BY JESS CLAWSON
JJ Lavieri had what was, for many horse lovers, the dream childhood. His parents owned a Venezuelan cattle ranch where he spent much of his time. “I was always on a horse,” he said.
At eight years old, JJ began taking English riding lessons and fell in love with the change in discipline. He wanted the western horses to be his hobby and the English riding to be his sport. Even as a young person, that’s how he set up his equestrian life. Parents supportive of his passion, JJ found an early mentor in his father. “He was an Olympic skeet shooter, but he loved horses. I don’t think he ever knew what a good horseman he actually was, but he constantly reminded me to respect the horses. To never bring a horse to a competition if they weren’t fit,” JJ recalled. “He put so many fundamentals in my mind that I didn’t know how to use until years later.”
He received great training at home in Venezuela, including Francisco Martinez and the Argentine rider Mario Del Valle. “Mario taught me to be meticulous, how to walk a course to perfection, to pay attention to all the details on course that will influence the horse, like flowers and where the gate is and where the shadows will be,” JJ said. “And he wanted us to win. He always said it was blue ribbon or ambulance, and I was like, oh no, I’m going to die.”
More than winning, JJ also learned how to appreciate Del Valle’s close attention to detail. “Even if I did win, we still reviewed the whole course one jump at a time. No matter how well it went, there was always room for improvement. And that’s how I teach now, and how I handle myself. I’m my own biggest critic. I think those little details are what makes the biggest difference down the road.”
It was his love for the sport that brought him to the United States in 1999. Wanting to work in the industry for the rest of his life, JJ knew his best shot at making it to the top meant working in the US. His friend and mentor, Vick Russell, was based in North Carolina and helped him get a job with fellow North Carolinian, Harold Chopping, at WEF that winter. JJ would stay in Florida for the next 11 years, branching out on his own.
“I started breaking babies, doing whatever I needed to do to be riding horses,” he said. “My biggest passion is to get these horses in and figure out what they need to make them better, getting all the ingredients they need to reach their potential. That’s what drives me. My goal is to make these big, adorable things happy.”
JJ has spent the past nine years in Connecticut where he rides, competes, teaches, and works with Diana and Haley Cassidy of Cassidy Equestrian Services to produce promising young horses.
Coaching and training horses go hand in hand for JJ, who sees the philosophy as the same. “It’s about the process,” he said. “You have to trust that. There is no shortcut, but if you’re patient eventually it just happens, the rewards start coming up.”
All of that experience paid off with his horse Don Pedro, on whom he rode in national Grand Prix. “He has been one of my greatest teachers and coaches,” JJ said of the now-retired 18 year old. “He’s extremely unconventional and wild, and probably has the worst mouth in the world. He’s the most unbroke horse I’ve ever ridden and I never got him to be broke. I couldn’t. He’s impossible. But he has the biggest heart and he loves me, and I had to just learn to ride who he is. There was no going around his personality. He was always a one person horse and I was lucky that it was me. I wouldn’t be the horseman I am without him.”
He learned patience for the process through working with Vick Russell, Harold Chopping, and Chuckie Waters. “Chuckie gave me a big rock in my foundation, I learned a lot from him,” he said. He also met Diana Cassidy whose daughter Haley, a young teenager at the time, rode in clinics with him. Haley now competes successfully in the adult amateur jumpers.
“Haley got me into this business,” Diana laughed. With no previous horse experience but wanting to help her daughter fulfill her equestrian dreams, Diana educated herself about the horse world. “As a parent, I want my daughter on a horse that is going to be safe,” she said. “I eventually realized the best way to do that would be to develop horses ourselves. It’s one of those I didn’t know was happening until it happened. One day I just realized oh, I’m in the horse business.”
Diana, Haley, and JJ teamed up to bring Cassidy Equestrian Services to life. “It’s a boutique kind of business,” Diana said. “I only want two to five horses at a time so we can give them the best of our attention.” The pair works together well because Diana trusts JJ to bring the horses along carefully to find them the right careers. There is no pressure to sell them faster than they’re ready. “Sometimes we decide we just have to give them another year, but when we do present them for sale, we know they’re great,” Diana explained.
“Diana has so much patience,” JJ said. “I know that time and consistency lay into money, but she has the patience to allow me to do it for the benefit of the horses, and the results start coming in. We’ve had a lot of big successes in the last couple of years.”
One of their most recent top horses is a Grand Prix mare named Happy Hour. “I thought she was going to be a hunter,” Diana laughed. “But JJ said no, I don’t think so, just give her time. She’s our dream, she’s done everything we’ve asked her to do.”
When Diana first developed Cassidy Equestrian Services, she focused on importing Irish sporthorses, but JJ introduced her to the domestic market. “There really is opportunity here,” she said. JJ’s North Carolina connections and good reputation have helped them find very promising young horses in the United States. They bring the horses back to their base in Connecticut and make the magic happen.
The partnership works because Diana, Haley, and JJ always prioritize the needs of the horses. They trust each other to make the right decisions for the animals, and it shows in their success. Their sights are set on what matters most: the horses themselves.
“I’m a horse lover, that’s about it,” JJ said. “I’m a happy person, I love what I do. It takes a lot of work, it takes a lot on your body and mind and pocket, this job, but I love it. It’s rewarding every day.”
About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
Read More from This Author »