Portraits by Monica Stevenson
When Catherine Haddad Staller took a leap of faith and boarded a plane bound for Germany with one bicycle, two horses and $3,000 in her bank account, she never expected her European excursion would turn into a 20-year residency to develop her international dressage career. Ten years ago, Catherine returned to the States to marry her true love and build her business back home. Today, Catherine is thriving with her string of competitive Grand Prix horses and her own slice of paradise at her New Jersey farm, Khiimori.
Catherine’s journey begins in the small town of St. Louis, Michigan, with her parents and two brothers. “My father was an immigrant from Lebanon. He was born in the mountain village of Ain Dara and was the first of his village to go to high school. He went on to medical school and a residency at the Royal College of Surgeons in London,” Catherine said. “My mother grew up in Northern Michigan in a wood cabin without central heat or running water. Both of my parents came from impoverished families but were able to build a better life together. Work ethic and education were everything to them. But we also had a lot of laughter in our lives.”
Horses came into Catherine’s life at an early age with her first pony ride at a friend’s farm. “I can still recall the scent of that pony, the feeling of the leather against my skin, and the motion of his back,” she said. “It’s my first conscious memory, the first time my brain came alive.”
Catherine couldn’t shake the magic of that feeling, and a few years later she was given a pony of her own. “My mom drove me out to a Shetland pony farm and we chose a young, unbroken mare to bring home with us in the back of the station wagon—like a dog. We were completely ignorant about horses! Susie lived in our garage until we could get a shed and a paddock built,” she said.
In an early display of the tenacity which would later sustain her in the highly competitive environment of the German horse industry, Catherine said, “I got bucked off that pony every day for 100 days before she finally let me ride her.”
Growing up, Catherine competed in 4-H with Quarter Horses and Arabians, and later in eventing throughout her college years at Michigan State University (MSU).
Chasing Dreams Overseas
College is traditionally a time for self-reflection, but for Catherine, it proved to be an exceptionally challenging experience. “My father died my freshman year, and quite frankly, I could’ve walked away from my college education right then—not because I didn’t care about my degree, but because I was depressed and overwhelmed with grief.”
Facing her own internal struggle, and looking for some answers, Catherine took a gap year from MSU and headed to Sydney, Australia, to pursue a journalism internship with the American Chamber of Commerce. “I visited 16 countries on my way to and from Sydney and at every stop I found a horse to ride,” Catherine said. “Clearly, I was really interested in business, in writing and in horses. But I didn’t yet see a path to combining those things.”
After a successful internship in which she was able to interview some of the top executives in the city about their secrets to success, Catherine traveled to the United Kingdom to earn her instructor’s certificate at the Moat House Equestrian Centre in Beneden, Kent. Still trying to find a way to turn her passion into a career, Catherine eventually returned home to complete her degree in international relations with a minor in Arabic language. She graduated with honors while accepting the top coaching position for MSU’s Intercollegiate Equestrian Team.
“It was at this time that I met Bodo Hangen, who was one of the most artistic, elegant riders I’ve ever known. He brought the powerful visual of connection and throughness to my life,” Catherine said. “Bodo inspired me. I didn’t have the means to pursue a life with horses, but I was hooked, and I was determined to find a way.”
Recognizing her incredible drive to ride and train at the top of the sport, Bodo encouraged Catherine to go to Germany and hone her skills against the best riders in the world. “For Bodo, nobody could touch the system of riding taught by Willi Schultheis, so I left the United States with the goal of riding with him one day even though he was already semi-retired,” she said. “I booked a spot for my horses at his neighbor’s stable, but I hoped that if I could just find a way to meet him, he might give me a chance.”
Catherine’s resourcefulness was apparent early in her life. Within a few weeks of arriving in Warendorf, Germany, Catherine met Willi at a local fair and politely asked him if she could visit his stable. After a morning of observing the training there, Willi granted Catherine a tryout, and allowed her to train with him.
A self-described risk taker, Catherine credits her drive to succeed and her eternal good humor for pushing her through the obstacles in her way. “I had no grasp of the German language when I left the USA. I once ordered dog soup instead of chicken soup for lunch, but since I’d originally planned to stay in Germany for two months, not 20 years, I figured I could just speak with my hands for the short duration,” Catherine laughed.
When I was a young professional, riders couldn’t learn through video, which is a very valuable tool today. YouTube wasn’t yet a thing when I moved to Warendorf,” Catherine said. “I was trying to get an education in a time when anyone who was serious about dressage had to travel to the masters to learn from them. We had to sit ringside and steal with our eyes.”
Open for Business
Despite being scolded for the occasional culturally inappropriate sarcasm, Catherine adapted to German culture and learned the language while training with Willi until his untimely death a few years later.
Catherine was at a crossroads after Willi’s death. Her goal was international competition, but she had no means to buy top horses and support bids for major competitions. Undaunted by the challenge, she built her own training and sales business in Vechta, Oldenburg, in the heart of Germany’s highly competitive industry. Catherine was gaining traction with her training and riding, and when one of her mares could no longer be ridden, she began her breeding journey.
