Meet the Pro: Jonathan Meilleur
Quarter Horses set Canadian city kid Jonathan Meilleur on a journey to America and a fulfilling life as an AQHA Professional Horseman.
By Stephanie Lynn, Journal special contributor | March 25, 2015
“There is nothing like starting a colt from scratch and building it day by day into a show horse,” says Jonathan Meilleur, an AQHA Professional Horseman from Hamburg, Pennsylvania. “Creating a bond with an animal that has never experienced having a human ride him, pull on him and teach him to accept his new role, embrace it and become a successful show horse is what makes training horses so rewarding.”
Jonathan Meilleur grew up a big-city boy – his father was an athletic trainer for the Montreal Canadians, a professional hockey team in Quebec, and his mother was a schoolteacher. As a young boy, the closest Jonathan got to horses was a seat in the bleachers next to his father at the local racetrack. The tracks offered pari-mutuel betting and Jonathan would attend harness-horse races with his father.
But Jonathan was always drawn to the country life. At 9, Jonathan’s parents finally acquiesced and allowed him to attend horse camp. It was there that Jonathan met Mario Perron, who gave Jonathan a real introduction to horses while attending summer and winter sessions. Mario helped the Meilleur family purchase their first horse, “Pon Pon,” a retired barrel horse.
“My family knew nothing about horses. I can remember my dad brushing “Pon” with a broom because he was too scared to get close to him,” Jonathan says of the early days. “I remember instances where my horse would take off with me or kick at others that got too close.”
He laughs about it now but understands he gained valuable knowledge from those early days.
During one of the many long winters Jonathan spent at Mario’s, Mario left the cold of St. Leonard d’Aston, Quebec, for the sunshine of north Texas to ride with trainers Mark Shaffer and Steve Heckaman.
“I realized then that I would want opportunities like that. I knew I could make a career out of riding and training horses,” Jonathan recalls. But like other Canadians, at 17, Jonathan enrolled in a local college, ITA La Pocatiere, where he studied equine science.
Jonathan spent his time at school having fun, his academics suffering from inattention. After returning from a horse show in Maine, Mario received a call from AQHA Professional Horsewoman Gretchen Mathes in Connecticut, who was looking for a young assistant.
By this time, Gretchen had established the reputation for helping young Canadians who were interested in coming to the United States. It started with a single Canadian boy who had been treated poorly by a fellow U.S. trainer. Soon word got around and Gretchen became the “go-to” person for kids who wanted to learn the English language and the art of horsemanship. To date, she says she has helped more than 25 Canadians – many, like Jonathan, still reside in the United States and make their livings in various facets of the horse business.
“I came to the States as a teenager who didn’t even know the English language. My mother loaned me $150 for a bus ticket and I arrived in Connecticut with no knowledge of the English language, no place to live and pointy-toe boots. But I had a strong desire to learn,” Jonathan remembers.
It took Jonathan six weeks to save enough money to buy “real” boots and he learned how to speak English by watching television and listening to those around him.
“Gretchen treated me like family and gave me a place to live, with breakfast and lunch every day,” Jonathan recalls.
“I was fortunate to have arrived on the doorstep of one of the most knowledgeable horsewomen in our business. Gretchen Mathes took me in and gave me an opportunity to learn the business from both she and Gene Spagnola. I was also fortunate to share time with Garry and Tami McAllister who worked out of the same barn at the time. My foundation was strong and I learned so much from my seven years at Powder Brook Farms,” Jonathan says.
|Jonathan, Casey and Addison Meilleur (Credit: Ali Grusha)|
Jonathan left Powder Brook with more than knowledge; he found his life partner, best friend, future wife and mother of his child while working at the facility. Casey, who shares Jonathan’s passion for horses, had the only reiner in the barn and Jonathan helped her with her horse. Together, they moved to Pennsylvania, where Jonathan worked for Jeff Long. Eventually, Casey and Jonathan married and purchased the farm from Jeff when he moved to North Carolina.
Like his early mentors, Jonathan enjoys teaching his clients to ride and show their horses.
“Whether it is a walk-trot student, a teenager or one of my many Select riders, it is challenging to teach the many aspects of communication with a horse to someone who only rides once or twice a week. I love teaching the horse how to accept different riders and teaching my students the language I ‘speak’ to their horse,” he says.
