By Kimberly Gatto
Portraits by Kristen Scott-Crocker
In dressage and in life, the greatest partnerships involve a delicate balance of chemistry, passion, sacrifice and respect, and for Lee and Sarah Tubman, that balance has become a way of life. The couple, who operate out of Jeff and Jessica Friedrich’s Donato Farms in Wellington, Florida, boast a long list of individual accomplishments. Lee is a highly respected FEI four-star judge, Grand Prix rider and coach whose students have been victorious at small and large tour competitions and Young Rider championships. Sarah’s achievements include an individual dressage gold medal from the 2019 Pan Am Games aboard Summit Farm’s First Apple, with whom she competed successfully in Europe this past summer and was short listed for the 2022 World Equestrian Games.
While Lee was raised in Canada and Sarah hails from rural Nevada, they each developed a strong passion for horses early in life and faced similar obstacles on their individual roads to success. Devoted to their horses and to each other, Lee and Sarah have developed a winning partnership that serves as an inspiration to equestrians throughout the world.
In the Beginning
Lee Tubman was born and raised in western Saskatchewan, Canada, in a tiny town called Eston. “My parents were grain farmers,” Lee said. “They had Hereford cattle and black Angus, but we also had horses that were used to round up the cows and calves.”
While Lee enjoyed riding for pleasure, he didn’t become serious about it until he saw a boy around his own age riding Western patterns at a local county fair. “I was 12, and I decided right then that I wanted to take lessons. My parents agreed. I think they figured it would be a good way to keep me out of trouble,” Lee said.
As Lee progressed in his lessons, his parents purchased a Grade Quarter Horse/Arab mare with whom he subsequently competed in local Western classes. “One of the show judges from the local fair came back and taught what we would now call a ‘clinic’ and I decided to ride in it,” Lee said. “As it turned out, he was more of a dressage-type person. I found that I really enjoyed the principles of dressage.”
Over the next few years, Lee was spending most of his time at the barn and at local competitions. “I think my teachers thought I was sickly since I was always missing school because of horse shows,” Lee said. “But I still made the honor roll.”
After graduating from high school, Lee began working in auto repair, eventually acquiring a job at an engine repair facility. “It was totally different from working at a barn,” Lee said. “I had to punch a timecard and everything. And I never took the test for my certification because I was always at horse shows. But I put in a lot of overtime whenever I could. I wanted to make enough money to go to the North American Young Riders Championships (NAYRC), so I had a ton of motivation to work hard.”
Lee achieved that goal, competing at the inaugural NAYRC, which was held at Lamplight in Illinois in 1981. “I was unprepared for such a big show,” Lee said. “It was a five-day trip from Canada to Lamplight. Another Canadian rider had trailered with me, and we started reading the tests when we got to the show. The team test looked OK, but the individual test included pirouettes and other movements I was not prepared for at all. I was, as they say, a fish out of water. But I don’t think I realized how big of a show it really was, so I was able to focus once I got into the ring.” Lee and his Canadian teammates—including Ashley Holzer—earned the team bronze medal and Lee placed 11th individually. The following year, he returned to the NAYRC and was a part of the gold-medal-winning team, placing fifth individually.
Realizing their son’s passion for the sport, Lee’s parents gave him the option of either attending college or spending a year in training at a new German dressage facility in Canada. He chose the latter. “It was a wonderful experience. Many famous riders would come to ride there—the quality was off the charts. But when the year was almost up, I had to find some way to continue training. As it turned out, another rider at the barn was teaching at a barn in Toronto, so I applied for a job there. I was supposed to be 21 to apply, so I didn’t fill out that part of the application, and my only teaching experience was working at a 4-H camp for a few days—but somehow, they hired me anyway.”
Sarah (nee Lockman) also spent her childhood in a tiny town, albeit in northern Nevada. “I was introduced to horses when I was just a baby, as my mom had grown up riding in South Africa,” Sarah said. Like Lee, Sarah spent her early years in a Western saddle, taking part in local pleasure, trail and barrel racing events. She made the switch to English riding as a 10-year-old after being introduced to Pony Club, eventually earning her national Level B certification.
“I was more of an eventer than a dressage rider for much of my early career,” Sarah said. “But I was committed to the sport at an early age. I remember telling my first trainer that I would someday ride in the Olympics.” Armed with talent and a strong work ethic, Sarah became one of the youngest riders in eventing history to run an Advanced course. She competed in her first two-star event at the tender age of 14, placing an impressive third.
“We didn’t have a lot of money to spend,” Sarah said, “So I always had to work at the barn to pay for my lessons. Sometimes I would set up a tent outside of my trainer’s house and stay there so I could be fully immersed in learning about horses.”
