BY ANN JAMIESON
Like many of us, Leslie Steele was drawn to horses as a child. When she was a tiny, Steele “crawled out of my grandparent’s house, through the fence, and into a field where horses were turned out. Then I would crawl up on one of their backs.” She attended camp as a five-year old to gain access to a new addiction. “I just wanted to ride, to have horses. That was the whole thing.”
Leslie’s mom was a single mother who did the best she could. But Leslie was determined. She learned to braid and body clip and did whatever else it took to afford board and lessons. “I was where my horse was all day long. Sun up to sun down. I did not want to do anything but that. I was just a barn rat.”
It wasn’t just the riding that drew Leslie to horses. “I love animals. It’s in my being. To love them. You know, they don’t think at night of how to screw with you.”
The milestone every young rider dreams of—her first horse first horse— came in the form of a $300 off-the-track Thoroughbred, Special Pal. “My Dad bought her randomly out of a racehorse sale. He had no idea what he was doing, but she was cheap. I trained her when I was 11, and had her for a long time.
Special Pal was a crash course in what would later become her career. “It was on-the-job training. I taught her to canter, to jump, to change leads. Once a week I would ride her down the street to the local trainer for a lesson. We’d go on trails bareback, gallop and jump whatever was out there. It was just fun! I’d get out of school, take the bus to the barn where I kept my horse, ride, clean my horse’s stall so it was perfectly level, and care for her. Then in the morning my mother would drop me off at school and we’d start all over again. I have very, very fond memories of that boarding barn.”
When Steele started showing, it wasn’t with a string of specialized horses. “We did everything with one horse: hunters, jumpers and equitation,” she says. The learning curve was steep, but she was driven with a sheer wanting to know everything about the sport.
“At 16 I rode with Shari Rose. Jenny Karazissis, Joie Gatlin, and Lise Quintero were there as well. I wanted to know everything. We watched, we learned, and practiced a lot and grew from there. It was just evolution from Day One, I just had the desire to do it!”
The “big” show, The Santa Barbara National Horse show (called the Turkey Show because it happened over Thanksgiving), was the highlight of the year. “Our whole barn would go. It was a huge deal. You could do an equitation round and a hunter round at one time and get judged twice, and get two sets of ribbons,” she tells us.
With the joy that comes from being around her beloved animals all day, deep interest in learning and a competitor’s spirit, making a career out of horses was a natural choice for Steele. She went professional at 18, and started a little barn teaching and training with a friend. They started by attending little local shows, and grew from there. “I wanted to know everything. Horse’s bones, shoeing, nutrition. I probably was very annoying because I asked so many questions,” she laughs.
Those questions have largely helped her get to where she is today. And by always being open to learning new things, she’s able to create programs tailored to each client. “Each horse and each rider is different. They are all individuals and you have to learn what works for them. I ride for different people, and when you catch ride, you have to adapt to how others train their horses and the way their horses go to be able to bring out the best in them. The nice thing about catch riding is how much you learn, the knowledge of that animal that you get working with other professionals.”
Aside from a learning spirit, Steele considers desire one of the most important factors for success. “You can’t want it more than they do, whether it’s a student or a horse. I think the most important thing with either is the desire. I wasn’t the most gifted child in the world but I had the most desire, and I kept at it.”
She encourages trainers and riders to keep things “as basic and simple as you can. Don’t rush them, let them go at their own pace. Some horses learn faster than others, and there’s more than one way to do something. You can’t get mad at a horse if it doesn’t understand what you want it to do. Don’t get mad!
“You want to adapt to them, to teach them the way they learn. You have to listen to the animals, they tell you. If you’re good to them, they are good to you. They know how you feel about them.
“They are all individuals, horses or riders. How much pressure a horse can take, a student can take. Some people are visual, some horses need a lot of reward, some need a lot of repetition. Most important is to never stop learning. The more you know, the more you know you need to know more.”
Leslie has worked with or for several top notch trainers, but a few in particular have strongly influenced her life. Katie Monahan Prudent is one. “Get down and get it done,” says Katie. “And then you can make it beautiful.
