For pivotal moments in dressage judge Axel Steiner’s life and career, the 2019 Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame inductee has been in the right place at the right time
By Jennifer O. Bryant
Horses have always been Axel Steiner’s true north.
During his childhood in his native Germany, academics took a back seat to horses. Eventually even a successful military career got shelved in favor of horses. Along the way, as Steiner followed his passion, he forged a path in dressage that led to judging’s highest rank and a commitment to dressage education.
And none of it would have happened, probably, if he hadn’t dropped out of school.
“I spent too much time in the barn; I spent too much time with the horses and not enough time hitting the books,” says Steiner between sips of a Guinness on a December afternoon in a hotel restaurant in Savannah, Georgia. We’re there for the 2019 Adequan®/USDF Annual Convention; Steiner is a fixture at conventions because of his roles on various committees, and this year he’s also gearing up for his induction into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame.
The result of Steiner’s laissez-faire attitude toward school? “I did not graduate from the German Gymnasium [roughly equivalent to American high school], which meant I was a little bit destined not to live the lifestyle that I planned on,” he says wryly.
The son of a German cavalry officer, Steiner liked the idea of a military career, but his failure to complete his formal education meant that “I had no chance for getting a commission” as an officer in the German military, and he was uninterested in an enlisted career. But there was a possibility—albeit slim—of advancement elsewhere: in the United States.
War Comes to Germany
Rolf Steiner, father of Axel and his younger brother, Uwe, was skilled enough in horsemanship that he was slated to compete in the Military (as the sport of eventing was called then) in the 1940 summer Olympic Games. Unfortunately, the outbreak of World War II forced the cancellation of those Games.
In 1944, 34-year-old Rolf Steiner got orders to the Russian front. Three-year-old Axel and his mother, Helga, watched him leave, walking down the street away from their home in Wiesbaden. It would be the last time they saw him.
The German people suffered economically during and after the war, and Rolf Steiner’s death only added to his family’s woes.
“My mother somehow miraculously managed to bring up two boys,” Axel Steiner says. “She never remarried. The older I get, the more respect I have for what she went through.”
Wiesbaden, a city about 40 km west of Frankfurt, was the site of a US Army air base, and so the Steiner family frequently came into contact with American airmen, staffers, and their families. The base’s staff judge advocate and his wife “liked our little family—my mother, my brother, and I,” Steiner recalls. The German teen “spoke reasonably good English at the time” and had “always liked the Air Force for some reason”—and he’d “always expressed an interest to come to the States.”
The officer made Steiner a promise: “that if I ever wanted to come to the States, he would facilitate that.”
In 1961, 19-year-old Axel Steiner packed his bags for San Antonio, Texas. He had no degree, no US citizenship, and no money to speak of. His only tangible asset, besides his Air Force connection and sponsorship for immigration, was a German silver riding medal.
Connected by Horses
After the war, the Steiner family couldn’t afford horses of their own, but Helga Steiner had been a rider and Axel began riding lessons at a public stable at the age of nine. Uwe Steiner also had the horse bug, and the brothers ended up studying at the famed late German master Egon von Neindorff’s Reitinstitut in Karlsruhe. (Uwe, who died in 2016, went on to become head rider at von Neindorff’s. He met his future wife, the American dressage rider/trainer Betsy Steiner, when she was a student there. The parents of non-riding son Devon Steiner and the US dressage pro Jessie Steiner, Uwe and Betsy Steiner later divorced.)
Both brothers also furthered their equestrian educations at Warendorf, home to the German Equestrian Federation and that country’s national riding school. Axel Steiner credits his teachers—both human and equine—at the two academies as his primary equestrian mentors.
Warendorf and von Neindorff’s Reitinstitut were “good schools with good horses,” he says. Thanks to their trained schoolmasters, “very early on, I knew how piaffe felt; I knew how passage felt; I knew how to ride flying changes.” Steiner earned the German silver riding medal—a prerequisite in that country for becoming a judge—by successfully completing the requirements of riding a Third Level-equivalent dressage test, jumping a “meter-something” course, and passing a theory exam.
But when he arrived in the US, Steiner determined to put horses aside for a while. He earned his GED, passed the Air Force exam, and enlisted.
“I was an Airman Basic, an Airman Nothing. I had no college. I started literally at the bottom. You couldn’t start any lower.”
Steiner “came [to the US] strictly saying, no horses. I have to get going, get some education, do well in the Air Force; then let’s see what happens.
“That lasted about two weeks,” he says with a laugh.