When she turned 16, Sarah was given the opportunity to work at an FEI dressage sales barn in California. “I had been riding mostly OTTBs up to this point,” she said. “Now I had the chance to ride some imported warmbloods. I would be at the barn from before sunup to after sundown. I was able to ride all different types of horses, from young, green or problem horses to highly trained schoolmaster types. I loved every minute of it and made the decision to focus solely on dressage.”
Starting a Business
Though they had not yet crossed paths, Lee and Sarah each spent the start of their respective careers building their own businesses. In 1988, after leaving his first coaching job, Lee brought two horses to Europe to train under German Riding Master Gunter Festerling for several months. “It was a very different time,” Lee said. “There were no cell phones and fewer distractions than there are now. It was an important time for me, because in Germany I acquired discipline and learned how to run a stable.”
Upon his return to Canada, Lee set his sights on qualifying for the World Equestrian Games. “That didn’t go as planned,” Lee said. “My horse slipped in his stall and I didn’t think much of it at the time, but we found that he had a small suspensory tear. And the other horse that I had been riding had to be sold due to the owner’s financial problems. This made me realize that, in order to keep moving forward, I had to open my own stable.”
Lee worked hard to steadily build his own training and coaching business over the next decade, starting with 10 horses and expanding from there. Lee was equally successful as both a rider and a coach, having been long-listed on multiple occasions for the Olympics and the Pan American Games and earning the Canadian National Grand Prix Championship. He was named Canada’s High Performance Equestrian Coach and brought several young riders to medal finishes at NAYRC. Additionally, he earned the award for Male Coach of the Year in 1994 in Canada by 3M Corporation.
Always one to continue learning, Lee decided to expand further by obtaining his judge’s license. “I had been taking judges’ courses from the time I was a young rider, as I always wanted to better understand how the scores were developed,” Lee said. He eventually earned his “S” card and became a highly sought-after judge.
In 2010, on the advice of Robert Dover, Lee considered relocating from Canada to Florida. “I was riding a mare for a client and we were ranked #1 for the Pan Am Games,” Lee said. “Robert was the team coach at that time and suggested that I move to Wellington. I was trying to figure out how I could make that happen, as I had a barn with 16 horses at home and I also didn’t think it was within my reach financially. Every time I looked at ads for stables in Wellington, I saw these beautiful places with scalloped roofs, and I knew we couldn’t afford that. But I spoke with my client and she suggested that I put together a budget and get back to her. I did, and to my amazement, she said ‘OK.’”
“I remember driving down from Canada in the snow. I had brought a trailer full of hay, and I can still remember unloading it when we got to Wellington. I looked up at the stable and there was that beautiful, scalloped roof. I smiled and thought to myself, ‘I never want to see a Canadian winter again.’”
After maintaining barns both in Canada and in Wellington, Lee eventually made the decision to remain in Florida year-round. “At this time, the opportunity arose for me to apply for my FEI judge’s card. Even my friends wanted me to do it. I kind of did it by being thrown into the fire,” Lee said. “I judged five three-star shows in Wellington my first season judging and then I judged the qualifier for the 2015 Pan Ams. I have judged the Grand Prix freestyle on many occasions on Friday night at ‘C’ at Global. It was amazing and so fulfilling. I still have a favorite photograph where I am presenting an award to Steffen Peters and on another occasion Laura Graves.”
Sarah Branches Out
As Lee was building his business in Wellington, Sarah made the decision to launch her own training business in California in 2012. “It was a leap of faith,” Sarah said. “I said to myself that starting out on my own would be different and likely very difficult, but even if it involved working part-time at McDonald’s, I was going to do this.”
She started with a small group of clients and sales horses and, within a few years, had expanded to having over 25 client horses in training and 20 sales horses at any one time. “It actually became the largest dressage business on the West Coast at that time. I was so fortunate to have super clients who believed in me, and great horses. One year, I took 21 horses to the regional championships.”
A chance encounter with an amateur rider by the name of Gerry Ibanez changed Sarah’s life forever. “One day, I received a call from an older man who had little experience with dressage,” Sarah said. “He wanted to buy a Friesian horse that he had seen and needed some advice. The gentleman, Gerry, had come from a cutting horse background and had never ridden English. I remember thinking that a young Friesian would likely not be a suitable mount for this man, but I agreed to help him out. I called him and explained my thoughts and suggested that I go with him to look at the horse. That’s when he told me he had already bought the horse.”
To Sarah’s surprise, the horse was one of the nicest Friesians she had ever seen. “I ended up competing that horse to Intermediate I with scores above 70%. And Gerry wanted to learn the horsemanship side of things,” Sarah said. “He wanted to help with everything in the barn. He explained that he had run some big businesses in his day but had never seen anyone work as hard as I did. He then added, ‘If you ever need any help making your Olympic dreams come true, let me know.’”
