By Lauren R. Giannini
Mark Leone is celebrating more than 45 years in the horse world, but acts as if he just landed his dream job and can’t believe his good luck. He’s a winning grand prix jumper rider and trainer with a reputation for excellence, and it boils down to this: Mark Leone loves what he does.
One of the nicest, most cheerful people on the planet, Mark’s enthusiasm is like a tonic: good for whatever ails you. It doesn’t matter whether he’s talking about horses, competing, training, teaching or the show world now and back when he was a kid; it’s all riveting. He’s crazy about his wife, Jane; their sons, James and Mark, and how they go full throttle showing spring, summer and fall, then ease back to an easier pace through the winter. He thanks his lucky stars for his horse-loving mother and non-riding yet always supportive father. As for early mentoring by Sullivan Davis and George Morris, their lessons still influence Mark every day.
“I feel so lucky to be involved with horse sports and show jumping,” said Mark. “It’s a seven-day-a-week job. Monday’s the quiet day, but I spend several hours at the barn with the horses. It’s an incredible sport and I feel very blessed. How do you take your passion, your love for horses, your sport and make it your business? How lucky we are — I count my blessings every single day. I love it.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, Mark and his two older brothers, Armand and Peter, were known as Team Leone, but it all started in early childhood. The horsey DNA came from their mother, Rita Girolamo Leone M.D., who grew up in New York City and enjoyed riding in Central Park. Armand F. Leone M.D., their father, had no equine experience, but after they moved to New Jersey, he bought a horse for his wife, boarding it at a nearby stable. Rita rode when she could — she wasn’t alone with her passion for horses for very long.
“My brothers and I caught on young and horses developed into a big family activity,” said Mark. “We spent so much time together, enjoying each other, enjoying the sport, going to little one-day shows, driving the trailer — everything. My dad supported our interest and made it all happen.”
In the late 1960s, the doctors Leone bought a farm in New Jersey, about 25 miles northwest of New York City. Ri-Arm Farm, which combines their names, Rita and Armand, is where they encouraged and escalated their sons’ equestrian dreams, turning the 15-acre farm into a “backyard” training facility.
“My parents were the best,” said Mark. “They were very influential, not only in equestrian, but in every facet of our lives. Horses developed into a family activity. I look back on how much fun we had and wish other people could experience what we had. Today’s horse shows have everything from walk-trot to grand prix — even though you’re a beginner, you can go to the big show. We learned going to little one-day shows, trailering in, jumping six or seven classes, having a picnic lunch on the back of the trailer, and rooting each other on. The sport has evolved. It’s a different time, a different era, and the growth of the sport is phenomenal, but I have the best memories.”
Sullivan Davis and George Morris were two significant influences on the Leone brothers’ horsemanship. Their first mentor was Sullivan. “We called him Dave and he was a great horseman — he not only did show jumping back in the 1950s, he also rode Saddlebreds and Arabians,” said Mark. “He knew everything, and we learned from the ground up — how to break a pony, how to wrap legs, muck stalls, load a horse on a trailer, drive a pony in a cart, pack a hoof. He taught us a lot of details that, I believe, many riders today don’t know about.”
Mark was 14 when the next phase in the Leones’ equestrian education began and they started riding with George Morris at Hunterdon.
“Dave took us as far as he could and he knew that,” said Mark. “What was so fantastic was how supportive he was when we made the move to George. What an eye-opening experience that was: George is the consummate teacher, trainer, mentor and he sticks to his principles. I worked relentlessly with him up until I was 19.”
What still impresses Mark is that both trainers sent them out into the big horse world. “George said ‘You boys, you’re ready to go out on your own. I’m tired. I don’t need to hold your hand. You’re ready,’” recalled Mark. “He kicked us out there. Dave did the same thing — told me and my brothers ‘I’ll always be there if you need me, but you guys are ready to go on.’ Those were special moments, because it’s so hard for a trainer to let go. I learned so much from both of them.”
Mark acknowledged that many elements of his horse business are based on George Morris. “I’m proud to say that,” he said. “No matter when, what years or decades, George didn’t change. His principles, his techniques stayed the same. He evolved with the sport, but the key factors that he used to make top horsemen and riders didn’t change.”
Mark’s junior highlights include being named Best Child Rider at Devon and at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show where he won the Medal Finals in 1979 when he was 17. He competed in his first grand prix in 1980, and the following year, when Mark and his brothers were gaining momentum on the circuit, George set the Leones loose on the world equestrian stage. Other influential trainers include Michael Matz and Frank Chapot.
“Peter and I worked with Michael for two years — he’s a classy horseman and similar to George in a lot of ways, especially about detail,” said Mark. “One big influence through our whole life once we made the U.S. Equestrian Team is Frank Chapot. He always was and always will be the captain. When I made the team back in 1981, I was 19 and it was a thrill to be around Frank. He was a leader in the sport and continued to be a leader for 35 years — a great coach, chef d’equipe, leader. Frank taught me the value of what it means to ride for your country, the pride when you put on that red coat, the importance of the Nations Cup and giving your best. Frank was a tremendous leader.”
Not so long ago, Mark made a list of the grand prix horses he has competed over the last 35-plus years and it totaled 27. That doesn’t begin to include the equines he showed as a junior in pony hunter, hunter and equitation. He set his sights on jumpers, competing all over North America and in Europe in national and FEI Grand Prix. Among his many victories are three Puissance, the high jump class, all of them at the Washington International Horse Show.