“In the height of my productive years as a breeder in Germany, I had five broodmares from various Hanoverian and Oldenburg lines,” Catherine said. “Later, I narrowed that group down to the two most successful mares and their offspring. These became the Elfenschein line and the Aronja line.” Though the two lines produced vastly different types, they were each capable of producing international quality foals. Catherine sold the highest priced foal at the Klosterhof Medingen auction in 2002.
With her career supported by horse sales and the help of a new sponsor, Janet Schneider, Catherine began training with a protégé of Willi’s, Rudolf Zeilinger, and was able to work her way into the international arena in 2006.
Success was not long awaited. With her beloved Maximus JSS, Catherine was invited to the U.S. Team Selection Trials prior to the World Equestrian Games in Aachen that year. “Maximus and I finished second to Isabell Werth in the final team outing at the Verden CDI3*, and I thought we had the team spot sewn up!”
Selected as the Reserve Rider for the Aachen WEG in 2006, Catherine was thrilled to be representing the United States. “It meant the world to me. I was a newcomer to international sport even though I had been showing nationally in Germany for many years,” Catherine said. “I was so excited about the future and blown away by the doors Maximus and I were kicking open!” After sitting in the bleachers at that WEG, Catherine’s resolve to ride down the centerline on the world stage only grew stronger. She was inspired and determined.
Together, Catherine and Maximus pushed toward their goals. “Maximus was my guiding light, my captain, my hero against all odds,” she said of the talented horse. Their partnership was palpable in the arena. “We earned a start at the World Cup Final the following spring, even though we had to compete against some of the toughest riders in the Western European League. We chased points through the winter, starting in six World Cup qualifiers across the continent to earn the FEI Wild Card for Las Vegas in 2007.”
Catherine rode to a seventh-place finish at that World Cup—her first international start on U.S. soil made extra special because of the location—Las Vegas. Not the only risk taker in her family, her mother and brothers showed up to watch her compete between rounds of blackjack and craps at the casinos. “When I returned home to Germany, friends from all over the country showed up at the farm for a celebration and I was awarded the key to the city by the mayor of Vechta.”
New partners Cadillac and Winyamaro would eventually exceed Maximus’ success in the Grand Prix arena and bring Catherine to several World Cup qualifiers and Nations Cups. With Winyamaro, Catherine was Reserve to the 2010 Team for the World Equestrian Games in Lexington, then rocked the audience with a P!nk freestyle at the World Cup Final in 2011 in Leipzig, Germany.
Moving Back Home
The 2010 Team USA Selection Trials were a turning point in Catherine’s life—and it had nothing to do with competition, it had to do with a man. Dr. Greg Staller was on the vet panel for the show at the USET in Gladstone. “He had me at ‘Hello,’” she smiled. “It was amazing how much we had in common as we got to know each other.” She reminisced about their first date which was spent fly fishing on the Raritan River in New Jersey. “I out-fished him, of course,” she grinned.
Catherine and Greg tied the knot just a few months later in New York City. “Catherine is beautiful—inside and out—and kind in a way that only truly strong people can be. We had an immediate connection and were almost inseparable by the time the Selections were finished,” Greg said. “Horses have always been a driving force in my life, and in Catherine I found someone who understood them as I do. She is an incredibly smart and empathetic trainer. I have watched her inspire her horses to a level of trust and ambition that I rarely see in other riders.”
Catherine was still living in Germany when they met. She had a thriving training business and owned 28 breeding and competition horses. So even after their spontaneous elopement, it took two years for Catherine to downsize and prepare for a move back to the States.
With Greg’s equine veterinary clinic, Running S Equine Vet Services, thriving in Califon, New Jersey, it made sense for Catherine to set up shop in the same area. “A few years after I moved back, we bought our farm, Khiimori,” she said. Just a few miles from Greg’s practice, the 72-acre farm is Catherine’s sanctuary. “Khiimori means wind horse or spirit horse in Mongolian. The Windhorse is a diety in my faith, Tibetan Buddhism, which represents the soul of all sentient beings, and is said to bring peace, harmony and prosperity when it appears.”
Now back in the States, Catherine has helped kickstarted the careers of several young professionals in her training stable while coaching a few ambitious amateurs to competition success. Her breeding program continues in Europe on a smaller scale, but Catherine’s legacy as a breeder is living on through her current top horse, Frankie, a spunky mare with her own fan club.
The daughter of Aronja, one of Catherine’s foundation broodmares, Frankie has captured the hearts of everyone around her. “Frankie is a great source of joy in my life,” Catherine said. “I’ve never had a horse that wants to be my top horse so badly. She has incredible heart and she’s not afraid to use it. Our connection is almost mystical.”
Moving forward, Catherine juggles her busy lifestyle of training and showing with the start of a new business: NorCordia ApS. Together with Danish partners, she is combining her business and training skills to launch a new approach to buying, training and selling top sport horses around the world—applying concepts that have become part of her and her journey with horses. “The NorCordia name is a combination of ‘Nordic,’ for Scandinavian traditions, and ‘cordia,’ for the pull of the heart strings,” Catherine said while tapping her heart. “NorCordia horses are partners for life. They run in our veins and make our hearts beat stronger. We want to help our horses find their best partners.”
For more information, visit catherinehaddadstaller.com
Photos by Monica Stevenson