BY ANN JAMIESON
The Luckiest Leone
“I was the luckiest Leone,” says Mark. “I was the youngest of three. I learned from my brothers. I learned what they did well, what they didn’t do well, and also by the time it got to me we knew we needed better horses. You learn by the school of hard knocks. We were blessed with Sullivan Davis. He was a gentleman. He was a class act and really put us in the right direction.
“At age 14 I got to ride with George Morris. It was hyperspace to a whole new league. Our training with George was second to none. The first horse I got was Nissen, and I was 9th in my first Maclay finals. That horse taught me. I’m a big believer that the horse teaches you the game.
“Bridegroom (who came from Otis Brown) was a special guy, a real doer. We had a great rapport. We were champion twice at Devon and Reserve once in the Junior Hunters. But we never got points on the flat,” Mark laughs.
“With Rainforest, I won the Medal Finals. George chose him, Peter developed him and put him on the map. George got us there, to the win. We did it!
“I rode with George until one year after my junior year. [Then] he said, ‘You guys are ready to go. If you need me, I’ll be here.'”
Next the Leones all worked together, and were introduced to the USET team, and the World Cup. They began riding with Frank Chapot. Mark says Frank “is an amazing athlete, Mr. USET. Over the next 15 years I got to work with him in the team scenario, in governance, in real life, the guy was amazing, and a good friend. He was someone who had your back. He treated you like an adult. He was just a winner.
“And he had enough confidence in me. He asked me on four occasions to Chef d’equipe the U.S. team in Europe, which was just an absolute treat. Frank was developing the U.S. team and to say ‘Hey Mark I need you.’ That was a real feather in my cap.”
You can feel the passion in Mark’s voice when he speaks about riding for the team. “Frank taught us what it meant to ride for the U.S.A.!
“The sport has changed. The money has changed, obligations have changed but the one thing that hasn’t changed is that special feeling of riding for the U.S., the Nations Cup. Grand Prix pays big, there’s no question about that, but putting on that special coat, jumping a double clear with a group of riders—that to me is the cream of the sport right there. Working with that level.”
The Leones also began working with Michael Matz, and “really learned the value of planning, flatwork, longevity. He worked with us rather than taught us. Again, a great horsemen. We were so lucky to interact with all these people!”
Armand, Sr., Cutting Edge Innovation
While the boys’ dad “never really had much interest in horses,” the rest of them loved it. “So my mom and dad created everything we needed to succeed.” Armand, Sr. was a facilitator. He brought Sullivan Davis on board and connected with Francois Mathy as an excellent source for horses.
He procured the lights they needed to ride at night, the field to ride in. Armand Sr. was progressive; he was learning as they went along. He had a unique ability to learn what the right moves were, the coaching, the horses.
“He applied his medical background, as my mom did too, to horses,” recalls Mark. The Leones were thus way ahead of their time for equine care and therapy. They used Laser Therapy, tons of ice, they even brought tanks of oxygen for the horses to Madison Square Garden because their dad thought the air there wasn’t good. He brought generators to create ice for the horses and put the horses in ice boots. A stickler for therapy, he insisted on doing it right, enhancing performance.
“He had incredible ideas. It was great! My mom and dad were just amazing, how they grew,” Mark remembers.
Back then, the season used to stop from about November 15th through February 1. Many times the horses would be sent to a facility where they could swim to get a break from being ridden, but still stay fit. They would also use swimming to bring them back from an injury. Armand, Sr. worked with Dr. Furlong and Dr. Steele to keep the horses in top condition.
“My father loved it; that was his contribution. But he never rode. Well, he got on once and got run away with. What he really wanted was those Black Angus cattle.”
College and A First Career
Mark attended Drew University as a political science major. Although he never did much with his degree, he enjoyed the education. He and Peter both went to Drew, with Peter two years ahead of him. Together they competed at horse shows and enjoyed sharing the experience. While Peter graduated and went to work in the city, Mark became involved with real estate, earned his license, and then worked for his uncle after graduating. For about 2 1/2 years, he pursued real estate and later project management.
Mark compliments his parents for their insistence on a good education. “I’m glad I went to school, got an education, and developed skills before going full time into the business.” But real estate was never his life’s work. In February, 1987 Mark was ready to move into the horses and make it a full-time vocation. “When I won the Medal finals I knew I was fairly decent at it,” he says in a major understatement.
Decades later, his passion for what he does has never abated. “I still have that driving passion for horses, whether it’s work, riding, being around them, I still love them.”
Mark developed his business at his family’s Ri-Arm Farm, where the boys grew up. “We’re about 18 miles from the George Washington Bridge. We have all the trimmings we need to train and school.” Peter would come for two nights a week, working full time in the city and then coming to the farm to ride—still riding at the highest levels. “We kind of all pooled our resources to be the best that we could be,” recalls Mark.
