Riding for Israel, All the Way to Rio De Janeiro

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
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Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

The elite and expensive world of world-class competitive horse riding – the stables, the breeding, buying and selling of horses, the training, the gear, the jet-setting between Palm Beach, the Hamptons and Europe for high-profile competitions attended by royalty, has, frankly, never felt very Jewish – and certainly not Israeli.

But that may be changing. In 2013, for the first time in the history of the Maccabiah Games, top riders from the United States, Mexico, Chile, Hungary, Guatemala and Germany will be mounting up in equestrian events in the Maccabiah Games to be held on Kibbutz Yagur in northern Israel on the slopes of Mt. Carmel. To be held from July 23-25, the events will include both show jumping, in which horse and rider clear hurdles in a timed obstacle course, and dressage, where horse and rider perform complex movements in what is sometimes referred to as an ‘equine ballet,’ a competitive pursuit that dates back to the Renaissance.

The ability to stage such an event is a sign that competitive horsemanship has grown in popularity in Israel over recent years. And if a determined young woman named Danielle Goldstein has her way, the Maccabiah will only be a milestone on the way to even greater achievements for Israel in the equestrian world.

Goldstein, 28, a world-class professional show jumper from the United States, is a driving force behind a campaign to bring top-tier horsemanship to Israel.
Goldstein’s ultimate goal: competing for Israel in the show-jumping event in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Doing so would not only be a personal achievement for Goldstein, it would mean bringing an Israeli equestrian team to the Games for the first time ever and giving the sport an unprecedented boost.

After becoming an Israeli citizen in 2011, she began competing internationally as an Israeli in November 2012; the 19th Maccabiah will be her first event on Israeli soil.

Following a May meeting with the Israeli Olympic Committee in Tel Aviv, in which she lobbied the committee to bring an Israeli equestrian team to Rio, she sipped an iced coffee in the lobby of the National Sports Center, where the Committee’s offices are located, sharing the details of what initially sounds like a wealthy Jewish girl’s whim but which she has been undertaking so seriously and systematically that it very well might happen.

“They were a little hesitant, asking, Who is this American coming in trying to do this?” she confesses after her meeting. “But I brought members of the Israeli Equestrian Federation (IEF) with me and they seem to be receptive … at first I thought it would be an uphill battle, but the response has been amazingly positive. We share the same vision. I don’t feel alone in this.”

She is actively rallying support for her quest, together with overseas supporters, and working in conjunction with members of the local equestrian scene.

A ‘big deal’ for Israeli riders

She’s very enthusiastic and I think she has the potential and the stamina and the backing required. It’s not an easy task, but if she succeeds, it will help the Israeli equestrian scene, it will mean exposure, it will mean funds, it will mean the world to us,” says Adi Lebowitz, owner of the Jockey Club stables in Rishpon, who trains horses and riders and competes internationally himself. “For the IEF, this is a big deal. It’s a chance to have an international event here, to bring world-class Olympic-level riders in Israel.”

While competing internationally as an Israeli clearly offers her career advantages over fighting for a spot on an American team in a much more crowded and competitive field, Goldstein insists her connection to the Jewish state runs deep, and she is doing this not only to realize her own ambitions, but to move the sport ahead in Israel.

She says her desire to “combine my two passions – riding and Israel” began at age 12, when her parents brought her to Israel from their home in Manhattan to celebrate her bat mitzvah with a trip that included a hike up Masada and a ceremony on the edge of the Dead Sea. Already in love with horses and beginning to compete as a show jumper, she told her parents that she wanted to ride for Israel someday. Her parents encouraged her enthusiasm, probably assuming she would eventually grow out of the “horse phase” and forget about the idea.

But Goldstein has remained hooked on horses ever since a friend first dragged her to a riding lesson at age 8. From the moment she mounted a horse, she says, she knew it was exactly where she wanted to be. “When you have a passion, you can’t imagine doing anything else. It starts with the relationship between people and horses. It’s different than, say, tennis, where you don’t exactly care deeply about your racket. You aren’t the only living soul going in there to compete. When you make a mistake, the horse can save you – that kind of connection is a rare thing.”

