By Victoria Sheehan
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
Lee Cesery considers her story a typical one. Yet for many who know her, she’s anything but. The prominent amateur is a staple across hunter-jumper A-circuits, primarily in the hunter ring where her horses have continued to be a treat for those who get the chance to watch.
“She’s been in the horse show game for so long,” her daughter Christie said. “I feel like everybody knows who she is.” As one professional in Ocala put it, “You’d have to live under a rock to not know her.”
Chances are if you’ve met Lee, you’ve met the real Lee. Those who know her best say she is an authentic person who wears who she is on her sleeve. But her reputation supersedes her sheer prevalence in the show world. It speaks for itself in her love and dedication to the sport by bringing along green horses in the hunter ring. It may be a surprise to some that Lee’s road to the A-circuit started simply, when in the 1st grade, her father brought her to pony rides close to the Atlantic coast in her hometown of Jacksonville, Florida—a tradition that repeated the following year.
“I told my dad, ‘I’d like to ride the real fast one again, Big Red!’ And my dad almost broke my heart and he said, ‘Honey, all that pony does is walk.’ So that was the very first exposure,” Lee said.
Horses Make a Comeback
A few years down the road, horses came back to tap young Lee on the shoulder again. This time, it was when she was helping a friend at a horse show.
“When I came home, I said, ‘Mom, I’ve got to get a pony.’ My dad was pretty enthusiastic about the whole thing.”
With Dad’s help and time spent reminding her horse-allergic mother that the pony didn’t have to come in the house, just a couple of weeks later, she had her pony. What followed were countless hours in the saddle both at home and competing at shows. Lee’s father, who went by “Bud” Dixon, served as groom, driver, cheerleader and second coach. She continued riding and showing all the way through her first two years of college, when her parents insisted she finish school. “I sold my horse and took a long sabbatical until after I had my daughter and had gotten married before I started back again,” she said.
Lee, then a mother of two, wanted to get back in shape and missed being in the saddle. She took a few lessons with well-known trainer Andrew Lustig, who said point-blank, “We need to find you a horse.”
Many years after those famous last words, Lee’s string is currently comprised of two warmbloods. Luminous, her most recent partner, joined the Lee team less than six months ago, and is going strong in the 3’3” hunter divisions. The 10-year-old gelding is a reliable partner and, according to Lee, has developed quite the personality since coming to her farm.
But the headliner is none other than Comanche. Lovingly known as Floyd around the barn, the 13-year-old was barely 6 when Lee found him in Texas. From the moment she acquired Comanche, Lee and professional rider Megan Young lovingly orchestrated his progression. “When we first got him, he was a little tricky, but we knew he was super talented and super scopey,” Megan said. “He ended up doing the International Derbies and went to finals. He’s just a super quality horse.”
The two’s partnership is a manifestation of a deep passion Lee has to bring young horses along for the hunter ring. “I like to see them develop,” she said. “It’s just really rewarding.”
From the Pre-Green Hunters at Kentucky through to International Derbies, Comanche’s success proved they had a talented horse on their hands. Lee piloted him to several top finishes in the 3’6” Amateur-Owner Hunters and the partnership flourished until Comanche’s career hit an unforeseen hitch by way of an injury.
“We turned him out for a year and a half,” Lee said. “And then last year we were saying, ‘I wonder how Floyd’s doing, I wonder if he still wants to play?’” Lee brought him to her farm in St. Augustine, Florida, to find out. His answer was a resounding, ‘Yes!’
“He is just as game today,” Lee said with a smile. “He got right back into the swing of things. He just loves to show. I know him much better than I know Luminous because we’ve had him and we’ve kind of grown up with him.”
Building strong relationships with her equine partners isn’t the only thing that defines Lee to her core. Connection to her roots and her family are even bigger driving forces in her life. When asked what her favorite show moment is, Lee’s answer has nothing to do with 3’6” fences, impressive derby wins, or even when she and Swagger went on to a win the 3’3” AO Hunter Handy at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show. Instead, Lee’s favorite show moment is when her daughter placed 10th overall at the 1999 Pony Finals on a tricky pony named Am I Blue.
Christie remembers it well, and recalls why the achievement was so memorable. “She was not an easy pony to ride at all. I think only like three people in her whole career were able to ride her!”
“Her pony lived at our farm, and we went up to Kentucky and I did all the preparation and she helped me, of course,” Lee said. “But I think her round at Pony Finals was probably the most memorable because they had gotten a prize in the under saddle, they had gotten a prize in the model and I think she ended up maybe sixth over fences, so ended up 10th overall. It’s just a great experience to be able to instill that kind of love for horses in her as well.”
It is in sharing her love of horses where Lee’s legacy may be the strongest of all.
“Really, the horses are a big part of her life,” Megan said. “I don’t see her giving it up easily. I think even if it came to a point where she didn’t want to ride anymore, she’ll always be involved with her daughter, the grandkids or something.”
That something may come sooner rather than later. Christie has a son, proudly named Dixon, and recently gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Nevin, affectionately called Nevi. But before Nevi was even born, Grandma was given an important go-ahead from her daughter. “She’s given me permission to buy a pony,” Lee said with a grin.
With those eight words, the Cesery cycle continues. A tale deeply rooted in the story of the family itself, beginning years ago near the coast of Florida, when one little girl saw a pony and a loving father said, ‘Yes.’
“That’s the thing,” Christie said, laughing, “I got to grow up and have all the bad ponies and [my daughter will] probably grow up and have all the made, great ponies.”
It’s safe to say, if Lee has her way, you can count on it.
If asked directly, Lee humbly shies away from thinking about what impact she hopes to have on the sport. But when pressed on what she hopes to instill in younger riders making their way up, she utters words ingrained in her through her father, countless horses and a mindset that has kept her in the show ring for more than 30 years: “Don’t ever give up. If you have a goal, it’s never too late.”
Roughly an hour drive from her farm in St. Augustine sits the Jacksonville Equestrian Center. Down the path past the indoor arena and plaza, there’s a sign indicating riders have entered Dixon Square: a 300 x 150-foot outdoor ring where countless equestrians, from pony riders to professionals, have worked with their horse partners. What those riders may never know is the ring where they do their favorite thing in the world was donated in honor of one man—a father whose love and dedication to his daughter’s passion rang true.
“My grandfather 100% supported my mom. He took her to the horse shows, bought her the horses,” Christie said. “He was like the number-one horse show dad.”
“My dad was a very big supporter of my riding,” Lee said, adding that her grandson is named Dixon after her father. “He was my groom, my chauffeur—everything,” Lee said, pausing for a moment, preparing to amend her thoughts on her time in the sport and the legacy she hopes to leave. “If anything,” she said, “I’d like to see that ring put to good use…and see Christie grow up to be a pony mom.”
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com