Some of Mark’s most extraordinary victories include winning the Medal Finals and being named Best Child Rider at Devon three times. “I loved Devon, it’s such a special show.” Winning the World Cup in 1982 at Madison Square Garden was also a sweet victory, as Mark had only been competing in Grand Prix for about 18 months. “I made the jump off and it was against so many iconic figures: Melanie Smith on Calypso, Gilles de Ballanda on Galoubet…the best of the best. Amazingly enough,” says Mark, “I won! It was a special night. A special time.”
Another important memory was “the time we all rode together in the Nation’s Cup (Mark, Peter, and Armand); that was a pretty meaningful day. We’ve been able to share so many great things together.”
Mark recalls his first time “jumping at Aachen in 1985 on the big European tour, that was amazing.”
The Leone brothers were always sure to make their mark at any horse show. Their Dad used to say, “You’ll know when the Leones are at the horse show.”
“We’ve shown all over America, Africa, Asia…to think of all of the beautiful places we’ve been able to share so many great things together. All of the great situations, people, and experiences. And it was always we, the Leones. That was the philosophy that was instilled in us, if it couldn’t be me, it was Peter, or it was Armand,” Mark rememberss.
Great Horses Make Great Riders
“My first tremendous horse was Nissen, a great equitation horse/junior hunter. Then an amazing combination, Bridegroom and Rainforest, an incredible pair of horses.
“My very first horse who took me internationally on the team with good results on my first FEI World Cup Finals in 1982 was Tim, a Belgian bred horse. We finished eighth and I won the Guerrand Hermes Award for the top young rider.” After a promising young rider had died, and his father started the Lionel Guerrand-Hermes Award in his honor, to be given to a young rider who would go on to International Accolades or had the promise for it. “That was a nice, distinguished honor,” Mark says. “I was maybe the first recipient of it. That was a great day. I got to meet his father at the Awards Ceremony.”
Mark says it was a most amazing journey with Tim. “We bought him at seven and brought him along, and he was jumping Grand Prix at eight or nine. I won four or five Puissances with him; I tried to jump 7’10” with him one time!”
“I had tremendous success with a horse named Costelloe. He was a fighter, a trier, a real goer. He was part Irish Draught and, boy, could he jump.” Mark holds the astounding record of winning the Puissance at Washington three times, as well as winning the President’s Cup there.
With Artos, (later Crown Royal Artos), a horse the Leones purchased as a yearling, Mark won many top competitions, including the President’s Cup Grand Prix at Toronto and Washington International, the British Airways World Cup Qualifier, and the World Cup at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto, Canada.
During the Winter Equestrian Festival, he and Artos placed third in the $50,000 Grandprix of Florida and were second in the prestigious American Invitational. In addition, they qualified for the World Cup Final in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Holland, where they were the highest placed American combination, finishing 10th overall.
In 2002, Mark and “Pinkata DeLongpre” had wins in the $50,000 Budweiser Grand Prix of Lake Placid and the American Jumping Classic in Mason, OH as well as a victory in the $50,000 Rolex/USET Show Jumping Championship at the 2003 Bayer/USET Festival of Champions at the USET Olympic Training Center in Gladstone, NJ. In 2004, he won the Kentucky Summer Grand Prix.
“All of these horses had a strong impact on my riding. They’ve all been pretty special, the horses that distinguish themselves. I’ve had great success with geldings, mares, stallions. One mare I had a lot of success with was Ramira, who won many Grand Prix, along with World Cups in Rome and Aachen.”
Crown Royal’s sponsorship of the Leones was unusual, but no accident.
“We were really the first ones who went after non-equestrian sponsorship in North America. I don’t even know if anyone is doing it anymore. We were involved with Merrill-Lynch, and then the three of us were hired by Crown Royal, who sponsored us for about five or six years (and several of their horses). We did a lot of television, a lot of stuff to help develop the sport and that was pretty special. You see that a lot more in Europe. We had the ability to market ourselves and create some visibility.” Later Mark had the opportunity to partner with Loro Piana, an Italian company, for about four or five years.
Puissance walls were a specialty of both Mark and Armand. Mark says, “Thank goodness we all did it when we were young. Dave only came up one day a week, so we were on our own a lot as kids, and we would just jump as high as we could. I had this one hot Thoroughbred (Can Pippin), I would trot him over a big fence, 4’9” fence. I have pictures of me, no hat on, sneakers, chaps.
“Would we ever do this again? I don’t think so.
“The feeling of jumping high is an amazing rush. As a little kid I can remember growing up and the Puissance was the biggest draw. We saw Rodney Jenkins, Barney Ward, Frank Chapot, at the shows we used to go to: Sussex County, the Garden, the Armory in Washington. There was always a Puissance, and that was the most exciting thing, watching these horses go down to the wall.
Mark was lucky enough to have horses able to do it. He even took a friend’s horse once, a horse by the name of Hamilton, to compete with. He said “I need a horse to do the Puissance,” and then won it, at 6’11”, in L.A.
