Reprinted from the September/October 2022 USDF Connection magazine
In these families, horses are the tie that binds
By Sue Weakley
Dressage DNA—and the associated grit and determination—seem to run in some families. For this youth issue of USDF Connection, we thought it would be fun to talk to some well-known enthusiasts and their children, to find out what keeps the passion for horses and dressage alive.
What we learned: Although all of the “kids” were introduced to horses at a young age, none of the parents insisted that their offspring follow in their dressage hoofprints. But when the horse bug bites, it serves as the glue that helps to keep these dressage dynasties together.
The Barteaus: Running Blocks with a Butterfly Net
FEI-level dressage trainer and competitor Yvonne Barteau (whose former husband, Kim Barteau, is also a trainer) is pleased that her children didn’t follow exactly in her footsteps yet are all involved with horses.
The eldest, Yvonne’s son, Jamie Lawton, specializes in starting young horses. Eldest daughter Jessica Lawton was formerly the barn manager at the family’s KYB Dressage in Illinois and now keeps the books for their two north-Florida farms and their equine-rescue organization, Horses Without Humans. Kassandra “Kassie” Barteau, 34, won six FEI North American Youth Championships (NAYC) medals in the 2000s before becoming a Grand Prix-level competitor and trainer. (She’s also the owner/trainer/rider of Horses Without Humans rescue Falling Skies, the 2021 Adequan®/USDF First Level Horse of the Year.) The Barteaus’ youngest, Kayla “Hudie” Barteau, 27, is a dressage rider and trainer as well as a specialist in exhibitions and liberty work.
“As a parent, you don’t want your kids to fall off and get flipped over on and all the things that happen to you,” says Yvonne, “so you basically run around with a butterfly net, trying to run block for them and keep them from dying and making choices that don’t put them in harm’s way. I got super lucky as a parent, but I do think that they all made the choice with their eyes wide open, and then it was the love of the horse that pulled them in.”
Even though she grew up surrounded by horses and saw the business firsthand, Kassie says that life in the horse industry is different from what she imagined as a teen.
“It’s always changing,” she says. “It’s not a sport or a lifestyle that really stays the same. I would say, no, it’s not what I expected: It’s much bigger and better, and the options feel infinite when it comes to horses.”
Hudie didn’t get seriously involved with riding, teaching, and training until after high school. She advises up-and-coming horse pros to be open-minded: “Every horse is very different, so don’t get discouraged. Never give up, and you’ll be surprised when one horse comes along and it just all makes sense.”
Yvonne says that she encouraged tenacity and individuality in her children, including insisting that they start their own horses and work with rescues.
“I realize that none of my children are just like me and they’re not like each other, but they all can make their own space, and they can all make their own relationships with both horses and people,” she says. “I gave them a door that they could walk through, but they walked through and they kept on walking.”
The Baumerts: Does This Look Like a Horse You Wanna Ride?
Grand Prix-level rider/trainer and 2019 US Pan American Games team silver and individual bronze medalist Jennifer Baumert, 51, remembers growing up on her parents’ Cloverlea Farm in Connecticut, where she watched the older kids take lessons with her mother, USDF-certified instructor/trainer Beth Baumert.
“I aspired to be like all of them, and one of them put me in front of her in the saddle on a big Appaloosa mare,” Jennifer says. “It was the first time I cantered, and I remember just looking down and seeing the ground go by so fast, and it was exhilarating.”
That love of adrenaline led Jennifer first to eventing. “I kicked butt in dressage for eventing,” she laughs. “I could have rails down and sometimes even a refusal in cross-county—no problem.” But she found she didn’t have the heart for the sport, and so she switched to dressage.
One of Jennifer’s favorite stories about her mom involves Beth’s masterful ability to lunge a horse.
Beth “had this phrase she’d say when lungeing: ‘Does this look like a horse you wanna ride?’ I would always be smart and say, ‘Yeah, let me on it.’”
The sage advice behind the phrase stuck. “I’m older now,” says Jennifer, “and with the spicy young horses I’ll say, ‘Does this look like a horse you wanna ride?’ And I’ll think, ‘No, not yet, or not today; maybe tomorrow.’ This just shows how you become your mother!”
Jennifer credits her mom with helping to shape the path of dressage in the US. In the 1970s and 1980s, she says, American dressage “was just sort of a new thing, and it was very much a kick-and-pull kind of scenario. I admire how dedicated she was to watch the best riders and trainers in the world. Then she became involved with Dressage Today. [Beth was that magazine’s longtime technical editor.] I think she actually helped the sport evolve in a positive direction.”
