Always a Team: The Leone Brothers – The Beginning

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BY ANN JAMIESON

Starting Out

Horses were in their blood. One of their grandfathers was in the cavalry. Their mother, Rita, loved horses and exploring the trails winding through Central Park. It all began long before she and her husband, Armand, moved to a New Jersey farm where they could keep horses of their own.

Rita graduated from Barnard and was one of the first professors at New York Medical College. Besides teaching, she practiced radiology at Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital in Manhattan and then ultimately at Westchester Medical Center.

“She was the real driver of us getting involved with horses,” recalls Peter. Rita and their father Armand met while in residency. Also a radiologist, he maintained offices in two different locations in New Jersey.

Both parents were pure Italian. Italian houses revolve around the mom, and “Horses were what my mom wanted,” says Peter “so horses it was.”

Initially, the boys rode school horses at Allendale Riding Club with Mr. Kennedy. Riding was another sport, just like their seasonal sports at school, where they played hockey, basketball, baseball, lacrosse, tennis, football, did gymnastics and skied. 

They maintained a small farm in the Catskills, and purchased two horses, Domino, and Strawberry (who was strictly walk/trot) for the boys to ride in the country. Later they moved the boys to Holiday Farms in Riverdale, New Jersey, where they rode with Simonetta Meisels (at the time Bogarelli). Armand had a large pony, Peter a small.

Armand riding Blue Mint with Simonetta

Rita dreamed of a horse farm, and her husband dreamed of Black Angus cattle. What they got was…ponies. And calves. Ponies that would help their three boys, Armand, Peter, and Mark, learn about a world they would spend the rest of their lives in. The calves were gone in a year.

Ponies

The ponies were Welsh Mountain Ponies: a stallion, Liseter Pippin, along with three very young mares, three-year-old Liseter Star Clover (who was pregnant), two-year-old Liseter Brilliant Electra, and the yearling Liseter Phoebe. They came from Mrs. Muriel Duponts’ Liseter Hall. Mrs. Dupont was so fond of her ponies they could often be found wandering the halls of her house.

The boys now had totally green ponies who needed to learn everything: how to be led, tacked, longed, groomed, and ridden. It was a “rough and tumble” time, Peter recalls, as they fell off frequently, and were often kicked. “But we learned a heck of a lot.”

“It’s fair to say we learned from the ground up,” quips Armand. He was 11, Peter eight, Mark around seven. 

Peter says, “We got these very young ponies, exactly what I never recommend as a professional, but we didn’t know any better. We rode mine (Liseter Star Clover) and broke her and then when the foal was born, we started a Welsh Mountain Pony breeding program. Our farm was named “Ri-Arm” after my mom Rita, and my father Armand.”

While there were frequent falls, as Armand points out, “It’s a lot easier to fall from a 12.2 hand pony than a 16.3 hand horse.” The ponies reminded Armand “of Thelwell ponies.” The boys recall old photos of Armand on a pony with Rita at a fox hunt, of Rita, dressed in billowy rust breeches lunging Peter on his pony.

Two of the ponies they bred were Ri-arm Star Dogwood, and Ri-arm Weeping Willow. Peter recalls, “Some of them were pretty good! We really did establish a Welsh Mountain Pony breeding program of substance. The head of Mrs. Dupont’s program, Dean, helped get them started.

At the Welsh Pony breed shows, the boys would compete in a combination class, which consisted of driving, riding under saddle, and a driving “trail” class where they would have to go over a bridge, get mail out of a box and other tests. Liseter Pippin would go in a fine harness class pulling a cart called a Viceroy. 

At regular shows (at the time they were AHSA rated: American Horse Shows Association) the boys competed in pony hunters, as pony jumpers were not held at the time. Rita did the braiding at night. “We were kind of do-it-yourselfers,” Peter remembers. “We showed mostly at Hunt Cap Farm, or Sussex one day shows, once in a blue moon we’d go to an away show. We got a yellow Imperatore van with white and black stripes, we called it the bumblebee trailer.” They enjoyed tailgating, picnics, cooking at the shows. “That was our world,” remembers Peter. 

At home they would stage their own competitions, raising the fences higher and higher to see how high their ponies could jump. Although there were rub competitions throughout the 70’s, Peter “never competed on a jumper until I was 16. Every now and then there would be a pony jumper class at New Brunswick and we would do pony jumpers with our pony hunters.” 

One pony, Lithgow Venus, regularly threw Peter off. In fact, when the Welsh Pony Championships were held at the Devon show grounds, Venus dumped Peter at the grey wall. Peter would gallop down to the wall with every intention that they were going to jump it. The pony would stop and Peter would do a flip over her head and land on his feet on the other side of the wall. Thus Peter’s first memory of the prestigious Devon Horse Show was… falling off at the wall.

Luckily, the boys’ gymnastics background provided great training in learning how to fall. It proved useful throughout their careers, even helping to save a Nations’ Cup for the team. In addition to sports, the boys learned to play piano, another valuable skill. Peter took his 1, 2, 3, 4 count learned in music lessons, and applied it to riding. Riding on hunt courses at the time, with no particular distance between fences, striding did not figure into a hunter’s performance. There were solid obstacles, coops, walls, and the striding for the in-and-out was the same for a horse as a pony! Although initially, the boys competed without counting strides, as classes migrated to rings with set distances. piano lessons proved their worth. Peter would count down a line, counting 1, 2, 3, 4.

