Armand Leone: Family Life

2008
Armand & Lassandro

BY ANN JAMIESON

An Extended Childhood

Armand, Team Leone’s senior brother, is the only one who didn’t go into the horse business as a professional. It wasn’t so much a choice, he says, but the fact that his parents, both doctors, “didn’t really make the horse business an option for me.” With education always their priority, Armand earned a BA from the University of Virginia, then attended New York Medical College, graduating in 1982 and becoming a radiologist in 1986. In 1991, he graduated from Columbia University School of Law and began practicing healthcare-related law. Later, he added an M.B.A from Columbia Business School.

All the while, Armand kept up a continuing involvement with equestrian sport as an athlete, USET Chairman and President, USEF Director and High Performance Vice President, and most recently, a Member of the FEI Tribunal for equestrian sport. Armand was always motivated to be a good student because if he did well, he “could cut out early and go ride my horses.” To go to Florida and show required missing a few weeks of school, so grades had to be good and he had to have an ability to juggle his sport with his work from the beginning. No grades, no horses. There was never a question of giving one up for the other.

Armand & Nanny at Farmington, ’72

The Leones started showing ponies and junior hunters locally in the northeast with Sullivan Davis, an African American rider who rose to success in the show ring and the horse world in the 60’s. Dave rode saddle horses, Arabians, and Morgans as well as hunters and jumpers. The Leones learned to break their own horses, and with Dave’s coaching, achieved regional success. 

However, in order to compete at the top levels, the Leones recognized that it was necessary to train with a top professional, and sought out George Morris. Armand remembers that they were intimidated by him, and that approaching George felt like “going to Yoda up on the hill.” Armand began riding with George in his last year as a junior, and it didn’t take long to see the results. With a Thoroughbred hunter named Clipse Armand qualified and competed at the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden in the First Year Green, Green Conformation, Large Junior Hunter, and Maclay Finals.

Armand & Sombre Chagrin, 1977

Armand returned to Madison Square Garden the following year riding Sombre, another Thoroughbred. They cleaned up, winning two classes and earning the Leading National Rider sash. Armand then moved on to international jumping, while Peter and Mark worked their way to the top of the junior hunter and equitation ranks at home.

Europe

After his win at the Garden, Armand’s parents bought two Grand Prix jumpers. In 1978, Armand accompanied George on his first trip to Europe with private clients. George competed along with Armand, Betsy Bolger, and Debbie Malloy. Competing abroad was “brand new territory” on a couple of levels. The riders were exposed to European shows, visited new countries, and saw new styles of riding. Competing in six shows in France Armand remembers “what a beautiful country with excellent horsemen” it was. The tour proved a resounding success and a fabulous learning experience for all of the riders. They competed in Speed classes over ditches and banks, Puissance classes, Six Bar classes, and Grand Prix events.

Armand competed on Encore, a 15.2 hand American Thoroughbred, purchased as an Intermediate Jumper from California, and a South American Thoroughbred named Jacinta. He and Encore won three Grand Prix and a Speed class at Fontainebleau, as well as placing in the Puissance. “We had a fabulous circuit,” Armand recalls. He was around 18 at the time.

It served him well. With his strong show jumping background and European record, Armand was a contender for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow with Encore. Competing in the Olympic trials, he earned a position on the team. Unfortunately, that was the year the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Olympics over its invasion of Afghanistan so he did not get to participate.

Armand & Vautrait WC at Gotenburg

Competing with Bertalan de Nemethy, Armand developed into an experienced Nations’ Cup Team rider. The order of go doesn’t just happen by accident in a team event. Armand explains, “The most experienced rider would go first, as the pathfinder. Since teams don’t know initially where they would be in the lineup… they could be first, they could be in the middle, they could be at the end…it was important that the first rider of the team had the ability to go in cold and get around without being able to watch another rider jump the course. “The second rider would be the one with the least experience.” If that rider had a poor round the more experienced riders to follow would know they had to really push to make up for it, particularly the last rider, who would be the best one on the team.                                                                             

Competing on the Alternate Olympic Team with Wallenstein, Armand had success in Paris, Hickstead, and Dublin. As the lead-off rider in the Dublin Nation’s Cup, he jumped the only double clear round for the team and secured the win for the Aga Khan Trophy. His teammates were Melanie Smith on Val de Loire, Norman Dello Joio on Johnny’s Pocket, and Katie Monahan on Silver Exchange.

Armand’s win was due in large part to a particular focus of George’s training. “George Morris, with all his problems, was a brilliant rider and always instilled in us the importance of galloping to the timers. At Dublin, my gallop to the timers was programmed, and because of that, I made it clear under the time allowed by .1 seconds. You train and train and train and you incorporate those things into your competitive psyche and there’s a reason for that and sometimes it pays off.” 

Armand continued his strong performances through the late 1980’s riding Lassandro. They won five AGA Grand Prix including Upperville, Las Colinas, and the LA Equestrian Center, and Lassandro took the AGA Horse of the Year title as well. Armand was attending law school at the time. After 1988, Armand’s time in the Grand Prix ring came to a close and his work on equestrian sport organization began.

