My road to the 2021 American Eventing Championships (AECs) has been a tumultuous one, filled with many unexpected twists and turns and periods of great sadness mixed with periods of overwhelming joy. My journey to the AECs began like many in the year that was 2020, the year of the global pandemic. My name is Melissa Fox and I am an adult amateur. I’m a very active competitor in Area II and a member of the Area II Adult Riders.
I first began to participate in the sport of eventing in the late 1990s at the suggestion of one of my mother’s work friends, Ann Adams. My first recognized horse trial was at Seneca Valley Pony Club Fall Horse Trials in 1997 with a fiery little thoroughbred mare named Tequila Bay, though my experience with horseback riding started much earlier. My mother had seen a local ad in the newspaper for riding lessons at Frying Pan Park in Herndon, Virginia and thought that may be fun for me and my twin brother. I am sure she regrets that decision to this day! Throughout my childhood I was an active member in the United States Pony Club (Loudoun Hunt PC) and graduated as a tradition “A” in 2011 after participating for almost 20 years. This is where I was first introduced to eventing as a young “D” member at 7 years of age. When I was a teenager, my mother had allowed me to purchase Tequila Bay, with whom I began eventing. My love for the sport would truly begin with her, but the passion for becoming competitive in the sport would not occur until I was in my early 20s and took a working student position with the Olympian Stephen Bradley. Stephen helped me find one of my best eventing partners, Diamond Legacy (Gus), and showed me another side of the sport that I had never known. My time with Stephen not only helped make me into a better rider but also allowed me to ultimately become a better competitor.
My love for eventing continued to grow throughout my early adulthood and into my thirties. The role of the sport and the role of my horses in my life would change drastically as I pursued higher education, ultimately leading me to became a registered nurse full time. Throughout that time, I was fortunate enough to have two amazing thoroughbreds, Gus and Command Approval (Pride), that I actively competed at the training level throughout the country. In 2013, I was fortunate enough to catch the eye of Patrick McGaughan (“Packy”) when I tied with one of his long-time students Barbara Werther in the Training Rider division at Waredaca Horse Trials. After that event, I began training exclusively with Packy until his passing in March of 2020, another huge loss that contributed to the tragedy that was 2020. Under the watchful eye of Packy, I was named the Adult Training Rider and the Adult Amateur Training Rider of the Year in 2013, 2014, and 2015. I was also the recipient of the prestigious Dover Challenge Award, which was awarded to the highest placed adult amateur training rider and horse combination in the nation, all three years with Gus. I competed both horses at the AECs from 2013 through 2015 when it was held at the Texas Rose Horse Park, placing 3rd in 2014 and 2nd in 2015 with Gus and 9th with Pride in 2015.
The years after these achievements brought significantly life changes, including getting married, having my son, and finishing multiple nursing programs (including a bachelor program and graduate program at the University of Virginia where I completed both a Bachelor of Science and Master’s of Science in Nursing). During this time, I also experienced a slew of veterinary problems with my horses, including two colic surgeries for Gus and numerous injuries for Pride.
After Packy’s untimely passing in March of 2020, I had a very hard time accepting his unexpected loss and moving forward with any riding ambitions. In addition, the pandemic had hit the world and many challenges were ahead of me as a nurse, student, mother, and wife of a first responder. As uncertainty in both healthcare and my educational pursuits continued, my only saving grace was the time I could spend on the farm with my horses and preparing them for the return of our sport, even without my mentor, coach, and dearest friend Packy. At this point Gus was fully retired, and Pride was 17 and nearing the end of his competitive career. My family and I decided to start looking for another thoroughbred to fill his shoes. I came across an advertisement from Jessica Redman of Benchmark Sport Horses for a horse named Tito Tonight. Tito was a chestnut thoroughbred, which have become my weakness, that had last raced in January of 2020 and was now looking for a second career. I loved Tito from the first picture she had posted and my affinity for him continued as she posted more photos and videos of him. I contacted Jessica about Tito and agreed to buy him sight unseen without a vetting. I had purchased a horse from Jessica in the past and knew that she was a great horsewoman that was honest and had the best interests of her horses at heart. My mother and I went up to pick him up the next weekend, May 1st. All I can say is that the Chesapeake Bay Bridge with a bumper pull trailer is a very nerve wracking experience, so I must of wanted Tito pretty badly!