Mark explains, “It’s single fence jumping. It’s really old style. It’s considered inappropriate now. These animals are so expensive. It’s passe. In the old days, Thursday night at the Garden was standing room only. And the night Anthony D’Ambrosio won the indoor record at 7’7″, what a night that was! I loved it. There’s no feeling like it, the rush, especially when you won it. When you landed and you knew you won! It was just so much fun, just blood and guts jumping.”
Asked about how one prepares for, and rides to a Puissance wall, Mark explains, “You’re not going to practice jumping to the limit. You might jump a 6′ wall, but that’s it.”
He actually went to Barney Ward’s once to have a lesson, to ride the wall a little bit and learn about technique and the ride you want to the wall.
“You need to have enough rhythm, keep your leg on them, and get them to the base of the wall. They naturally want to stand off to it. They’ll keep backing away and angling away from it and then get up to it and angle it and kind of belly it. So you ride them to the base and keep kicking. And when you get to the top of it, you have to open up, because otherwise when you land you’ll go pitching off the top of the horse. And that happens sometimes, and that’s what the crowd wants to see.”
Mark admits, “It’s a lot of fun, but nobody does it anymore. It’s just not in favor.” Although in its day, “It’s pretty straightforward for the spectator.”
The Next Generation of Leones
Although Mark formerly did quite a bit of broadcasting and commentating on shows, he hasn’t done much lately. Occasionally he does Old Salem and a few weeks in Florida. But his priorities now are his farm and his two sons who ride.
“I’m still competing but not at the highest level. I don’t have the time, or the stock, nothing that jumps at the FEI level. Peter still competes at the highest level.” But even if he’s not competing alongside his brother, Mark still counts watching Peter compete at the Olympics as one of the best experiences he’s ever had. “That was an experience that I felt as a family. It was a lifelong pursuit and to be there with my brother was the feeling of getting to that level, We did it!
“It was one of those defining moments, despite not riding, that was a big moment for us. That was pretty amazing.”
Mark’s son, Mark Jr, just completed his final junior year and is working for Peter. Although he had competed in both equitation and jumpers, Mark Jr. decided he wants to put his energy into the jumpers. He’s in Florida right now competing.
His younger son, James, is 15, a freshman in high school. This past year he competed in the Medal/Maclay finals. He loves the equitation and has a jumper to do the High Children’s on.
Ri-Arm Farm maintains a CEM quarantine area that they fell into basically by a stroke of luck. Around 15 years ago, down at Gladstone at a function, Mark and his wife Jane ended up talking to some state veterinarians who were enquiring about a location for a CEM (Contagious Equine Metritis) quarantine.
“We thought, ‘Let’s think about that,’ and we got involved. My wife Jane and sister-in-law Allison run it. We run about 220 to 250 mares through it a year. It’s interesting; there are a lot of different types. You see all these new ones coming in, all the hopes and all the dreams.”
Mark married his wife Jane in 1998 and she handles the quarantine business while he handles the farm. It works out perfectly. “The way we work our businesses keeps us separated but together.”
Jane hasn’t competed in the past five years, as the kids have grown and become more involved. From Surrey, England, Jane enjoys the jumpers and wants to get back into it once the boys get a little bit older.
“We’re pretty lucky, we get to do what we love with horses, and we get to do it together so it’s pretty wonderful. I don’t know what else we’d love to do but I think we’ve found it.”
Mark is passionate about the sport and about giving back. “I was the USOC Athlete Ref for Equestrian Sports; that was an amazing experience to be involved at that level. When you’re working with about 50 or 60 other Olympic sports you get to talk about selection grievances, and that was a fabulously enlightening experience. I was representing not only show jumping but dressage and eventing. That was pretty neat to be voted on by your peers and take on that responsibility.”
He recently stepped down as Chairman of Zone 2. Always active in governing, he is
currently on the U.S. Committee for Credentials. He enjoys being involved because, “It’s our sport, and it needs to have people involved, people who give a damn. So many of the top riders are so consumed going 52 weeks of the year. I like to be involved with the decisions and programs and directions of the sport; it’s been a blast.”
The State of the Sport
While the sport is changing, Mark thinks it “is probably better than ever. The horses, the riders, the training, everything is just that much further along. The caliber of the riding and training is quite remarkable. The sport is alive and thriving despite all this covid. At all levels of the sport, everything is better.
“But it’s hard to keep up. Margie Engle, what she did to get where she is, mucking stalls, could she do what she did today? You have a strong group of quite affluent young riders who are hard to beat. And this is not just America, this is all over the world.
“In the old days, if you had a great horse you gave it to Rodney Jenkins or Frank Chapot to ride. Nowadays. you give it to little Susie, your daughter.
“And it’s so year-round these days. There’s no break anymore, for the horses, for the sport. They’re going constantly. WEF is going for 22 weeks straight!
“From short stirrup to maiden through Junior Hunter, everything is just that much further along. The kids, the development, it’s quite remarkable.”
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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