For aspiring riders today who would like to ride and compete at the top levels, Armand recommends “focusing on equitation. Even if you don’t qualify for any of the finals, you’ve set yourself up with a good basis to compete in either the hunters or jumpers…or both.”

Changing Course

During the same period, Armand met his wife Alison and they got married. “I was very, very lucky,” he says. Armand began working in 1988 and graduated with his MD degree in 1991. That was the point where he “had to curtail the extended childhood,” he says, laughing. He currently works as a physician’s attorney doing health care law, medical malpractice law, and select equine law.

Armand has three boys, but the two older boys, Michael and Matthew, didn’t get the horse bug. After moving to a farm estate, his youngest son David did choose the Leone path to horses. “The two older boys really didn’t have the chance to ride. I didn’t have the farm then.”

When Armand stopped competing, he became more involved with the administrative end of the sport, first with the USET, and then with the High Performance end of the USEF. During the struggle between the AHSA and the USET he was the President and CEO. “I must credit Eric Strauss and Frank Lloyd, the true patriots of the sport,” says Armand.  “They stood shoulder to shoulder with me and fought the good fight and got the right results in the USEF Federation and Foundation that we have today. The resulting structure married the best of  both worlds.”

But he laments how money has changed the sport.

“When I went on the first tour in 1980 with Bert, the team got all the prize money until all expenses for the horse were paid. Prize money was given to the owner only if it exceeded the cost. Now the USEF gives grants to riders to go to international competitions where they often jump for million dollar purses and keep all prize money won. We’ve gotten away from doing the sport for the honor of the country and sport itself.”

A Shout Out to Programs for Riders with Disabilities

Armand is inspired by riding programs for riders with disabilities. “Para-equestrian is huge. It’s so beautiful to see people having trouble relating to the world connecting with a horse. And it’s something everyone connects with… kids break into a smile, a person with a damaged body now has a whole one. It should be recognized for the good that it does.”

A New Direction                                                                     

Armand doesn’t miss the strains of being on the road all the time that competing at the upper levels entails. “That’s horrible. Competition can exact such a personal and financial cost.” Now he has come full circle and is back on the farm. His purchase of a roomy farmhouse, out in “the sticks,” proved rather prescient. Five months later covid hit, and “all my kids are working from home.”

His oldest son Michael is going to medical school, so Armand is “getting to relive my first and second years of medical school.” Armand’s middle son Matthew graduated from Rochester, and is now working as a software engineer for a major company. He went into computers all on his own and has made his mark. “I’m impressed,” says Armand, “he’s an inspiration.”

His youngest son Dave wasn’t too happy with the move to the farm at first, feeling that the “forced” migration from the comfortable suburbs to “the sticks” wasn’t necessary. That was until he started riding and being able to compete with his cousins, Mark and James. “Now he’s all in.”

Armand says it’s a big house, so with the recent pandemic lockdowns, there was room for each of the boys to be home and still keep going with school. They set up a gym, computer network, and “were fun to have around. How wonderful that everybody lived here. It was a second chance to spend time with the kids. “And from my perspective, they’re happy being home. And it’s not like they have a maid or a butler taking care of them, they have to work. But the horses are a nice family affair. We take turns doing night check. It gets them off the computer.”

Armand and Dave started going to the smaller, local shows. Armand drives the truck, Dave rides the horse, and “You know something? I wouldn’t want to have it any other way. Playing a supporting role that makes me happy and creates the experience that I had when we were showing where you braid your own horse and when we would trailer to the show in Sparta, doing it this way has been fun! I’m really happy and I don’t think people get this opportunity enough anymore.”

While Armand isn’t expecting Dave to win the Medal/Maclay Finals, they are focused on something equally, if not more, satisfying. “I see a way that horses will be part of our family,” says Armand, “and it’s not through constant horse showing, but instead bringing along young horses as future jumper prospects.” 

Armand purchased two foals two years ago, and there is a plan to purchase two more youngsters. “They’re well bred, they’re nice horses. I have places to let them grow, I’ve got a jumping chute, a training pen and boys to ride them when they are mature.

“I personally think I’m pretty good with young horses,” says Armand in a massive understatement. “David is going to college and when he graduates we may have some nice horses for him to ride, without having to buy big money horses. I can’t go out and buy top horses on the international level, they cost a fortune. However, I can buy a foal; I can buy a foal that has a chance of being really good at a reasonable price. They’re going to be nice horses, they may not be superstars, but one of them might be! It’s economical, and yet it’s as rich an experience as you could want.”

He and Dave do it all together, all the work, the way Armand did when he was growing up. “I’m sharing with my son the joy of bringing along foals and young horses. As long as he enjoys riding, the relationship with a horse, that’s a home run.”

Armand enjoyed competing with his kids at the same show in recent years when he rode in the Amateur-Owner jumpers. He recalls at Devon, “My son, my nephews, and I were all competing over the same course albeit in different divisions and with some 40 years difference between me and them. There we were, sitting in the Devon stands, watching and strategizing about the course. Wow, how cool is that?”

Armand enjoys going out to the barn, and giving the horses a pat every day. “For myself, I’m back where I started, working with young horses and enjoying the sport on the local level. I’ve come full circle and I’m happy with that.”


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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