Sullivan Davis

Based at his Hanover Farm in Hanover, New Jersey, Sullivan Davis was close to Franklin Lakes where the boys lived. Peter remembers him as “an incredibly instinctive horseman.” He rode jumpers at the Garden, competed on Saddlebreds, Arabians, and Morgans, and is in the Saddlebred Hall of Fame at Kentucky Horse Park as well. Originally from Virginia, he knew Rodney Jenkins and other top Virginia horsemen.

Peter says Dave “was so instrumental in our growth as horsemen.” He gave them basic advice when riding a horse and taught them how to lunge, how to load a horse on the trailer, how to pack their feet, how to stand them up on the line, how to be horsemen. One of his favorite lines was, “Sit up and ride your horse!”

Dave taught the brothers “a feel for the horse,” recalls Armand. “At his barn, we saw Morgans and Saddle Horses. They were ridden like a dressage horse, getting their hind end underneath them, and adjusting their balance. Your hands were so important.” Another benefit of the saddle seat influence was the showmanship the brothers learned from that discipline. 

Other legendary riders learned from saddle seat lessons as well. William Steinkraus won the Saddle Seat Medal at Madison Square Garden.

Dave was a tremendously respected horseman. Giants from George Morris to Frank Chapot to Rodney Jenkins and Kenny Wheeler all valued his knowledge and experience. “We would ship down to his farm, or he would come up to our barn. Our little barn then grew to two barns, and then an outside course, an indoor arena. Outside courses were part of competing in the hunters, at the time, so it was important to have one.

“We were with him for about four or five years but the amount of stuff we learned from him in that short time we were with him was incredible,” recalls Peter. “My parents chose so carefully in picking Dave, as someone to teach us to be horsemen, not just riders. I wish I could do half as much as my parents did for us teaching values, and principles.”

The family went outside the Welsh Pony world when they purchased a pony that Marianne Steiert used to ride, named Dress and Drink. “This was the first time we bought, by resume, a real pony hunter,” says Peter. She did well for them. “We were third at the Pony Finals at Fairfield Hunt Club. 

They moved on to horses, competing in the hunters and Medal/Maclay on Thoroughbreds from Virginia. Dave qualified Armand for the Medal/Maclay finals and for Washington in the junior hunters. 

Mark’s first horse was Nissan, a horse Cynthia Hankins had been competing with very successfully and won the Maclay Finals on. Mark placed ninth with the horse in his very first Maclay Finals.  “That horse taught me so much!” 

With Bridegroom, who came from Otis Brown, Mark was champion twice in the Junior Hunters at Devon, and reserve once. “He was a special guy, a real do-er, we had a great rapport. He was a model of consistency.” He was, however, not the best mover.  “We never got points on the flat,” Mark laughs. “We earned them the old-fashioned way.”

Peter got Rainforest at five and helped develop the horse into a star. “He really put his stamp on him,” recalls Mark, who began riding him after Peter. It was on Rainforest that Mark won the Medal Finals in 1979. “He brought me to the Medal Finals, and we did it, we won.” It was a Team Leone victory, as everything has been in their careers. All three brothers work together as a team to produce these victories. “The biggest thing about our equitation careers was we got it, we did it.” 

While it was Mark that achieved the Medal win, later on, it was Peter who won one for the team. “We all lived the Olympic dream through him,” recalls Mark. Both Mark and Armand won Puissance classes, but again it was as a team, as each brother helped the others.

Horses never belonged only to one brother. “We got to trade and swap horses, to find a match, to help each other,” Mark explains. Most of their earlier horses were Thoroughbreds: their junior hunters and equitation horses, their first jumpers, including Semi-Pro, and Catch the Wind. 

Full Throttle

With the boys getting older and increasingly more competitive, Rita and Armand decided it was time for a family huddle. Dave had done a remarkable job of educating the three boys and taking them light-years from where they started. The time had come, however, for them to either be all in on riding, or to scale back, as the resources needed to be involved with horses was challenging. 

Scale back or go full throttle? If they chose full throttle a different trainer was needed, one that could take the boys to the top echelons of equestrian competition. The decision would be made by the team because the family motto is “We do it all as a family, as a team, or we don’t do it at all.”

“We are what we are,” says Peter, “because we stick together as a family.”

The boys went with full throttle. 

Their original mentor, Dave, passed away in his 70’s, still working. He was mucking stalls.

Two options were possible, George Morris at Hunterdon Farm or Ronnie Mutch at Nimrod. They went with George. 

Armand rode with George his last junior year. “I showed a four-year-old Thoroughbred mare named Clipse and we qualified for the Garden in Green Conformation Hunters, Junior Hunters, and the Maclay. George rode her in the Greens.”

“He did a phenomenal job with my brothers and I,” says Peter. “Everything went from the seat of the pants to cutting edge.”  


About the Author: Ann Jamieson wanted to be a horse show judge since she was a child, and has now held her USEF “”r”” judge’s cards for over 30 years. She writes about both horses, and travel, (and particularly loves combining the two). Ann is the author of the “”For the Love of the Horse”” series, four volumes of amazing true stories about horses, and the proud mom of her Secretariat grandson, Fred Astaire (Tucker).
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