Leslie Steele

Leslie Steele is the kind of rider that can talk about roots. Her roots run deep in the Southern California town of Calabasas, where she was born, raised, and now runs her business. She knows the roots of her horses, because she’s brought many of them up from youngsters into successful careers. One of those horses is her grand prix mount Oh My Goodness, who was sired by her former grand prix horse Figaro out of a mare that she also used to compete. And she’s a part of the roots of her students, who often ride with her from ponies through to Young Riders.

At Acres West, Steele’s farm that has roots of its own, her world is the horses and animals that occupy its tidy 6 acres in the hills that back up against the Santa Monica mountains. At the age of 50, Steele has ridden the up down wave of the West Coast horse industry for over 25 years, but her passion for the sport is still fresh.

Read on for a conversation with Steele about her horsey beginnings, her dedication to developing young horses, and the most valuable lessons she’s learned along the way.

ProEquest: Let’s start with a little background. How did you come up in the industry?
Leslie Steele: Well, I’ve had a major love of horses all my life. When I was a little kid, I would crawl over to the horse next door and wrap myself around his legs. At 7, my mother had me go to a riding camp in Pomona. I went for a week and there was turning back from there. I rode English from day one, and showed a little as a junior.

PE: Who was your first trainer?
LS: Sheri Rose. I rode with her as a teenager, myself, Jenny Karazissis and Lise Quintero all did. But I didn’t have the family background to compete at all the big shows. As soon as I could, I started working for Sherry and became very busy as a catchrider.

PE: What helped you the most in those days, when you were just starting out?
LS: Well, I had a lot of desire, and that helped. What it really was though was that I watched a lot and learned a lot from watching. From watching and learning I was able to teach and ride. I became a catchrider and became known early on as the rider of all the bad horses, all the tough horses, because I wasn’t afraid to get on anything.

PE: And who sticks out in your mind as your greatest influence?
LS: There have been several, but a big one is Kenny Wheeler. I moved to Keswick, Virginia for a brief period, and I really learned why they call him the living legend. I learned unbelievable amounts from him. Being on the East Coast for a couple of years was so influential. When I came back to California in 1990 I was looking at hunters a different way, and riding a different way. 

PE: Is that when you opened Acres West, in 1990?
LS: No, I had Acres West before I went to the East Coast, but when I came back, we moved it onto a six acre piece of property that my parents bought in Calabasas. I’ve been there ever since with not only horses, but all kinds of animals. I always say that Acres West isn’t just a horse stable, it’s an animal stable. I have pigs, goats, dogs, koi fish, you name it.

Steele, Eugenie Kilb and Q2 (Billy) Pony Hunter, Champion, Del Mar National Horse Show

PE: And what about the people? You’ve brought some pretty notable juniors up the ranks, correct?
LS: That’s true, I’ve had juniors in all the medal finals, and many of them grew with me from their start in the walk/trot divisions. Kilian McGrath, who just made the Zone 10 A Team for NAJYRC rode with me for ten years. Theo Boris and Sophie Verges had great junior careers and are now riding with me while they’re in college. Erika Henaghan rode with me as a junior and is now one of my assistants. Riding and teaching takes up most of my lifetime, but I love it!

"I've been blessed with great clients and horses," says Steele. Horses such as Smitten, above, that Steele rode to Grand Hunter honors at the Washington International Horse Show in 2008.

PE: Is it the teaching then, that motivates you to get up in the morning, even now, after over 25 years in the business?
LS: It’s all of it. I love developing young horses. I never bought a made grand prix horse, I always brought them up myself. My passion is the jumpers, I think because it’s a different skill set and I just enjoy the thrill of jumping the really big jumps. But the hunters is an art form. If somebody can do that well they are a very good rider. It’s ballet on horseback, everything is invisible if you can do it well. In the jumpers its a lot more visible what you’re doing, but it’s a refined skill too. You have to know your horse, measure every step and be sharp.
Show jumping was always something I’d wanted to do internationally. The closest that I’ve ever come is riding in the World Cup Finals in Las Vegas and it was the thrill of a lifetime.

PE: Not to say that you won’t get there again one day, right? You’ve had a pretty solid grand prix career thus far.
LS: Yes, I’ve had a great grand prix career, and I still ride at that level. I have a very talented young gelding named Oh My Goodness that I’m hoping to be able to do some World Cup classes with at the end of the year, if he’s ready. I brought him up through all the Young Jumper divisions, and he won the Young Jumper Championship as a six year old. Last year I hurt my knee, and Mandy Porter showed him in some grand prix classes for me. As far as my overall grand prix career, it’s all in the luck of the draw, and I have been lucky enough to have a couple of really great horses.


In the grand prix ring at HITS Thermal.