley in the south.
Before the end of my visit, Melanie gave a lesson to Marie Watson from Lancaster on her horse, Lescadeur. ‘Melanie has a special gift for bringing out the best in a horse and rider,’ said Marie. ‘She is so calm and patient and, with her help and encouragement, I won a British Dressage national title in 2016.’
Melanie lives in Grange-over-Sands with her husband Craig and daughter Emilia, who will be five in October. Emilia is already showing an interest in the horses and has her own little grey Welsh pony called Deio. ‘I won’t ever discourage her from following an equine career, although I sometimes wonder how different my life would have been if I had followed my father into the car business at Lake District Audi, especially when I see my two brothers taking paid holidays and having the security of company pensions!But horses are my passion – I wouldn’t change things for the world.’