By Britney Grover
Portraits by Shawna Simmons
When congratulated on his recent induction into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame, Norman Dello Joio seemed almost embarrassed. “Being recognized in any capacity is always an honor — especially this time in the company of someone like Hunter [Harrison], who I respected so much — but awards have never really changed the way I feel about what I do,” he said. “Success for me isn’t defined in terms of awards or accolades, but instead by progress. If I can make significant strides with a horse, student or both, that’s more rewarding than anything else because I know I’ve done my job well, in a way that shows results.”
Norman certainly knows how to “do his job” well: His career, now encompassing four decades, includes wins at every major grand prix in the U.S., the World Cup Finals and the Pan American Games as well as an individual Olympic bronze medal. But in a world that seems ever-changing, especially when it comes to equestrian sport, Norman’s commitment to horsemanship and his humility — always remembering those who helped give him his start — remain constant.
Norman grew up far from the horse world — his father was a successful composer, and no one in his family had anything to do with horses. “I was living in New York City and I really liked horses — I remember going to Madison Square Garden as a kid and watching Billy and Frank and those guys ride,” Norman recalled of watching show-jumping legends William Steinkraus and Frank Chapot. “I got inspired and wanted to do that myself.”
Norman got a job at a barn on Long Island with next to no horse experience. “It grew from there, trading work for lessons. At that time, if you were willing to work hard, you could get a lot of breaks. I don’t think I was a real natural talent, but I worked hard at it — and still do.”
Norman’s hard work led him to riding for several reputable horsemen. As a young professional, Norman met his future wife, Jeanie, and the two opened Wembley Farm. “Starting a business when Jeanie and I were younger and I was competing was pretty much a necessity to propel my career at the time,” Norman said. “At first it was a struggle, like any business starting out, but it was fun because we were in it together, and we had the support of some amazing people. Eventually, Wembley gained momentum. I was winning grand prix, and students of every level wanted to be a part of it.”
One of those amazing people who gave Norman and Wembley Farm their support was Judy Richter, owner of Coker Farm in Bedford, New York. “Judy’s a great horsewoman in her own right,” Norman said. “She gave me a break in riding for her when there were more famous and more proven people out there to choose from. She gave me a chance, and she and I have kept our friendship and affiliation ever since I was 18.”
With his hard work and support system, it wasn’t long before Norman began tallying results — and he counts some of his very first big wins as the most memorable of his entire career. “The first grand prix I won was the American Invitational, and there’s no question it was the most significant win for me,” he said of his 1978 win aboard Allegro. “It was after that win that I went to the World Cup Finals, qualified for the Pam American Games and ultimately gained the confidence to compete aggressively at the top of the sport. If it were a movie, that win would be where the fun music starts. I won the Invitational again 20 years later, but there wasn’t anything like the first win.”
The next year, Norman rode in his first European competition — which also happened to be the first-ever World Cup Final, held in Gothenburg, Sweden. “My very first World Cup Final was a real eye-opener for me because I had never competed in Europe,” he said. “I was third in that World Cup final, and I remember the crowd in Gothenburg and the electricity and the fans of show jumping were very different to me. It was so different from what we were used to experiencing in the States, and made me realize I wanted to get involved with going to Europe and competing there because it was so much more of a spectator sport.”
Norman got his wish, and his international career began to take off. Later in 1979, he and Allegro competed on the gold medal team at the Pan American Games in San Juan. They were named to the 1980 Olympic Team, but had to settle for the Congressional Gold Medal when the U.S. boycotted the Games. In 1981, Norman rode Judy Richter’s Johnny’s Pocket to five grand prix wins — an American Grandprix Association record. He competed in the 1983 World Cup Final in Vienna, this time taking the blue ribbon with I Love You, another horse from Judy’s Coker Farm, and followed up with a second place the following year, his third top-three finish in the Final’s inaugural six years.
Teaching and Learning
Even with an individual bronze medal from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, it’s not the results that have driven Norman. “I never really think about the success or failure of it, but enjoy working the horses,” he said. “I think if you become too results-driven, you run the risk of losing your way. It’s just been more about actual training of the riders and horses.”
To that end, Norman served as the chef d’equipe for the Mexican team, including for the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 World Equestrian Games. Though he gave up the time-consuming position, he still keeps many of those riders he coached as students. Both past and current students are finding success in the jumper world, and Norman travels to Canada and Mexico regularly to teach as well — all as part of Wembley Farm.
Norman’s wife, Jeanie, is still a very active part of Wembley Farm. “She’s a 50 percent partner in everything, since the beginning,” Norman said. “She’s an excellent troubleshooter, an intuitive horsewoman and a matter-of-fact businesswoman who commands the respect of everyone she communicates with. Where my ambitions are always lofty, hers are practical … where I’m reserved, she’s outgoing. Somehow, we complement each other in business, and it just works.”
The Dello Joio family is very close-knit: Norman and Jeanie’s daughter, Daniela, helps out with the family business alongside her New York City job in public relations for Christian Dior. Their son, Nick, helps to run Wembley as a successful grand prix rider himself. “It has some inherent difficulties and takes a lot of management and practice to be able to work with your family and then go home with your family,” Norman said. “I think that takes some discipline and structure. It’s great, and I’m very proud of everything that we’re doing. I’m excited for the future for Nick, but I feel like it’s a balancing act of us encouraging him and constantly reminding each other of what we’re trying to accomplish, where we came from and where we want to go.”
Truly paying homage to where he came from, Norman moved Wembley Farm to Bedford, New York, in early 2018 — specifically, back to Judy Richter’s Coker Farm. “We’d always talked about someday going back there and working out of Coker as a base,” Norman said. “I teach her son, Philip, so it’s like a full circle. I was riding out there in the field by myself today, and it was a very good feeling to be back there on that field and those grounds, just doing my thing.”
While the move to Bedford might be full circle, it’s far from “ending” where he began. Wembley has between 20 and 25 horses at any time, and Norman himself rides five or six on a daily basis — what he calls the best part of his day. He doesn’t have plans to quit, but hopes to instill not just riding but horsemanship in his students — the same horsemanship he learned as he began working to build a career.
“My goals are to keep contributing to the sport, trying to help guide it by doing things the right way, keeping the horse first and foremost, and being a good role model and example, not just for other people but most importantly for my son. I just want to continue to improve and get better as a trainer and a horseman — to continue to learn,” Norman concluded.
While much in the horse world will continue to change, it seems certain his viewpoint will not, no matter how many years go by or how many accolades he receives. “It’s kind of strange to me because I still go out and work every day, trying to figure out problems and figure out horses the same as I did when I was 18,” he said. “Nothing has really changed. It’s always nice to be recognized, but it’s not going to change my attitude or what I do.”
Photos by Shawna Simmons, www.sasequinephotography.com, unless noted otherwise