Gerry’s words crossed Sarah’s mind months later when she found a lovely Grand Prix horse that was being offered for sale. “I decided to be brave and call Gerry, as I thought maybe he could help give me some advice on putting a syndicate together. To my surprise, he responded by saying that we wouldn’t need a syndicate—he would buy the horse outright. Here was this very humble gentleman who would show up to the barn in ripped jeans and driving an old Jeep, but it turned out that he was a very successful businessman and was willing to sponsor me. My mom had always told me that you can’t judge someone by appearance—I learned that lesson for sure.”
While the Grand Prix prospect didn’t end up being the horse Sarah would ultimately purchase, she entered into a new business venture, Summit Farm, with Gerry as her sponsor. With the goal of representing the U.S. internationally, Sarah moved her stable to Wellington for the winter months and continued to spend half the year at Summit Farms in La Cresta, California.
In the fall of 2018, Gerry and Summit Farm purchased First Apple, a 9-year-old chestnut KWPN stallion by Vivaldi, for Sarah to campaign. Within one year of beginning their partnership, Sarah and First Apple won individual gold and team silver medals at the Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru. Sadly, Gerry passed away suddenly in early November 2019, only months after this great victory.
“It was just tragic,” Sarah said. “Gerry was more than a sponsor to me—he was a mentor and a second father. He had such big dreams for us.” Following Gerry’s death, the Ibanez family pledged to support Apple and Sarah’s other Grand Prix horse—the Westfalen mare Balia—for the remainder of their careers. “Gerry not only supported my dreams and my career, but he became a close friend and changed my life,” Sarah said. “He loved the horses with everything he had. It is a privilege for me to ride in Gerry’s honor. And I do that every single day.”
A Chance Meeting
With Lee and Sarah each now based in Wellington, their paths were destined to cross. “One night, I went to this little dive bar with friends,” Sarah said. “Lee came up to say hi to the table and somehow I didn’t recognize him at first, even though he was a well-known FEI judge. I think he probably thought I was full of myself!”
“I knew who Sarah was and I remember wondering why she was in town,” Lee said.
Eventually the pair met up for dinner. “I didn’t think much of it at first,” Sarah said. “I was kind of trying to downplay everything. But we talked for four or five hours straight and realized we had a lot in common and had the same beliefs about life.”
Neither knew quite what to expect afterward. “When our date was over, she gave me a kiss on the cheek and I thought that was the end of it,” Lee said. “But then she texted me thanking me for a nice date and we ended up seeing each other more often.”
At the beginning of their relationship, Sarah didn’t ride under Lee’s tutelage, though she would often ask him to watch videos and critique them. “I would have to ask her: Do you want my opinion as a judge, a trainer or your boyfriend?” Lee said. “It was kind of tricky.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020 and the horse shows were canceled, Lee found himself with a large amount of extra time. “Lee started helping me a lot with the horses since he wasn’t judging,” Sarah said. “Eventually, we started working together as a partnership, and Lee became my coach.”
Both Lee and Sarah admit that developing their partnership wasn’t always easy. “At first, it could be rough,” Lee said. “As a judge, I look for what I can fix, and she didn’t always agree. In fact, she once told her mom that she would ‘never’ ride the way I was telling her to, but now she does. We had some strong arguments at first, but then we had an epiphany!”
“We made a promise that regardless of whatever happens in the barn—any type of disagreement—it never comes home with us,” Sarah said. “It has worked well, since we have the same beliefs—about horsemanship and about life.”
In December 2021, Lee and Sarah were married in the stone chapel at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida. “It was a small, intimate wedding with only immediate family and friends,” Sarah said. “Now that we are married, we work together every day. I almost never ride without having Lee coaching or watching me.”
The couple maintains a small group of high-quality horses that they are bringing along in the hope of finding their next FEI superstar. Sarah continues to work toward her childhood dream of representing her country at the Olympics—a dream that has become stronger since winning gold at the Pan Am Games. “Once you stand on the podium and hear that National Anthem being played, it is very addicting,” Sarah said. “But ultimately, it really is all about the horses.”
Horsemanship is a shared passion for the couple. “We are very hands-on,” Lee said. “It’s important that we have quality time with each horse. That is why we don’t bring a groom to shows—we want to do the work ourselves. Horses give us their all, and we want to return the favor.”
As Sarah works toward her goal of eventually standing on that Olympic podium, Lee remains her strongest supporter. “Sarah and I are strongly bonded,” Lee said. “I will always defer to what’s important to her over what’s important to me. I’ve already had my time in the spotlight—this is now her journey. And there is nothing more important to us than being happy together.”
For more information, visit sldressage.com and leetubman.com
Photos by Kristen Scott, www.sunsoarphotography.com