“17 Hands off the Ground”

COLUMBIA — The soft sound of shuffling horses fills the barn. The occasional whinny from the Saddlebred horse’s nose fills the air along with the sound of metal upon cement and the constant sound of fans cooling the horses. Melissa Williamson is up early again, cleaning stalls at the Boone County Fair Society Horse Show.

“I like cleaning the stalls — just not a lot of them,” Williamson said. During this weekend’s horse show, the Hallsville teenager was there from dawn until way past sundown, showing horses and helping people from Wildwood Stables get their horses ready to show. Williamson, a timid 14 year-old freshman, has been riding horses since she was 9. She was hooked on horses from the moment she first saw them in the pasture. Her mother, Mary, thought her daughter would simply learn how to ride.

“I had no idea what showing horses was all about or how expensive it is,” Mary Williamson said. “It’s something she definitely has a passion for. It’s fun seeing your kid work hard for something they truly love.”

Melissa Williamson sits on top of her 17-hands-high Saddlebred horse, Checkers. He is easily the biggest horse in the barn, but Williamson and her horse trust each other enough to not let his height scare her. “He’s really big. He’s tough to get in the bridal. That’s challenging. He’s a lot of fun to show,” she said. She held a peppermint in her hand, scrunching the wrapper and teasing Checkers. He nuzzles her face, and she gives his velvet nose a kiss before she pops the candy into his mouth.

“Melissa is a natural,” said Heather Drummond, her trainer. “The more she is around, the easier it is for her to understand them. She rides all levels of horses here.” “When she first starting riding with us, she was so quiet and timid, you could very easily forget she was there in the lesson or in the hallway or in the barn,” Drummond added. “She was so incredible to watch grow because, as her riding abilities became more confident, so did she.”

Williamson walked to the tack room, checking her show schedule on the pegboard outside the door. Gold lettering taped onto the board reminds the riders to “have fun.” When she wasn’t competing, she spent her weekend in Barn 1 helping other riders groom their horses, muck stalls and get ready for their shows.

“She comes as early as she can and stays as late as she can,” Drummond said. “She does everything from cleaning stalls and getting other people’s horses ready to getting her own horses ready for her lessons. She does all of her work for her riding lessons. I would say that’s a pretty good deal for us. She works very, very hard.”

Once Williamson mounts her horse, her timid stance melts away and she is strong and confident, even when her horse acts up and tries to buck. “I’ve been at the fair since Thursday, and we’ve been grooming horses during the day,” Williamson said. “It’s pretty tiring because you get up early and stay late, but it’s a lot of fun and I like it a lot.” During Saturday’s shows, Williamson took fourth and second place in the two classes she showed her horses.

“She’s just a great kid,” Drummond said. “I think no matter whether you teach riding or competitive sports or you’re a teacher or a parent, I think you hope for a Melissa in your life in some force or another.”