When Melanie Ainsworth Smith and her 9-year-old bay gelding, Calypso, won the show-jumping World Cup in Sweden in April, the 12,000 spectators in the Göteberg arena went wild. Hats and flowers sailed into the ring, and the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, Franklin S. Forsberg, who had been watching the World Cup live on television in Stockholm, called to congratulate her "for all of America."
Of course, the ambassador, ever the diplomat, failed to mention the fact that "all of America" has never heard of Smith, because "horse jumping," as Smith says, "just hasn't caught on here yet."
"Yet" is the operative word. Smith, a 33-year-old strawberry blonde with a will of tempered steel, has been fighting long odds and winning for a long time, and if she has anything to say about it, you're going to be hearing a lot about her in the next couple of years. She plans to put the sport of grand prix show jumping on the map—specifically, the map of North America. Europe is already tuned in. "Show jumping is the second most popular sport over there, after soccer," says Smith. "It's not unusual to have 60,000 or 70,000 people come to watch a competition. The crowds in Europe know what they are watching. They're more educated."
Indeed, Europe knew so well what it saw at the World Cup last spring in Sweden that Hermès, France's ineffably prestigious silk and leather firm, long a prominent supporter of show jumping, invited 35 ineffably prestigious guests to Paris to celebrate Smith's win, an accomplishment the Hermès people regarded as worthy of only the third party that their company has hosted in 150 years.
It is a delight to visualize Smith at such an elegant fete as she sits barefoot on the grass, wearing the most pragmatic of shorts and halter top, outside the stable complex that is growing under her firm direction at Windrush Farm in Morris, Conn. She's waiting for a call from Holland to get details on the purchase of a Dutch horse; a representative from the Road to L.A. has been calling from the Coast for days, wanting to conduct a six-hour telephone interview to serve as the basis for a TV script about her; ABC has already tromped over Windrush Farm, shooting footage for a special on her sport. But at the moment the toast of international show jumping is making a necklace of clover and recalling a simpler time, when she grew up, the quintessential horse nut, in Germantown, Tenn.
"I had a wonderful childhood," Smith says. She's the second daughter of Hugh Frank Smith, a native of Alabama and an editor with the Memphis Press-Scimitar, and Rachael Ainsworth Smith, whose great-great-grandparents drove an ox-team from upstate New York to Fort Dodge, Iowa in 1802. Rachael ran a successful riding school in Germantown for nearly 30 years, but to say that Hugh Frank prefers football to horses is a decided understatement. "Every year Bear Bryant sends him a season's worth of football tickets," Rachael says. "Animals are not my husband's thing. Horses are always biting him or stepping on him." In deference to Hugh Frank, Rachael did name one of her horses The Crimson Tide—Melanie was the intermediate jumper champion on him at the Devon, Pa. horse show in 1975. Rachael, who will be 70 this week, says that she can still jump on a horse bareback and run off with only a halter on him.
Melanie began riding shortly after she learned to walk, when her Iowa grandfather gave her a Shetland pony named White Wind. She keeps a photograph of herself at age three standing, in open-toed sandals, on the bare back of the pony. The caption beneath it reads, "White Wind, my first pony. My favorite picture of all."
Melanie did not just stand around on White Wind. She rode cows. She rode pigs. She broke the family ponies to lead and to a rider. "I had a group of about six friends," she says, "and all summer we would go off with our ponies. We'd have slumber parties and take the ponies. We went swimming with them, riding them into the water until it came up to their bellies, then sliding off and letting them swim while we hung on to their manes. We took off our shirts and hung them over the fences so the ponies could jump in the moonlight. In the winter, the ponies pulled sleds if there was one snowflake, and on the last day of school we just rode our ponies up to get our diplomas."
What these early experiences did was consolidate Smith's invaluable, instinctive feel for horses that could not have been instilled through hundreds of hours of instruction. "When I began competing and the pressure came," Smith says, "I had so much confidence, such a rapport with horses, that it was just not a part of riding to feel nervous or tense. Riding was more natural to me than walking. I fall off my high heels more often than I fall off a horse."
Show jumping derives from fox hunting, in which horse and rider hurl themselves over whatever presents itself while in pursuit of the fox, whether fence, ditch or stream. At 14, Melanie was a whipper-in and rode with the Longreen Hunt in Collierville, Tenn. for five years. Last New Year's Day she was invited to ride with the Warwickshire Hunt in England, an experience she found something of a revelation. "It wasn't a question of is there a ditch after this fence, but of how wide and deep will this ditch be. The views were spectacular, but there were 12-foot drops. There was a field of 150 riders—do you go to the front and fall off and get trampled, or hang back and trample on the ones who have fallen off already? It lasted six hours!"