Nataly Leibovitz’s Dreams Have Come True
By Doris Degner-Foster
Israel native Nataly Leibovitz went on vacation to Wellington, Florida, after her third year of medical school and was so impressed that she left school to move there. “I was star struck! I was like a kid going to Disney World for the first time — I was in awe of everything,” Nataly said.
Nataly was attending the Semmelweis University medical school in Budapest, Hungary. She had worked hard to keep her grades up and was on good terms with the faculty, which helped her negotiate a departure from the university with the option to return to the program later. However, there are no plans of returning in the immediate future.
The decision wasn’t made without careful consideration. Nataly had thought that studying medicine was where she wanted to be, but it was a difficult change in her life. “It was a very challenging time when I took the hiatus from riding and went into medical school,” she said. “That was a complete 180-degree change from being outside all day, riding and being very physically active. I took it a day at a time to deal with the change, which really helped to put things into perspective.”
Life in Israel
As a daughter of Adi Leibovitz, owner of The Jockey Club Ranch in Rishpon — the oldest and biggest horse farm in Israel — Nataly had ridden from a very early age. “My siblings and I all rode, but I was the one that stayed with it,” she said. As a teenager, Nataly worked for several years with British show jumping legend Lionel Dunning before she competed in Europe and became the National Champion of Israel in Show Jumping. She was also awarded the title of Exceptional Athlete by a special sports committee from the Israeli Army.
The award was very important during her compulsory time in the army as an Israeli citizen. “Getting the National Championship and the Exceptional Athlete title made a big impact on my life when I was in the military,” Nataly said. “It allowed me to continue training and to compete abroad as a representative for Israel.”
Nataly firmly believes that experiences during a young adult’s life are what mold them into the rider they will become. “From 17 to 19 is where you get the instincts for the bigger classes, the bigger jumps,” Nataly said. “If I was to miss those years, I wouldn’t be able to ride at the level that I ride today.”
A New Life in Florida
After her move to Wellington, Nataly and her partner, dressage rider and trainer Oded Shimoni, began construction on their farm, OS Dressage, in November 2013. The facility has both jumper and dressage arenas and a dependable staff of five to care for the horses in the 28-stall barn. “Our house is there on the farm, and I couldn’t be happier to see my horses while having my morning coffee. It’s really a dream come true,” said Nataly.
Oded Shimoni is an Israeli international dressage rider and trainer, having competed in three World Equestrian Games: in Rome, Jerez and Kentucky; two European Championships; and has qualified two horses for the Olympic Games. Nataly had known him for years as he regularly conducted clinics at her father’s facility in Israel, but their relationship didn’t develop until her third year of medical school. They maintained a long-distance relationship for about a year until she vacationed in Wellington and decided to move there. Although he’s in his 50s and Nataly is 29, she doesn’t feel the difference in their ages is an issue.
Although his specialty is dressage, Oded has worked with riders in other disciplines, including eventing and jumpers. He advises Nataly as she works with her jumpers on the flat. “He definitely helps me from the ground and sometimes he rides them to show me what he can feel himself,” Nataly explained. “I think that in order to help me better understand what I’m feeling, it’s important for Oded to get on the horse too.”
The Importance of Being a Horseman
Todd Minikus is Nataly’s jumping coach and he and Oded are alike in that they share the same philosophy of putting the horse first — being a true horseman and taking the time to do things right. “Todd told me, ‘You have to take the time to do it right. If you’re not training the horse, you’re un-training the horse.’ It’s so true; people miss these steps,” Nataly said.
To illustrate her point, Nataly shared a story about watching some riders at a show as they waited in the warm-up area for a groom to bring them their horse. They rode for a few minutes in the classes then turned the horses back over to their groom. Since they were wearing gloves, they didn’t even touch their horses.
“People who want to succeed have to be willing to work hard — invest the hours and be willing to be there when the farrier and vet come, know their horse’s diet, get dirty and put in the effort and the time,” Nataly emphasized. “Be invested; be sure your horse is happy.”
Nataly refers to a quote from golf professional Tiger Woods, who said, “Don’t be surprised to see that luck favors those who are prepared.”
Along with putting in time in the barn, Nataly spoke of having the proper mindset to win. “I think the best advice I’ve been given was from Todd when he said ‘Sweetie,’ — he calls everybody Sweetie — ‘In order to be a winner, you have to practice being a winner. Every time.’”
Todd gave her that advice when she first came to him, frustrated that she was placing high in competitions but was having trouble actually winning. “I often used to go for the clear rounds and that didn’t get me anywhere,” Nataly remembered. “So I started to change.” Todd explained that striving to be a winner included being more daring, citing specific examples of taking tighter inside turns and galloping fast to the finish.
Currently, Nataly buys top-quality young horses in Europe and brings them home to Wellington to train. “Being in Wellington year-round has the big advantage of putting mileage on the young horses in the big and intimidating international ring at the Winter Equestrian Festival show grounds,” Nataly said. “They get used to the big surroundings and scary jumps, and then when the show season comes, they have more experience than the other horses at the same age that arrive at WEF for the first time and get intimidated by all the commotion.”
With Nataly’s background and accomplishments, she can get a spot in top shows riding for Israel. However, the expense of acquiring top horses to be competitive in those shows places limitations on competing at that level. Her current goal is simply to compete as much as she can for Israel, with the dream of possibly going to the World Equestrian Games or even the Olympic Games. She enjoys training and helps Todd by keeping his young horses going while he’s on the road.
Nataly didn’t compete much in Europe last season — keeping busy in Wellington overseeing the construction of OS Dressage. As they had hoped, it’s working out to be an excellent headquarters for her and Oded and she plans to remain there year-round, with the exception of possibly going to the new Tryon International Equestrian Center during the warmer summer months.
For now she’s happy in Wellington, living on her own farm where she can enjoy her morning coffee within sight of her horses — her own dream come true.