“I’ve been really lucky to have some really nice horses, and there are a few special ones,” he said. “My very first big-time horse that put me on the map and on the U.S. Equestrian Team was Tim, a 7-year-old Belgian. Tim took me to my first FEI World Cup Final in 1982 — a most amazing journey — where we finished eighth and I won the Guerrand Hermes Award for top young rider. 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.”
In the ’90s, Mark partnered with Artos (shown as Crown Royal Artos) — special because the Leones purchased him as a yearling and developed him all the way to international jumper. “Artos was a stallion and majestic-looking with that silver, shining coat,” said Mark. “He had amazing talent and took me to many grand prix wins— Toronto, Washington — and to World Cup Finals in Europe.”
Growing Up Leone-Style
Mark grew up in the exuberant atmosphere of an extremely active family life whose traditions reflected their Italian heritage. “Sunday dinner was always the best and we had a fabulous family meal wherever we were,” he said. “When we were home, we had a pasta course, meat and dessert and we still carry on that tradition. My father was 90 when he passed away three years ago, Mom seven years ago, and we carry on many of the traditions they instilled in us. They set a great example for us when we were kids, but also now that I’m a parent and an adult. They were amazing parents when it came to opportunity, growth and love.
“My dad’s gift was to do anything he could to support equestrian,” continued Mark, “whether it was to fix the footing in the rings, get a new paddock or fences and therapy! My dad being a doctor and radiologist, he was well ahead of his time with therapy on horses. Laser therapy — we’re talking back in the ’70s — and my dad had broadhead lasers, small lasers. Way back when we went to Madison Square Garden, my dad brought a big oxygen tank for the horses because the air wasn’t good. He had the idea to do whatever he could to help the horses. It wasn’t all about winning; it was about giving it your best effort.”
The Leones were raised with the concept that competing comprises far more than the ride in the ring. That competition is the validation of the hard work and day-to-day commitment. “It was also, as my dad used to tell us, a very humbling sport,” recalled Mark. “One day you’re on top, the next you might be at the bottom. It’s a sport that you keep working and working at, because you’re never done learning, you’re never done trying to be the best you can be. Now that I’ve been involved 45 years, it’s still a remarkable game, unique and special. I still have enthusiasm and I love waking up every day to go to the barn.
In 1987, while Mark was still very busy on the circuit, he opened his full-service training facility at Ri-Arm Farm. Located in Bergen County, which boasts the highest population in the state, the farm is a 15-acre oasis, co-owned by the three brothers. What Armand created for Rita and their sons grew, offering clients an outdoor lighted arena, grand prix field with hills, banks and natural obstacles, indoor arena, 36 stalls, on-site staff and security.
In 1998, Mark married Jane, who’s just as cheerful and enthusiastic. It wasn’t a case of love at first sight, but it was worth the wait. “I’m British and I wanted to travel and see America, so I went to an agency,” said Jane. “I ended up going to Ocala in 1992 and stayed for the year. We rode together on occasion and became friends.”
After Jane returned to England, she moved to Holland to work for Leslie Sutcliffe, who sold Vogel boots to the European riders. “I traveled for Leslie to all the shows, selling bits and bobs, like Vetrolin, which was unavailable in Europe at the time, and ran into Mark a lot. That was 1993. Then I came back to America and we married in 1998.”
Mark, Jane, and their sons, Mark, 14, and James, 10, ride and show, of course. “Prior to getting married, it was all about me — my horse shows, my personal endeavors for equestrian sport, traveling the world, giving it my all,” said Mark. “Timing was everything. Jane’s so super. Back in England, she rode ponies and went on trail rides for hours with her friends and did little shows and gymkhanas. Jane hasn’t competed in the last two years or so. Mark’s been competing quite a bit and took one of Mom’s horses. We’re hoping to get Jane back in the saddle this summer, if she’s willing, because we want her to show.”
The biggest problem for Jane is time. “It takes so much to get the boys organized to show,” she said. “I will probably show again, but right now I’m focused on the kids. They take a lot of energy, just getting them organized with their own equipment. Mark and I get so much joy from our sons.”
There’s also her work, which she loves. In 2009, Jane and her sister-in-law Alison, Armand’s wife, opened a quarantine facility for Contagious Equine Metritus (CEM) at Ri-Arm. They provide topnotch care during the mandatory two-week CEM testing for mares after their arrival in the U.S. via J.F.K. International Airport.
“We love what we do and take care of so many wonderful horses that come through here,” said Jane. “Alison’s also British and we get along really well. She has a younger son, David, who’s a similar age to our James and Mark. They’re like the Three Amigos and pretty funny — we call them the Kamikaze Riders —they have a lot of fun.”
Win-Win All the Way
It’s a great dynamic in this high-tech world to work hard doing what you love, but the Leones take the concept to a new level. Mark puts back into the sport with his clients, his family, and by serving as chairman of Zone 2 hunter-jumpers (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania). In the spring, he took on a new challenge as president of the North American Rider Group. He still enjoys teaching clinics and hopes to have a grand prix jumper so he can get back to the top level of his sport.
“Anything to do with horses is all right by me,” said Mark. “I don’t want anything to change. It’s all special. I’m living the dream and I love it.”