As Steiner tells it, one day came a knock on his door: Standing there on his doorstep at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio was a young American man whom Steiner had met in Germany.
“His father [had been] stationed in Wiesbaden,” Steiner says, and “he rode at the same barn I did. He asked me, ‘I have a horse out at the barn, stabled on base. Would you like to ride it?’”
It took Steiner all of “a nanosecond” to say yes.
“I rode the horse; people watched and said, ‘Can you give us some lessons?’ That’s when my teaching career in the States started. Within a month of being here in the States, I was teaching in the barn.”
Steiner found himself juggling two careers as well as his education. He rode and gave lessons in his spare time, and he attended San Antonio College at night, completing junior college in three and a half years. Along the way he applied to enter the Air Force’s Airman Education and Commissioning Program, “where they basically took some promising enlisted people and they might—might—give you a scholarship and commission you as a lieutenant. The chances for getting that were rather remote, but I got it anyway.” He entered the University of Oklahoma on a full scholarship and earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting and finance. Then it was back to Texas for officer basic training at Lackland AFB, and the newly minted 2nd lieutenant was launched. Before his retirement from the military in 1988, Steiner would ascend to the rank of lieutenant colonel and would earn a master’s degree in contract management.
In his early days in the US, Steiner discovered what other German émigrés would soon learn about dressage in America: “It was like, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. I was king.”
Besides his teaching endeavors, Steiner was pressed into service as a member of the US modern-pentathlon team by the team’s leader, 1952 US Olympic jumping team bronze medalist Col. John Russell, who was stationed at Randolph at the time of Steiner’s tenure there. Steiner also worked to popularize dressage in the US, helping to establish “one of the first dressage shows in Texas,” to found the Oklahoma Dressage Society while he was in that state, and later to start some shows in Florida while he was stationed at Cape Kennedy (now known by its original name, Cape Canaveral).
“John was a hunter judge,” Steiner says of Russell. “He said, ‘Why don’t you become a judge? You have a good eye; you know what you are looking at.’ I said, ‘OK, what does that take?’” He discovered that his German silver riding medal, combined with the fact that “I’d won everything in Texas,” were sufficient credentials for the American Horse Shows Association (AHSA, now US Equestrian Federation) to grant him an AHSA dressage judge’s license, in 1968.
Judging soon occupied much of Steiner’s time, and he ascended those ranks much as he’d climbed the ladder in the military. From the highest AHSA level he made the jump to the international (FEI) realm, earning his first FEI license in 1980, during a USAF tour in Germany. In 1988, he received a handwritten air-mail letter from then FEI Dressage Committee chair Wolfgang Niggli, informing him of his promotion to the highest FEI dressage-judging rank, Official (“O,” now known as 5*). Steiner was only the second American to become an FEI “O” judge, after Col. Donald Thackeray, who was “an ‘O’ judge for everything—dressage, driving, eventing” from back in the day when the pool of qualified judges was small and those involved in equestrian sport tended to be jacks-of-all-trades instead of specialists in a discipline.
Horses, All the Way
“When I got that,” Steiner says of his “O” promotion, “I had to made a decision. There’s no way I could combine being the commander of an organization—at those times, I had over 200 people working for me—and being an ‘O’ judge. So I retired from the Air Force. I said, enough, I did all right, I couldn’t get any higher [in the USAF ranks] anyhow, so let’s do horses.”
With that, Steiner’s dressage career moved into high gear. He went on to judge at two Pan American Games, three FEI World Cup Dressage Finals, countless CDIs (FEI-recognized dressage competitions) worldwide, and the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
Actually, Steiner says, “everybody expected me to judge Atlanta [the 1996 Olympics].” But fellow American Linda Zang became an ‘O’ judge in the early 1990s, and “she was pretty well-connected—much better than I was. So Linda got to judge Atlanta. So then they decided I was next, and I got Sydney, and that was perfectly fine.”
Such high-profile championships put “a lot of pressure” on the judges, but in the end even an Olympic Games is “a horse show,” Steiner says. And although “I guess I should say [judging the Olympics] was a highlight, there are a couple of other shows I’ve enjoyed as much,” including some “super shows” in Australia and, in 2013—his final year as a 5* judge, owing to the FEI’s then-mandatory judge-retirement age—a German tour including shows in Hagen, Hamburg, and Wiesbaden. In a stroke of serendipity, Steiner’s final 5* European judging assignment was Wiesbaden—in his old home town, and where his own riding career had begun some 60-plus years earlier.
