US Olympic showjumper gifts $100m horse farm to local university

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US Olympic showjumping gold medalist Melanie Smith Taylor will gift her farm to the University of Tennessee at Martin upon her death.

An appraisal of the 350-acre Wildwood Farm in Germantown, Tennessee, by the Martin campus valued the property at $US79.5 million ($NZ112m; €68.5m). It is the largest single gift in UT Martin’s history.

The gift will allow UT Martin to increase educational program offerings in veterinary health technology and other agricultural disciplines in the near future. The gift will also provide opportunities for UT Martin to collaborate with the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture.

The announcement of the gift was made during a ceremony outside one of two large entrances to Wildwood Farm’s 1930s era Big Barn, about 20 miles east of Memphis. The gift will make possible educational opportunities in animal science and horsemanship, plant and soil science, environmental management and natural resources management. Early programming will focus on adding a cohort for veterinary health technology.

UT Martin Chancellor Keith Carver described the gift as a “transformational commitment”.

“The extraordinary generosity of Melanie Taylor and the Taylor family will allow UT Martin programs to expand into Shelby County and will greatly enhance our ability to promote agriculture, horsemanship, and plant and soil science. We are extremely grateful.”

The farm includes 350 acres of mixed pasture and mature oak woodlots surrounded by dense residential development. The Big Barn was completed in 1935 and became the hub of equestrian history in the Mid-South. Originally built as one of the top American Saddlebred show stables in the country, Wildwood transformed into the setting for many equestrian events.

Melanie Smith Taylor with University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd.
Melanie Smith Taylor with University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd, preparing to sign the letter of intent that outlines the agreement for the transfer of the Germantown, Tennessee, farm to UT Martin upon Taylor’s death. © UT Martin

The farm was originally chosen as the site for the National Steeplechase Tour and the US Open Polo Championship. The property has served as a world-class training ground for polo ponies, hunters, jumpers and pleasure horses. In March 2017, Carnival Memphis presented Melanie Smith Taylor, 72, and Wildwood Farm a joint award of excellence “in recognition of outstanding achievement and service to the sports industry and the Mid-South community”.

The relationship between Wildwood Farm and UT Martin began in 2015 and led to the announcement and plans for the property’s future. The plan meets Taylor’s vision to both preserve the farm in the current state and to honor the Taylor family while providing a benefit to students studying all agriculture disciplines. The farm will be used in a similar manner to the UT Martin Teaching Farm located adjacent to the university’s main campus. Wildwood Farm will remain in its current state and provide a much-needed hands-on teaching and demonstration laboratory in agricultural sciences in Shelby County.

Taylor began riding at three years old and was a member of the U.S. Equestrian Team from 1975 until she announced her retirement in 1987.

Taylor, 72, won team gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and team gold in the 1979 San Juan Pan American Games.

In 1980 she placed second in the World Cup on Calypso, winning the title in 1982. She also rode Calypso to help the US team win the Nations Cup and the World Cup in 1983. Riding Calypso, she won the US “Triple Crown of Show Jumping,” by winning the American Invitational, International Jumping Derby, and the American Gold Cup, becoming one of two riders to achieve that honor, as well as the only horse/rider team ever to do it. Taylor was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 1988, and Calypso is in the Show Jumping Hall of Fame. Taylor was included in the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.

Melanie Smith, at right, with the US team after winning showjumping gold on home soil. She is with, from left, Joe Fargis, Leslie Burr, and Conrad Holmfeld.
Melanie Smith, at right, with the US team after winning showjumping gold on home soil. She is with, from left, Joe Fargis, Leslie Burr, and Conrad Holmfeld. © FEI

Melanie Smith married Lee Taylor in 1985, and they lived at Wildwood Farm since 1989, breeding horses and running clinics. Lee Taylor died in 2005.

Taylor said that Lee had wanted to be sure the farm continued to be enjoyed by herself and the Wildwood family for the duration of my lifetime.

“But he also hoped it would be a gift that keeps on giving and growing through scholarship, horsemanship and friendship to best promote this unparalleled natural resource by an equestrian and an agrarian focus. And, so for the Taylor family and all of us at Wildwood, we welcome UT Martin to our home and shared dreams.”

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