Beth later combined her skill sets to write the dressage books When Two Spines Align and How Two Minds Meet. She currently also serves as CEO of the philanthropic organization The Dressage Foundation. Not surprisingly, she is a strong believer in education, including for those young people bent on a career in the sport.
“Barring extenuating circumstances, education and going to school are the most important thing,” Beth says. “Kids should always have the advantage of a good education, even if it’s only in their back pocket.”
Her daughter took that advice, graduating from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in psychology and a minor in physical education and German. The latter proved especially useful when Jennifer moved to Germany after college to further her dressage education.
Both mother and daughter have found fulfillment in dressage. As Beth puts it, “One of the great things about being a dressage trainer is that it usually involves teaching. Teaching is a career that helps people, which I think is good for the soul.”
The DelGiornos: From Headless Horsewomen to Volunteer of the Year
Debbie and Nicole DelGiorno reversed the usual riding-bug passing-of-the-baton when Nicole’s obsession with horses became her mother’s.
Nicole, 30, a USDF gold medalist based in Medford, New Jersey, dragged her never-even-owned-a-cat-or-dog mother into a life they now both love. Debbie, of Camden Wyoming, Delaware, a USDF participating-member delegate for the past 13 years, is especially keen on promoting young people and youth programs in dressage. In addition to being the Region 1 USDF FEI Youth Committee representative and the Region 1 North American Youth Championships (NAYC) chef d’équipe for nine years, Debbie has been involved with Dressage4Kids’ Youth Dressage Festival for 16 years.
Nicole may have a non-horsey day job (she works in nonprofit marketing and fundraising for MarketSmart), but she remains deeply involved in the dressage world. She has served as the Region 1 Junior chef since 2017, and she is a board member of both The Dressage Foundation and Dressage at Devon. In the evenings and on weekends, she’s a dressage instructor/trainer who is passionate about helping youth.
In Nicole’s case, the love of horses blossomed early. According to her mom, as a toddler Nicole rode her stick horse around the house until its head fell off. She moved on to forcing her Barbie dolls to ride Breyer horses, but the unarticulated Barbies of the time soon met their demise, and the DelGiornos had a container full of Barbie heads, limbs, and bodies.
“Yeah, there was a lot of decapitation in my search for equestrianism, apparently,” Nicole says with a laugh. “My first vivid memory is my granddad, seeing all the decapitation that was taking place, decided that he needed to stop the carnage. So, much to my parents’ chagrin, he went and got me a pony at a local auction.”
The 10.1-hand equine was adorable but completely unbroken. “It took two adults to catch it,” Debbie says, and the DelGiornos couldn’t find anyone to train it because of the pony’s tiny stature. “So it was pretty much a pasture ornament until Nicole was old enough to really have the courage to get on and start training it herself. And she did. She actually even jumped him and, although he wouldn’t load and it would take two people to literally carry him into the trailer, that was how it all started.”
When Debbie saw a flyer for a Horse Care 101 class, she gamely decided to learn the basics so she could at least put on a halter and pick feet—and she eventually took up riding herself. Nicole became involved in Pony Club and discovered dressage. She went on to earn four NAYC medals, including two golds, as an FEI Junior. Now she’s working toward completing the USDF L Education Program.
For her tireless contributions, Debbie was named the 2017 USDF Volunteer of the Year. She encourages others to get involved, as well.
“You can volunteer at shows. That’s how we started—just volunteering with the local GMO. Nicole would run tests, and I would be the ring steward. And then they asked me to be secretary of their GMO, and then vice president, and then it just goes on and on and on. The sky’s the limit because we need volunteers. And if you’re good and dependable, we need you.”
Debbie got so busy with her volunteer duties that her own riding got put on hold. Her latest goal is to get back in the saddle and to join The Dressage Foundation’s Century Club, for riders and horses completing a dressage test who have a combined age of 100 or higher.
“I’m incredibly proud of her,” Nicole says of her mom. “She’s a force to be reckoned with, and her focus is more on the governance and on the volunteerism. Just trying to make the sport healthier, safer, or happier for everyone is her goal.”
The Steiners: So Do You Think You’re Gonna Stick With This?
When Betsy Steiner knew she was having baby girl Jessie, she wanted to immerse her daughter into the world of horses. “I hoped, but I didn’t want to force her,” she says. “I wanted her to love it.”
Betsy didn’t grow up in a horse family, but her parents encouraged her to follow her heart. They promised their daughter that she could get a horse when they moved to the country, so 13-year-old Betsy was delighted when they moved to the Cleveland suburbs.
