When dressage topped the list of the Top 10 Most Expensive Hobbies, enthusiasts nodded their heads in agreement. From buying a suitable horse to feeding it, and paying for everything from tack to show fees, dressage can break the bank. But when you are young professional starting your own business and making a name for yourself in the world of high-performance dressage, the expenses can be daunting. Melanie Montagano, a 24-year-old Grand Prix rider, started her own training business, Prestige Performance USA. She and her self-made horse, a 15-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare (Gambol-Kaola) named Ga Deva, have been competing at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival (AGDF) series, and they were recently accepted into the USEF Developing Dressage Program with coach Debbie McDonald. They will also compete in the Florida International Youth Dressage Championships March 12-15 and will be demonstration riders for an upcoming Judges Forum.
She’s fresh out of earning a pre-vet degree at the University of Delaware, where she also accumulated a mountain of student loan debt. She works long hours at the Whitehorse Fashion Cuisine, a popular restaurant at the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) show grounds, often coming home at 10:30 p.m. to get up the next morning at 4 a.m. to start her day.
She celebrated her birthday recently, when she traditionally assesses where she’s been and where she’s going.
“Every year seems to get better and better so I can’t complain,” she said, adding that a year ago, she was competing in National shows and had no job and no sponsors. Now she is competing at the CDI level with scores continuing to improve, she’ll head to Virginia after the South Florida winter show season to grow her training business, and she proudly boasts two sponsors: DK Saddlery and Choice of Champions.
But the road is a rocky one as she continues to scratch out a living and the means to compete in Wellington in order to pursue her dreams.
“Honestly, it’s a daily struggle,” she said. “There’s no cheap way to be here. There’s none. I’ve explored every option. There’s rent, board and training. And showing. Every CDI is around $700 if you factor in shavings. And things like feed. In California, we were feeding three-string straight alfalfa that was beautiful−the best alfalfa you’ve ever seen for maybe $15-$20 a bale. Finding alfalfa for less than $40 a bale here is insane.”
She said that costs for vet care and shoeing are higher in Wellington. She drives a truck and is thankful that fuel prices have dropped since the cost of living in South Florida for the season is astronomical.
“Finding housing for one person is surprisingly very hard for less than $1,500 a month,” she said. “If you want to spend $2,000 on an apartment, then you are in business, but if you can’t afford that, then you have to come up with some creative ideas and be willing to sacrifice location and comfort. I don’t even have a kitchen, just a room and a bathroom with my own entrance.”
And then there is training. She has been under the tutelage of Canadian Olympic athlete Jacqueline Brooks for two years, but the cost of consistent help is also outside of her budget.
“If I have a problem that I can’t figure out what’s wrong, then I’ll call her for an opinion,” Montagano explained. “She definitely coaches me at all the shows I go to. She helped me at Devon [Dressage at Devon in Pennsylvania] and she helps me down here. It gets to a point where you can’t pay for full training any more.”
She doesn’t regret earning her degree from the University of Delaware, although her student debt includes the fees for out-of-state tuition. She chose the school because she loved the campus and because of its outstanding pre-vet program with a focus on large animals. Vet school may be down the road but, for now, she is focusing on her riding career.
After the show season, Montagano is headed to Virginia to work with a Trakehner breeder where she will base her business. The breeder will put three or four horses in training with Montagano to bring them up and show them. She will be free to bring in clients of her own.
“I want to focus more on building my own business rather than working exclusively for someone,” she said. “I think, in some cases, that works really well if you find that rare opportunity, but I find when you work exclusively for somebody else, it’s not about you any more. That’s not a bad thing if you can find the right situation, but as far as the big picture of what’s best for my career, I think investing more time into my own business would probably be my better bet.”
She hopes to train in Europe some day but, for now, she is focusing on her business, wooing more sponsors and training and competing. She has one more year in the Under-25 division and then she plans to bring Diva out in the Open Grand Prix.
“The 63 I got today in the Intermediaire II is the 63 I made,” she said of a recent test at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival. “Some people might look at a 63 and say, ‘Oooh. That’s low’. But I look at a 63 and say, ‘OK. I’m 24 and I made my own horse and got a 63.’ In a way, I appreciate the struggle, because everything that I have, I have worked for. It’s mine. Nobody made that horse for me and nobody can take that away.”