2020 continued to hit our family hard when Pride passed away suddenly from a diaphragmic hernia at the beginning of June (exactly one month after purchasing Tito). Although I had begun to slow down with him due to his age, I had been preparing him to make his season debut at Loudoun Hunt Pony Club Horse Trials (my alumni pony club) at the end of June 2020 when the pandemic restrictions were starting to ease. I was also planning on taking him to the AECs in 2020 in Lexington, Kentucky. One of biggest regrets after his passing was that I did not take him to compete at the AECs in 2019 for fear that his dressage score would not be competitive enough to place well. I have learned an important life lesson: always live life to the fullest and do what makes you happy despite the fear you might fail. I will always regret missing out on this experience with Pride, but I have moved forward. Pride’s death on top of the loss of my beloved coach, mentor, and friend sent me into a dark period of my life I would never want to relive. But like many people I had to continue to be a wife, mother, daughter, friend, nurse, and graduate student. Life does not slow down even when you are at the most vulnerable period in your life or during the darkest times. I was only able to continue living my life fully through the support of my family and friends and through the development of my relationship with Tito. After Pride’s death I knew that Tito coming into our lives when he did was meant to be! While Packy was my coach for 7 years, his favorite horse of mine was Pride and the thought of Packy being able to take care of Pride in heaven surely helped with the healing of my heart.
After I boarded and trained Tito for the first few months at Bourke Eventing, he came to our family farm in August where our relationship could truly begin to strengthen and develop. Tim has continued to be an active part of Tito’s development. In September 2020, Tito and I competed in our first starter horse trial together at Loch Moy in Maryland. Tito did super and we finished in 5th in the beginner novice, ending on our dressage score. Just a few days prior to the event, Tito had been injured in the field when another horse reared up and came down on his back. Although he was never unsound, I decided to take him up to Spurlock Equine Associates in Lovettesville, Virginia and have the area x-rayed. To my surprise he had fractured the dorsal spinal process of a single sacral vertebra in his back. Tito had just jumped around our first horse trial with a fractured vertebra, which proves to me that the heart of this horse cannot be beat and must be made of gold!
Tito was limited to hacking and flatwork for 12 weeks to ensure his back healed properly. During that time, Tito and I had a lot of time to bond on a different level. Our rides got to slow down, and we got to know each other more thoroughly while on long hacks by ourselves. During this time he also learned to trust me fully. Although I should have focused our down time on strengthening our dressage work, I always worried about how much pain he may be in and how much I should push him during his recovery. During his recovery, Tito had the time he needed to improve his travelling skills by becoming more proficient at getting on and off the trailer, as we do not have a ring or hacking areas on our farm, and learning to be less anxious during trailering. Tito got very familiar with Woodstock Equestrian Park outside of Dickerson, Maryland where we would go four to five times a week during his recovery.
Towards the end of December of 2020, Tito was given a clearance to begin back over fences. We made a trip to Aiken in January of 2021 to continue training and hopefully compete him at his first recognized horse trial. Our first competition in 2021 would be at the unrecognized combined test hosted by Stable view Farm in Aiken. Tito and I would then return the next week for Tito’s first recognized horse trial of his “second career” in eventing. Our trip to Aiken was a huge success! Tito competed and completed both planned horse shows, finishing 2nd in the combined test and 8th in the beginner novice horse trial at Stable View, only adding a single (green) rail to his dressage score. Once we returned home, Tito and I spent a lot of time at the indoor at Morven Park Equestrian Center and the indoor at Milestone Sport Horses owned by Hannah Schofield in Lovettesville, Virginia. I continued to balance family life, graduate school, and riding time somewhat well throughout February and March of 2021. Tito’s next outing was the opening event in Area II, Southern Pines I, where he continued to improve for a 4th place tie in the beginner novice (ended in 5th based on optimum time). Tito finished out his beginner novice experience at Morven Park Spring Horse Trials where he finished on his dressage score, which was good enough for 2nd place, and led to his last qualification for beginner novice at the AECs.