Goldstein trained intensively as a high school student, competed in her first Grand Prix at the age of 16 and won both Individual and Team Gold Medals in the North American Young Rider Championships that same year. Her devotion to the sport continued during her freshman year at Duke University, when she commuted every weekend to train. But then she made the difficult but necessary decision to take three years off to focus on her studies. “It was torture. But I had to do it. Getting an education was extremely important. But after graduation, I went home and went straight back to riding.”

Home, in this case, was no longer Manhattan, but Wellington, Florida, where she took over management of her family-owned business, Starwyn Farms, next to the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, her current base for her competitive career. She runs the farm, which specializes in training, competition and sales of horses. The farm buys, sells and breeds horses, as well as providing training facilities for competitive jumpers.

It is also Goldstein’s base – though physically far from Middle East, where she is working on her plan to realize the dream of leading an Israeli jumping team in Rio. She leaped over her first big hurdle in 2011, when she acquired Israeli citizenship. But that was only the beginning of the red tape. “Once I got citizenship, I had to switch my sport nationality, which is not a simple thing.”

The dream of an Israeli team

Goldstein applied for the right to stop competing as an American rider and begin competing as an Israeli through the Federation Equestrian International (FEI), a long process with waiting period. She applied in 2010, but it was only in November 2012 that she finally succeeded and changed over her riding gear.

Her best chance to make it to the Olympics is not only to compete as an Israeli, but to qualify as part of a national team. So in addition to honing her own skills and those of her horses, she is actively working to develop other Israeli show jumpers with an eye on both the 2014 World Equestrian Games and the Olympics.

Goldstein is in close touch with other Israeli riders, most of whom are based in Europe or the U.S. in order to train and compete at an international level. There are also several world-class Jewish competitors (including French financier Edouard de Rothschild) and at least one world-class native Israeli.

In Florida, Goldstein lives the life of a disciplined professional international athlete, with the extra burden of keeping not only herself in top condition, but making sure her horses are in prime form as well. “Basically, I train and ride every one of the horses I compete with every single day. I wake up in the morning and I ride 5-8 horses a day for 45 minutes to an hour. I also do yoga and weights, and follow a strict diet.”

She also devotes time to managing and developing the business of Starwyn Farms. The high costs of training, owning and caring for top-drawer horses and traveling with them to compete around the world, make show jumping and dressage a very expensive sport to pursue, despite the high-ticket purses successful professional equestrian competitors can win. The good news is that while horses peak between ages 7-9, those who ride them can compete at the highest levels long after other athletes retire, well into their 60s and beyond (the 2012 Games in London featured Hiroshi Hoketsu, 71, a Japanese dressage rider). So even if Rio doesn't work out for her, she can look ahead to subsequent Olympic Games.

Dror Ben-Shaul, 55, a veteran on the local equestrian scene, who owns the Dvash stables on Moshav Batzra and is the national trainer for the Israeli Paralympic Equestrian team, says money is the main reason Israel has not yet been able to compete at the highest levels, despite the constantly growing popularity of equestrian sports here. He is in regular contact with Goldstein by email, met with her when she visited Israel, and praises her active support of the Israeli riders who might be her teammates someday. Ben-Shaul says Goldstein is genuinely committed not only to her own career but to helping to move competitive riding in Israel forward.

“She’s really focused and dedicated,” says Ben-Shaul. “I share her devotion to the goal of fielding a world-class national Israeli equestrian team. It would be a wonderful thing.”

Unfortunately, due to the high cost of flying horses internationally, most of the overseas Maccabi competitors will be using borrowed horses, not the prime horses they normally ride. It has been a challenge for Maccabi organizers to convince owners of quality horses to lend them to the competition. “These are living creatures and partners,” notes Ben-Shaul. “It’s not like lending out golf equipment or a tennis racket.”

But despite the headaches, the borrowed horses, and the fact that Kibbutz Yagur’s jumping facilities are not at the level to which Goldstein is accustomed, she’s excited. “Until now, I’ve been riding for Israel in international competitions, waving and wearing the Israeli flag outside the country’s borders. The Maccabiah Games will be the first time that I’m lucky enough to represent Israel in Israel.” 

Danielle Goldstein in action.Credit: Courtesy
Danielle GoldsteinCredit: Courtesy