When Betty Ann Lester’s husband asked for her hand in marriage, he suggested she move to Key West, FL, where he was stationed in the Navy.
“I said, ‘No way, do you know how much hay costs in Florida?’”
They waited two more years to get married—until he could move back to Pennsylvania to join her.
“He married me for better and for horse,” she jokes.
Lester is an equestrian legend in her home state of Pennsylvania. Never content to stay in one discipline or stop learning, she had her start in horses against the backdrop of the Second World War when her father’s uncle introduced her to foxhunting. In the summers she would show hunters and jumpers, and in the fall and winter ride to the hounds.
In the late 1940s when the American Horse Show Association started introducing timed events in the jumpers, Lester ran into trouble.
“I could always get over the fences, but many times I couldn’t get under the time,” she says.
It was at this time she met “a wonderful man” with an accent. “He saw me ride and said ‘Betty, I will come help you.’
That man was Paul Keck, who had trained at the Royal Hungarian Academy and was a friend of the legendary Bertalan de Nemethy, a master equestrian who in 1955 would become the show jumping coach for the United States Equestrian Team and helped the U.S. rise to dominance in the sport.
With Keck, Lester learned the importance of dressage and developed a passion for the sport, training with Keck and Germany’s Fritz Stecken.
“It was the first time I’d ever heard the term half halt and volte,” says Lester.
She also spent time with Marjorie Haines Gill, the first woman to ride for the United States at the Olympics. According to Lester, it was a difficult time for a woman—let alone an American woman—trying to break into the sport of dressage.
“I have a complete chronicle of everything that happened to [Gill] at that time to make it very, very difficult for an American woman in international competition,” she says.
Lester’s dedication to the sport ensured her success and made her one of the leading dressage instructors and riders in Pennsylvania for decades. Her philosophy was to learn as much as possible about all aspects of the horse. In the late 1970s she went back to school at the University of Pennsylvania to study equine anatomy and physiology.
“I needed to understand the horse’s body, you don’t train something you don’t understand,” she explains.
That love of learning and quest for knowledge is something Lester tries to instill in the young people who have come to train with her.
“Study the horse in every aspect: physically and psychologically. Spend hours and hours of time studying it and know that you will never completely know it,” she tells her students.
Hear more about Lester’s remarkable career on the Equestrian Legends Series podcast, hosted by Chris Stafford.