My biggest goal for 2021 with Tito was to qualify him for the AECs in Lexington, Kentucky. This goal developed shortly after bringing Tito home. In today’s society, social media has become a powerful tool and resource to connect with people from all walks of life and from all around the world. It is through social media that Tito’s last racing owner contacted me about him. Marianne Scherer lives, trains, and races out of Louisville, Kentucky at Churchill Downs with her husband Eric T. Scherer. She is originally from Sweden and she claimed Tito after a race on 5/23/2019, where he had a poor race finishing almost last. The Scherer’s then owned him until his last race on January 9, 2020. When Marianne first contacted me, she told me that selling him was one of the hardest things she has had to do. Since then Marianne has become an active support person for me. I share updates on Tito often and she sends me pictures and videos from when she had him. In this particular experience, social media was an important and vital tool that brought us together. I am excited to report that we are also going to get to finally meet in Lexington, Kentucky when Marianne comes to see him compete in a couple of weeks!
Social media has also allowed me to reconnect with a horse friend from high school named Caitlin Ryan. We lost touch many years ago when our lives went in different directions. Her daughter, Samantha Manning, is now competing and we have connected often at local horse trials to remember the “good ol’ days” of when she would come watch me and that fiery thoroughbred Tequila Bay, the horse that started it all, race around the cross country courses. Now we are going to stable together at the AECs in Kentucky, which will be so much fun!
In April of this year I decided to move Tito up to Novice. In order to prepare for this, I decided to take Tito to some schooling jumper shows at local venues like Beverly Equestrian and Morven Park. My first horse trial at Novice would be the Loch Moy April Starter Horse Trial and then the next week he would compete at Loudoun Hunt Pony Club Spring Horse Trials at Morven Park. Tito did exceptionally well at Loch Moy, finishing 2nd in his division and earning the TIP champion for the Novice level. The next week, he continued to excel and brought home a 3rd place finish in his first recognized Novice horse trial. A rider error of 2 speed faults on cross country kept us from the win, but I was so pleased with him. Tito’s spring season did not slow down after that and included a 2nd place at Waredaca, 7th at Virginia, 4th at Seneca, and two 2nd places at Maryland I & II, solidifying his qualification for Novice at the AECs. Now with only a few weeks remaining before our big trip to Kentucky, we are planning to go to Waredaca and Seneca Valley Pony Club Fall Horse Trials before heading out August 30th, 2021 to make our way to the Kentucky Horse Park. Our success has truly been due to a large support system that Tito and I are lucky to have that includes Bourke Eventing, my mother Victoria Fox (a large contributor), the lessons that I learned from Packy McGaughan, friends like Amy Brown (who not only watched our story unfold, but also helped edit my recollection of it) and Erin Storey (of Storey Tails in Boise, Idaho), Hannah Schofield at Milestone Sport Horses, Marianne Scherer (Tito’s last racing owner) and Scherer racing, Jessica Redman and Benchmark Sport Horses, Nicole Ardito-Ng from Mountain Crest Farm, my faithful husband Michael McMurrer, Liz Mras at Stone Oak Stables, and Sara Miller Leary (whom I recently started working with) to just name a few (sorry if I forgot to mention others). Our story is looking so bright and is far from over – well really just beginning – and I can’t wait to see everyone in Lexington in a few weeks’ time! But wait, an update has been posted below.