“In 1951, I rode at Wiesbaden in front of the castle in an equitation test,” he recalls affectionately. “My stirrup leathers were still rolled up! I have a picture of it.” Now “I was sitting at C at the Grand Prix.”
The life-has-come-full-circle moment was an emotional one, amplified by the fact that “Terri was with me,” he says, referring to his wife, the award-winning equine photographer and artist Terri Miller. This September, the couple will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary.
A busy dressage judge and a sought-after dressage-show photographer are bound to run into each other with some frequency, and that’s how Steiner and Miller met—a full 20 years before they became romantically involved, Miller says, but during that time “neither of us were available.” (Steiner himself was married previously and has two children, now in their mid-40s, and three grandchildren.)
“That changed at Del Mar [California] in 1998,” says Miller, who’s joined our table at the USDF convention host hotel, having traveled to Savannah to be with her husband for his Hall of Fame induction. “We found ourselves together at every show for the rest of the month. Finally at [Dressage at] Saratoga [New York], I was giving you rides on my golf cart, and people were starting to talk.”
The rides led to lunch, which led to dinner, and…Miller won’t divulge the details, but Steiner says smilingly that “many martinis were involved.” Shortly before Steiner left to judge the 2000 Sydney Olympics, they married. Today they reside in Lake San Marcos, California, north of San Diego.
Education, Past, Present, and Future
Two influential dressage judges, the Dutch Jaap Pot and the Swedish Col. Gustav Nyblaeus, served as mentors for Steiner’s own judging career. Pot and Nyblaeus were “very instrumental in pointing out that this guy, Steiner, from the States, knows what he’s talking about. Promote him,” he says.
“Organization-wise,” as Steiner puts it, he had a champion in USDF founding father Lowell Boomer of Nebraska, who “invited me—or influenced the people who were doing the inviting—to [hire me to judge] some of the championship shows he was doing.” Those important competitions “provided me with visibility because the European judges came.” Steiner also points to show managers like Debra Reinhardt of Connecticut and the late Klaus Fraessdorf of Florida, who hired Steiner for decades and counting.
It was through Boomer that Steiner became involved in the movement to establish a national dressage organization. Steiner readily got on board, and he became one of the US Dressage Federation’s (USDF) founding members, in 1973.
Steiner for years was a member of the AHSA/USEF Dressage Committee, but in USDF circles he’s also known as one of the original (and still serving) faculty members of the USDF L Education Program. The program, which teaches the fundamentals of dressage judging, was established in the late 1980s, about the same time that Steiner became an “O,” and so “it was kind of a given” that he would be asked to serve, he says.
The L program has “grown tremendously—from little flimsies put on overhead projectors and relatively little knowledge, to videos and et cetera et cetera,” Steiner says. “It’s just a different program. Anyone who did the program in the late ’90s or even 2000s, they should go again.”
Steiner has also carved a niche for himself as a popular “judge’s-eye view” commentator at large dressage competitions. Audience members pay for headphone access to the judge’s critiques, generally phrased in ways that even dressage novices can understand. Steiner says he often gives out his e-mail address and invites listeners to submit questions, which he answers during breaks and between tests.
“I like the educating part of it,” he says of the commentary gigs. “I truly enjoy doing it. The feedback is fantastic: ‘My husband loves you! For the first time, he understands what I’m doing.’”
Once a Judge, Always a Judge
Of his many roles in the dressage world, Steiner regards himself first and foremost as a judge (then a teacher; then a rider, although he says his days in the saddle are largely behind him). Like other forced-to-retire FEI judges, he chafed at being sidelined against his will. Since his mandatory retirement at the end of 2013, the FEI rescinded its age rule, but Steiner has decided against working his way through the organization’s red tape with the goal of getting reinstated.
He waxes a bit wistful as he contemplates the phenomenon of becoming less well known to younger members of the sport, suffering such small indignities as coming to the USDF convention to be inducted into its Hall of Fame but then having to spell his name for the twentysomething at the registration desk who looks at him without recognition. (Miller chimes in: “It’s like whoever it was who commented on Kanye West’s video with Paul McCartney: ‘Oh, isn’t it nice that Kanye is giving that old guy a chance.’”)
Meanwhile, Steiner exhorts: “I’m not retired yet!” (The USEF has no age limit for dressage judges.) His calendar, while building back up again, still isn’t as full as he would like it to be—the result, he says, of people’s mistakenly equating FEI-judge retirement with hanging-up-his-spurs Retirement.
“I enjoy judging,” Steiner says. “I want to keep judging until I can’t see A any more.”
Jennifer Bryant is the editor of USDF Connection.