When moving day arrived at last, “I found a bunch of logs,” Betsy says. “While everybody was unpacking and bringing things in, I was outside. I took the logs, and I had rope and I lashed them to trees and built a corral. My dad found me out there and said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I built a place for my horse.’”
That should have put the family on notice that Betsy was serious about horses, but for years her parents seemed to think that the the infatuation would fade. Even after Betsy rode for Team USA at the 1990 Stockholm World Equestrian Games, her mother asked, “So do you think you’re gonna stick with this?” Betsy says.
Although Jessie had the luxury of growing up around horses (her father is Betsy’s ex-husband, the late German dressage master Uwe Steiner), she was allowed to ride only if she pulled her weight grooming and doing barn chores. When she hit her teenage years, “I would do the horses for a while, and then I would leave it for a while,” she says. “I wanted to be a regular teenager. I grew up in the Midwest, in a place where dressage was not a thing. It was just me out there in the middle of a cornfield.” She tried cheerleading for a while, “but I missed riding.”
Jessie attended Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, where she earned a BA in communications with a minor in English literature. After college, she followed her mother to California and got a “real job” so that she could afford a nice horse.
Jessie soon found that life as a typical adult-amateur rider was not to her liking. “She came home from her job one day and just cried,” Betsy says. “I said, ‘What do you want to do?’ She said, ‘I just want to ride,’ and I said, ‘Well, that’s easy enough!’”
For years Betsy and Jessie, 51, have been partners in their Steiner Dressage business, dividing their time between New Jersey and Florida. Both women teach, train, and compete through the FEI levels.
“I think we’re lucky that we get to share this,” Betsy says. “Through the years, the person that’s always there whom I can count on is Jess. I think we’re incredibly lucky and fortunate, and we thank God every day that we have the life we do.”
The Williamses: Growing up in Camelot
Noel Williams was raised in a land of fairytale horses. Her parents, George and Roberta Williams, were both employed by the Tempel Lipizzan Corp. in Old Mill Creek, Illinois, he as a rider/trainer (later director) and she as the director of program development.
“It was like being in Camelot,” says Roberta, herself a Grand Prix-level rider/trainer who today chairs the USDF FEI Youth Committee. “I would go to work, and Noel would come with me. When we went to horse shows, she was in my backpack. There never was not an interest; she was always there, and she always loved it.”
The family lived on the 7,000-acre Tempel Farms surrounded by Lipizzans, first in a house with cross-country jumps in the back yard, then in a house next to a field of young Lipizzan colts.
“I long-reined Noel on [the Lipizzan stallion] Jacinda when she was about four so she could feel piaffe, passage, pirouettes, and changes every stride,” says George, who was based at Tempel Farms for 20 years before switching to the world of high-performance dressage. Now a well-known international trainer and competitor, he currently serves as USDF president and is the USEF national dressage youth coach and its dressage high-performance and pathway development advisor.
“I like to think that she was hooked on dressage from that point on,” George says of his daughter.
Noel, 34, progressed through the youth ranks, winning the 2005 USEF FEI Junior National Championship team and individual gold medals and a 2007 NAYC Young Rider team silver medal. She is now the head trainer at Nancy Holowesko’s Crosiadore Farm in Trappe, Maryland, and is working toward her USEF “R” dressage judge’s license.
“With the horses, she has this feeling,” Roberta says of Noel. “She never wants to give up on a horse. She always, always thinks that the horse just needs love or understanding.” Her dad says that his daughter loves the training more than anything. “I believe she is motivated by all of the right reasons,” he says.
Noel knows she scored a parental jackpot. “It was not very easy for me growing up with him because the man is like, literally perfect, and he’s literally a saint,” she says of her father. “The thing that stands out is his work ethic. He works so hard for everybody, and with his diplomacy and fairness, he really is so good in all of the positions that he’s in. He stands out even among the best of the best, and I don’t know anybody else who has as much technical knowledge as he has.”
Roberta has also set an example for her daughter to emulate, serving on endless committees and being recognized as the 2021 USDF Volunteer of the Year.
Her mother “makes herself available to all of the kids [in the USDF youth programs],” Noel says. “She’s like the mother hen. She’s so supportive, and she listens. And she’s also a stunningly beautiful rider; she is quite knowledgeable and experienced and has a lot to offer. She’s really the one who taught me to ride.
“I joke now that I really need her at the horse shows because she’s like my emotional-support blankie,” Noel laughs. “She’s my babysitter and my hand-holder, and I really need her.”
