The healing power of horses: Painter Melissa Dinino

Meet Melissa DiNino

Having moved out to remote areas of Montana for work after college, Melissa DiNino found herself in landscapes that were steeped in quiet contemplation. As a range rider, she worked at the heart of small ranching communities where she monitored cattle and tracked wolves and grizzlies by horseback. She learned how the resiliency of rural communities relies on its relationships - both human and non-human. 

When she began painting in 2018, she turned to the subject matter that was most familiar - the rural west and traditional ties to the landscape, but through a feminine lens.

Largely self-taught, DiNino works primarily with watercolors, inspired by her mother who has worked with the medium all her life. By 2020, she completed a large-scale private commission consisting of thirty-eight paintings and was named Southwest Art Magazine’s “21 Under 31: Young Artists to Watch.”

She explores the softness found in a life that is often hard — one that is rooted in the rhythms of the landscape on which it relies — and exposes the beauty and simplicity of those moments that are easily overlooked.

DiNino continues to live and work on ranches across Montana and currently manages a 2,000 acre horse ranch in McLeod with her partner. She often spends her mornings working on the ranch and caring for a herd of eleven horses, one of which is her own, and spends the rest of her days translating her experiences through paintings. 

DiNino is represented by Old Main Gallery in Bozeman, Montana. To see more of her work, visit www.melissadinino.com and follow along on Instagram @melissa_dinino.

When did horses first come into your life? What have they brought to your life?

Melissa Dinino as a child with a horse

Horses were inconsistent highlights dotting the storyline of my childhood — beings that most often came and went in passing. I’m not sure exactly when horses first showed up, but I know I was introduced to them pretty early on. One of the most memorable times was when my sister and I had the opportunity to trade chores for riding lessons with a family friend who owned a small horse farm — I think I was around the age of eleven or so. Yet even then, the interactions were short-lived, magical, and always left me craving more. Horses seemed to toe the line between the accessible and inaccessible.

The next opportunity to work with horses (and carnivores) came after college when I started range riding for ranching communities in Montana. From that point on, horses have remained as one of my north stars. Yet, they’ve been responsible for so much more than just the tangible parts of my life. They’ve brought an insatiable curiosity, a desire to be my best self, and a grounding sense of peace. They have challenged my perspectives, demanded authenticity, and given me opportunities for connection, contemplation, and forgiveness. I consider horses to be among my greatest teachers.

Tell us about your horse Willa.

Melissa Dinino with her horse Willa

Willa is the first and only horse I’ve ever owned. She’s a gorgeous, bay tobiano paint and around 13 years old now. Three years ago, she was in a Texas kill pen and bound for slaughter. I had been on a slow search for my first horse at the time. Her photo crossed my path through a local nonprofit called Hooves of Promise that often helps coordinate to get horses out of these situations. All it took for me to jump was that one photo and the stat that she was 15.2 hands tall — I’m 6’1” with long legs, so height was important to me. She had the kindest eyes in her photo, and I was going through a particularly rough patch at the time, so kindness was enough for me. 

It was a total shot in the dark, but one that I felt I had to take. I made the promise to her that I would be her forever home without any expectations of her. Up to that point, my interactions with horses had been heavily influenced by the need to get a job done, and I wanted to redefine that relationship.

Willa is a very sensitive, sweet horse, but she had been nearly drained of her trust in people by the time she reached me. So we’ve been on a slow and steady journey to rebuild that. For me, that has meant stretching myself beyond the confines of the knowledge I already held and seeking out new ways to communicate and create connections with horses. Mostly I’m discovering all the ways I can let her know I’m listening and here for her. 

We’ve come a long way in these past three years, but still have a lifetime to go.

When did you start painting? How do your relationships with horses and nature influence your art?

I have memories of playing with paint brushes as a child while my mother worked on a watercolor painting, or art classes in middle school, but by the time I got to high school, I felt the pressure to figure out my life and choose a single “path” to pursue. That’s when I decided that biology and the sciences were the best way for me to make a meaningful contribution to the world, because I had always been so enamored with the natural world. From that point up until 2018, my world was hyper-focused on my career as a biologist, which narrowed further in on livestock-predator conflict and range riding. 

I first picked up a watercolor brush in 2018 at the tail end of a string of unfortunate events. Initially painting was a care-free, emotional exploration, but it quickly turned into so much more. It’s funny, because I was very reluctant and fighting it for a while, stubborn about wanting to stay the course with my work as a biologist and range rider. At the same time, there was a near constant influx of creative opportunities and pretty much nothing to support the former. So I took the hint, and I shifted focus to my art. As I did that, there was no question that my relationship with the natural world was going to be at the center of my artwork. 

As I started painting more, I quickly learned that I needed balance. I will never be someone who can be in my studio 24/7, 365 days of the year. My inspiration comes directly from the life and questions I live outside the studio, which is why subjects such as my journey with Willa have bled into my artwork. I use my art as space to process, understand, and communicate highly personal things that, at their core, are universal themes that all humans experience.

What does a day in your life look like?

Melissa DiNino feeding horses

My partner and I are the caretakers of a horse ranch, so my days shift with the seasons and function very much by the rising and setting sun. At this moment, in the easy silence of winter, I wake up just before the sun and begin with the ritual of chai and yoga. I then toss Carhartt bibs over my yoga pants and head to the other end of the ranch with my pup June to feed and care for a herd of eleven horses — Willa included. Then come all the expected and unexpected tasks with managing a ranch, which means some days I’m there for a couple hours and other days it’s my whole day. As some people might know, it’s far less glamorous than it sounds and a lot more horse manure than you’d think. When I return home, I shift gears to focus on my art and painting until sundown when I return to the herd.


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