Jonathan believes, “Every horse is different – just like every person is different. Therefore how I approach one horse is totally different than how I approach another. My lessons are intense and I am very passionate about reaching that final product – my students in the winners circle. I have learned that it is not about my winning – it is about my students winning and enjoying their horse.”
Jonathan is driven and persistent. He says, “Every aspect of my life is predicated on success and competition. There has never been any time in my career where mediocrity was accepted.”
His father, one of 17 children, became a trainer for a professional hockey team in Canada. Jonathan attributes much of his work ethic to his father who worked hard and supported Jonathan even when Jonathan chose horses over hockey.
Jonathan does not take “no” for an answer. When he applied for his judges card, folks told him he was too young. But that did not stop him from applying and receiving judging credentials from AQHA and the National Snaffle Bit Association.
“Getting my judges card has made global changes to both my business and my perspective as a horse trainer and showman. I have been very fortunate to judge some very big shows already,” he says. “I find that sometimes I have to pull myself back from enjoying some of the performances to actually judge the horses. There are so many talented people in our industry and standing in the middle judging great rides has taught me so much.”
Judging has brought a new dimension to how Jonathan trains, prepares and shows his horses.
“I recognize that no detail is too small and when I send a horse into the show pen – it must represent me at my best,” he explains.
Jonathan has always believed that hard work, focused dedication and determination will ultimately be rewarded with success. For Jonathan, his record proves this to be true. Finding satisfaction in small achievements along the way brings enjoyment to each of his days.
Jonathan enjoys connecting with the horse, teaching others to ride and fine-tuning their skills. He loves both judging and taking his clients to shows. He even enjoys cleaning stalls and grooming, and Jonathan takes great pleasure in watching a horse eat hay in a clean stall with fresh water after they gave their heart to him earlier in the day.
“But, truly, the best part of my profession is being able to share it with my wife, Casey, and daughter, Addison,” Jonathan admits.
“My wife shares my passion for horses and helps me so much,” he says. “She is instrumental in my success in the business. We work together every day. She helps me with barn chores, encourages and supports me every step of the way. Casey is truly my partner and best friend. Our daughter just turned 5 and watching her ride her pony and grow up outdoors on our farm is truly the most special gift!”
Jonathan’s favorite horse to date, Lopin Dandy Dee, was a horse Jeff Long purchased for Susy Blackburn and her daughter Juilana. The 2003 bay mare is by Lopin Slow and out of Sassy Dandy Dee by Dandys Dee Bar. When Jeff left for North Carolina, the mare stayed on with Jonathan. That year, Juliana and “Minnie” finished the year with two All American Quarter Horse Congress reserve championships – one in Novice youth western pleasure and the other in 12-14 western pleasure.
“She had the heart of a champion and would always give her all when you needed it most,” Jonathan recalls. “Minnie would hear me walking to the barn in the morning and would nicker for me to feed her first. She was truly the face of my business at the very beginning.”
Jonathan’s days now start around morning chores of feeding and cleaning stalls. Then it’s time to saddle up. Between Jonathan, Casey and an intern, they get through all the horses in time for evening chores most days. While Jonathan loves training horses, he still takes time to push a hockey puck around the ice.
Hockey to a Canadian is like football to Americans. Jonathan says that playing hockey helps him keep his sanity. He plays three times a week when home during long winter nights in Pennsylvania. Reflecting on his life now, he finds it “surreal.” He is grateful for all the opportunities horses and AQHA have provided for him and his family.
Jonathan loves his life and loves to have fun. When asked the funniest thing that’s happened in his career, he tells a story involving a wardrobe malfunction. It is from talking to him that one becomes convinced Jonathan is a well-grounded, humble person, capable of laughing at himself. He clearly understands what is important in his life – family and horses! But next time you see Jonathan, ask him to tell you the story unsuitable for print.
Stephanie Lynn is a special contributor to The American Quarter Horse Journal. The AQHA Professional Horsewoman, judge and steward from Fall Creek, Wisconsin, serves on the AQHA Animal Welfare Commission and is the chairwoman of the AQHA Show Council. To learn more, visit www.stephanielynn.net or www.stephanielynnsblog.com.