As our story continues to unfold, I now have an unfortunately sad update to our journey. On Saturday afternoon (August 7, 2021), I decided to take Tito on a quick hack around the farm after getting back from picking up hay from Pennsylvania. Everything was going according to plan and I hopped on him, using our fence gate to get on, to walk down to our little jump area at the farm. I made the remark to my mom that the turkeys were perched on the fence close to the back of our neighbors property. I didn’t think to much of it at the time, as we see them fairly frequently and our horses are somewhat used to seeing them around the fields. The ground in Virginia is extremely hard at this time of year so I don’t ride that frequently at home. In one of fields there is a small nature ditch that normally funnels water towards our creek and almost always holds water. This ditch was completely dry as Tito and I crossed through it (which I have only seen happen maybe a handful of times since we have owned the property). At this point, I am very close to our jump area when Tito begins spooking. Tito’s reaction to fear is to rear, which I found out shortly after he came home when he did not want to go over that natural ditch with water in it about a year ago. I have learned that if he is so fearful that he is willing to rear the easiest thing to do is to get off and lead him over (on foot) to the object or area that he is scared of. Even after obtaining this knowledge over the past year, Tito has not reacted like this for almost 10 months, I still did use this information during the spooking incident that occurred on Saturday. Looking back on what happened, I truly believe that my time constraints may have affected my better judgement and knowledge of my horse. I decided on this day that I would try to push Tito past the fear and get him to walk over to whatever he was spooking at (which I was unsure of at that point) instead of getting off. Tito reared twice and then turned back towards the barn. I recomposed ourselves, meaning I rebalanced and got my stirrup back, kind of yelled at him, and turned him to re-approach the area. Again, he was fearful and this time his second rear unseated me and I fell off. I hit the ground hard on the right side of my back. After riding for 30 years and many falls (that involved numerous concussions), I thought to myself my butt is finally heavier that my head! The pain from hitting the ground took my breath away and I laid still for some time (turns out it was a lot longer than I thought it was) all the while thinking to myself, “this stupid redheaded horse finally got me off!”
Once my mom tended to Tito (who was running around the field like a wild banshee), she came down to tend to me. Turns out this whole thing happened due to those same turkeys, we had seen while mounting, popping out from behind a cluster of trees near the edge of the property. I got up very gingerly and told her I thought that I could drive the tractor up to the house (where I could sit and rest). Once I made it onto the back deck steps, my mom and husband both convincing arguments for me to go to the hospital. I have fallen plenty of times in the past and knew this pain felt different. My main concern immediately following the fall was the potential that I could have injured my right kidney based on the location of my pain. I finally agreed to let my mother call for an ambulance and was transported to the local emergency department (ED). The staff at the ED understood my concerns and ordered a full body CT scan, which would look at everything from my head (due to my history of concussions) down to my feet. Once I returned from obtaining the ordered imaging, I advised the staff that I needed to use the restroom. The nurse at this point, little did I know, had seen the imaging report and advised me that I could not get out of bed. It was at that moment that I knew something was seriously wrong. The nurse advised me that she had seen the imaging report and was waiting on a read from an advanced practice provider (in this case I was under the care of a Family Nurse Practitioner), but she could read me the report (the nurse knew my educational background). It was at that time I was informed that I have 4 (that’s right, 4) transverse process fractures of L1-L4 (the lumbar region) vertebrae in my spine. I was now to remain on complete bedrest, until further notice, and would be admitted to the trauma unit at Loudoun Hospital in Lansdowne, Virginia. Although this whole incident seems very fitting with our story, the story itself is pretty lame (first time falling off of Tito and it was at the walk because of some stupid turkeys). It’s also odd that at about this time last year Tito had sustained a fracture to a vertebrae in his back and now, this year, I have 4 fractures in my spine; I guess we are now a matching pair! Although the road to AECs has taken another unfortunate turn, we will set our sights on the AECs in 2022 at Rebecca Farm in Kalispell, Montana where my friend Erin Storey, from Storey Tails at Once Upon a Horse in Eagle Idaho, and I will be able to compete side by side. This will be the first time since our United States Pony Club days over 20 years ago! Until then, good luck and safe travels to all of the competitors heading to AECs 2021 in Kentucky in just a few weeks time!