“I’m lucky enough to be around some great people to learn from. In my childhood I wasn’t around all these greats so I had to figure out things for myself. As an adult, I’ve been lucky enough to be around Rodney Jenkins, Mike Matz, and Kenny Wheeler to name a few.
“Being around people that are so knowledgeable, and having customers that bring me really nice horses to ride and show has afforded me good success. I’ve been fortunate to ride some amazing horses, and when I do it’s ‘Wow this is so easy and fun!’
“To ride a Tindle or Country Swing or Top Shelf, or the wonderful Thoroughbreds I had that belonged to the Haas family, is so easy! And I have been lucky lately to ride some amazing horses from Bridgeport Farms and Balmoral.
“Tindle and Country Swing helped put me on the map, and being on the map gets you to where you get better horses. Then I got to show Lyle. To develop a Lyle, who was an amazing athlete, and to know that my name would always be part of that horse’s career, and to see him go on and continue in his 20’s and still be champion…and then to be there when he retired.
“I got him as a four year old and developed him and to have him be successful is so nice, to develop one like that. Even if you don’t have them anymore you want to see them go on and continue to be stars. Being able to pay it forward is so important.
Leslie has taken championships at Devon, Washington, and the National Horse Show “more than once.” Her students have ribboned in the Medal/Maclay, in the Talent Search.
While hunters may look easy, they aren’t. “It’s an art. To have a hunter that makes a really good jump, that’s an art.
“Derbies take a special horse and special rider. And it’s a special partnership you have with a horse that jumps spectacularly like that. To be a good horseman is to have a great partnership with a horse, or to create one, to get on and to create a partnership when you’re catch riding.”
While the success of her students at horse shows is always important, Leslie makes it clear that she wants them “not just to be a good rider but a good person too.
“I’m so lucky to have taught kids and then see them go on to be great and continue on. Emma Marlowe kept emailing me, texting me. She really wanted to learn to ride and kept bugging me. She said she would clean stalls to take lessons.
“I took her under my wing for a few years and now she’s showing at the Winter Equestrian Festival in the Under 25. She’s that kid that I was, that just wanted it. She wanted it bad! She’s a hard worker, a good girl, I see me in her and I’m really proud of her and excited about her future!”
While Leslie’s love for horses has defined her life, she embraces all animals. Her mother is not only an animal lover, but an animal collector as well, and Leslie has followed directly in her footsteps. “I got a pig and then a goat, then two goats, then chickens (with special housing to protect them), four turtles, llamas, minis. My pig is 20. I have a soft spot for animals needing homes. Once someone drove a rescued pig two hours just to get it to our farm.” She likes all creatures, and won’t refuse a hungry critter. “My mom always says, ‘What’s another cup of Kibble?’ So I come by it naturally,” she shares.
Leslie intends to keep riding as long as she is able to do so. “Don’t discount riders who are over 50,” she advises. “Look at Scott Stewart, Margie Goldstein. Scott develops all of his horses. Catch Me wasn’t the easiest young horse but Scott was patient with him and look at him now! You have to be patient with them and that takes experience, which older riders have.”
Though she has a lot of hard-earned success, the road hasn’t been easy. Steele admits, “It’s a hard world for a single woman in business for yourself. I’m way more sensitive than people think. Sometimes people don’t realize how much you invest in their animals and their careers. If you really care about the animals and the sport you invest a lot. You can be everything to one person and then all of a sudden they take their toys and leave.”
For Steele, the animals are the most important part of her job. She isn’t driven by ego or ribbons, but a dedication to horsemanship. “People need to be honest with their trainers,” she explains. “Tell them if something is wrong, before you get upset with them.”
Looking back on her career, she shares for her younger self (or young trainers like her), “Save money!” she laughs. “Put some money in the bank or in property.” It’s advice that comes from years of being responsible for both the animals and people in her program, something her team greatly appreciates. Steele thinks of her staff as family members, and appreciates their work ethic and loyalty immensely. She’s worked side-by-side with some of her team for 23-24 years, which speaks volumes to her leadership.
Even though it hasn’t always been easy, she has no regrets about the path she has taken in her life. “I’m so lucky to be this age and still be so passionate about what I do. I wanted to be around horses and ride, and that’s what I’ve always done.