The Wagners: From in Utero to Dressage Pro
Emily Wagner Miles says that her mother, German-born dressage instructor/trainer Jana Wagner, introduced her to horses in utero.
As Emily tells it, a very pregnant Jana was teaching a rider how to sit the trot. “She jumped on the horse with her big, pregnant belly so that he could see how her belly moved,” Emily laughs. “That was me in there. So I claim that I taught somebody how to sit the trot before I even took my first breath.”
Jana was a single mom raising four children while running her own business and farm. “I made all my kids ride,” she says. “I said to them, ‘I don’t have time to be a soccer mom. Your sport will be riding.’”
Emily loved horses, but, exposed to the reality of living paycheck to paycheck, she decided to pursue a different career. “It’s just a really hard business, you know?” she says. “And I think that it’s a privilege that I got to see that. I went to school to try to be a doctor so that I could be on the other end of that coin. I always expected to have horses in my life, but I did not want to be the starving trainer.”
The horses had other ideas. “I tried to quit, and then I always had a horse that somehow came and pulled me back in,” Emily says. The mother-daughter team are now partners in Wally Woo Farm, a dressage training and breeding facility in La Cygne, Kansas. (As the farm’s website explains, it got its name through Jana’s attempts to pronounce “Valley View” with a German accent.)
Emily, 34, who is the only one of the siblings to have followed their mother’s career path in dressage, says that she doesn’t regret her choice.
“Absolutely not,” she says. “I’m so thankful that I have the profession I do now. They say dressage takes multiple lifetimes to learn, and I feel like I got a part of her lifetime that she could instill in me at a very young age.”
Jana’s advice to parents with “horsey” kids? Let them work in barns; pay for only one lesson a week and have them work off the rest. When they are younger, get them a pony so they can saddle up themselves.
“Let them fall off,” she says. “Let them ride bareback. That is what teaches them riding. If they learn the freedom of being out there in the field or just sliding off and sitting underneath the tree and doing nothing, it’s that partnership, that friendship, that inner peace of a person together with a horse that will keep them going.”
Yamazaki and Yang:Daughters of Trailblazers
Adult-amateur Grand Prix-level rider and competitor Akiko Yamazaki is known in dressage circles as the owner of Four Winds Farm in California and of many of Olympian Steffen Peters’ competition horses. She was introduced to horses by her Japanese mother and grew up jumping in Costa Rica.
When Yamazaki’s daughter Miki Yang was two, the family lived in their barn house while their main residence was being remodeled. When daughter Emi was born, she came home to the barn house.
“They grew up around horses,” Akiko says. ”I think when you’re so little and you’re exposed to it, you naturally want to do it.”
Miki’s first equestrian passion was vaulting. She was the youngest member of the US vaulting team at the 2014 FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy, turning 10 on the first day of competition. She went on to win a bronze medal at the 2015 Youth World Championships.
Then, trading her vaulting outfits for dressage togs, Miki has won a slew of accolades, including the 2018 FEI Children’s National Championship, the 2019 FEI Pony Reserve National Championship, and Young Rider medals at the 2021 NAYC. Emi, now 14, remains an avid vaulter. She won a bronze medal at the 2021 National Vaulting Championships and another bronze at the 2021 Senior World Team event.
This fall, Miki, 18, will attend her parents’ alma mater, Stanford University in California, with plans to enter its new Doerr School of Sustainability.
Akiko says she admires her daughters’ heartfelt passion for horses. She believes the girls’ work ethic stems from years of watching elite-level dressage and learning what goes into achieving those results.
“When you’ve had those experiences where you’re watching very high-level sport, you know what the standard has to be,” Akiko says. Her daughters “watch how Steffen behaves, how he prepares himself mentally, how he’s preparing the horse, and how he warms up the horse.”
Miki says she’s grateful that her grandmother initiated the familial passion for horses.
“My grandma is a total trailblazer, and so ahead of her time,” she says. “There’s this picture of her standing in a group as the only woman in a riding club with 20 or so other members, and she just looked so proud.”
Miki also recognizes the lessons that her mother has handed down.
“I credit all of what I’ve learned as a horsewoman and rider to my mom,” she says of Akiko, “because she is who I learned from and observed all my life, and she does so with such compassion, fairness, understanding, and care for our horses.”
Sue Weakley is a freelance journalist with a master’s degree and a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. She taught journalism and integrated marketing communications at the university level for five years before melding her love of dressage with her love of writing.