He has a way with horses

Melvin Dutton is legendary in Chester County horse circles for his ability to train and break horses and instruct riders. Here he whispers to one of the horses on the farm where he works.

Melvin Dutton is a man who can't sit still. Put him in a chair and he writhes and squirms. He talks with his body and vibrates with nervous energy.

He doesn't so much walk as stalk, with a driving, aggressive stride, his body tilted forward, his arms akimbo, flailing. Those who know him joke about "the Melvin Walk" - half ambulation, half funky chicken.

He calls himself simply "a horseman." Pressed for elaboration, he says: "trainer, teacher, groom."

Pressed further, he adds: "I know all the tricks of the trade."

When it comes to horses, Dutton, of Downingtown, has done just about everything one can do in a saddle: show, jump, race, hunt foxes, leap hurdles, gallop point to point. Many times, he has displayed his equestrian prowess at such prestigious venues as the Devon Horse Show and Madison Square Garden.

At 5-foot-6, 154 pounds, he's a good size for a rider. Despite an ailing back, he moves with an agile step, his figure trim, compact and muscular, like that of an active teen. His face is boyish, largely unscarred by time. Only his frosty hair yields his age: 68.

The years haven't diminished his pep or passion for work, which was, until recently, a seven-day-a-week calling.

"Finally, after 10 years of marriage, he just started taking Mondays off," says his second wife, Colleen, who is also his business manager.

Dutton has trained and perfected some of the best, such as Judgement, the Grand Prix-caliber jumper on whom Olympian Michael Matz collected many a blue ribbon and silver plate. But his forte is breaking horses, bending them to the will of the rider. He has a reputation for being able to fix damaged horses, for redeeming delinquent steeds and the humans who've made them that way. When horse and rider falter, it's time to "get Melvinized."

"Melvin is fantastic," says Denise McGovern, 47, of Spring City, who brought her horse, Mocha, to Dutton in 2005 after working with several other trainers. "I'm a timid rider and Melvin has given me the confidence I needed and helped me through the obstacles. He has a gift of being very patient with people and horses."

Dutton's business, Breaking Pointe Stables, is quartered at Locust Lane Farm in Atglen, Chester County. There, Dutton shows up every day before dawn to feed the horses and turn them out. He trains a couple of dozen horses a year, and gives lessons to about 35 students a week - ranging in age from 5 to 64. Eight times a year, at different sites, he conducts full-day clinics.

During training sessions, Dutton is not one to lean on the fence, barking orders. He's in the ring - moving, coaxing, cajoling, explaining. Or in the saddle.

At shows, he refrains from yelling. "I never discipline someone in riding clothes," he says. "It may be something you hear about on Monday but not at the show." He prides himself on fair assessment and dispenses praise only when well earned. "I won't say you did a good job if you didn't do a good job, and I don't build you too high because I got to live with you," he chuckles. "In the horse business, you got to be honest."

At shows, many judges are all business, their stern faces focused on clipboards. When Dutton judges, he laughs and kids. His exuberant personality has made him a crowd favorite.

The oldest of seven, Dutton was born in West Chester and spent his early years on a dairy farm. "I didn't like cows," he says, "but I loved horses."

When he was 8, he visited a horse farm on a school trip and was allowed to ride a pony. Thrilled, he made a deal to ride the pony again in exchange for chores. He returned, over and over, all summer long. "The pony was ornery and bucked me a hundred times," Dutton recalls. He and the pony finally made their peace, and Dutton learned some lessons about the power of patience and persistence.

In his teens, he served as a groom for Sally Mills in Unionville, a Sears heiress who showed horses from here to New England. "She taught me how to ride," Dutton says. In 1958, when he was 20, he moved to All-Around Farm in Gwynedd Valley, grooming, clipping, riding, and under the tutelage of owner and trainer Junie Kulp, working with some of the best horses and riders on the East Coast. He spent 20 years there, in what amounted to an extended Ph.D. program in horsemanship. "Everything I know today, I learned there," Dutton says. He freelanced for a while before launching his own business.

He's reluctant to claim a special gift.

"When you've ridden as many horses as I have, no matter what the problem, I've probably seen it before. I know horses and what they need, whether it be TLC or a kick in the butt."

Wendy Silverwood, 46, of East Goshen Township, brought her daughter's horse, Take A Chance (known in the barn as Jimmy), to Dutton in August 2005. The horse was in the throes of a "complete meltdown," so unmanageable he refused to grab a bit.

Within a week, Dutton had Jimmy doing equine gymnastics and pacing his way through courses. After three weeks, he was "a completely different animal," Silverwood says. "I was astonished."

Every horse presents a unique challenge, but such is Dutton's command that even a naughty horse instantly knows when Dutton is in the saddle, and mends its ways accordingly. Around the barn, the saying goes, "If a horse is bad, put Melvin on him."

"He understands how a horse thinks. He just gets in their heads," says McGovern. "It's amazing."

To Dutton, it's all pretty simple.

"A horse will tell you what needs to be done, just like your kid," he says. "A horse weighs 1,200 pounds; a woman, 118 pounds. A horse has a mind of its own and will do whatever he pleases. If a rider doesn't do what she's supposed to do, a horse won't do what he's supposed to do."

Contact staff writer Art Carey at 215-854-4588 or acarey@phillynews.com.