When Jad Dana won the $40,140 CaptiveOne Advisors 1.50-meter Classic on Jan. 15 at the Winter Equestrian Festival (Florida), spectators could be forgiven for not immediately recognizing the flag next to his name. It is not that often, after all, that U.S. show jumping fans meet a rider from Lebanon.
The red and white flag featuring the green cedar of Lebanon could become more familiar soon, though, as 27-year-old Dana establishes himself on the U.S. show jumping scene aboard two mares, After Eight—with whom he won the Sunday class—and Fleur-De-Lis’ Cherie. Dana’s unusual journey from his father Mohamad Dana’s riding school in Lebanon to Wellington, Florida, features big dreams, hard work—and countless pre-class FaceTime calls back home to his dad.
At home, under the tutelage of his father, who runs a jumper barn and riding school at the Mechref Equestrian Club, Jad won the Lebanese National Championships six times. Despite his success, he said his ambition to climb to the top of international show jumping seemed out of reach given the “limited” opportunities on his home soil.
That changed in 2017, when a series of connections set in motion during summer break in the Netherlands led him to move to Canada’s Spruce Meadows—the iconic show jumping venue he’d long admired while watching livestreams from his home near Beirut.
“Everything that I used to see on TV was just right in front of me, and that was just crazy,” Jad recalled of moving to Canada. “I lived at Spruce Meadows. When I walked out of my room and I see that I’m at Spruce Meadows? It took quite some time to really believe that was happening.”
The owner of the facility where he spent his summer holidays was friends with Spruce Meadows’ president, Linda Southern-Heathcott, and connected Jad to her.
“I got the opportunity to go and ride at Spruce Meadows, and that was an opportunity of a lifetime,” he said. “I got to jump some really big classes with some very big horses, and when I was there the owner of Spruce Meadows hired Leslie Howard to train me.”
That introduction altered the trajectory of Jad’s professional future—but not immediately.
Jad first returned home to complete his bachelor’s degree in economics at the University of Beirut, where he kept tabs on the international show jumping scene via computer.
“I could wake up with the time difference in the middle of the night to a livestreaming class,” he said. “For sure I always studied and tried to get better even from watching and being so far from the scene.”
Two years ago he reached out to Howard to ask if he could visit her in Florida. He arrived in Wellington for a two-week stay in March 2020 and never went home. After a week of vacationing at Howard’s farm, she offered Jad a working student position.
“I took the role of groom extremely seriously. I did everything to get the horse perfect for her,” he said. “I was doing the barn; I took horses to the ring.
“I was grooming for her, but at the same time she used to give me at least three lessons a day, whether it was flatting or jumping,” he continued. “Then she offered me the position to run the barn, and things started kicking off for me.”
When Howard was sidelined due to hip surgery in summer 2021, she offered Jad the ride on After Eight, a Swedish Warmblood (Diarado—Coco, Cardento) sales horse who she had been competing at the 1.40-meter level.
“I rode all of Leslie’s horses and showed them,” Jad said. “It was good, but I think the best match was with After Eight. Leslie came back from surgery, but After Eight stayed with me because we clicked, and we had very good results.”
The now-13-year-old mare’s future with Jad was secured when Amy Hauk and Scott Dehm of Spring Hill Farm 1850, LLC, purchased her. With the mare, Dana also won the $50,000 Zen Elite Grand Prix (Florida) in December and the $25,000 Wellington National Golf Club Grand Prix (Florida) in September.
“I’m extremely grateful to them,” Jad said. “She has fire, and she has heart, and she is very competitive. I think when she’s in the jump-off, it’s not so easy to beat her because she’s so fast—provided I do my job well.”
Jad also benefits from the ride on 11-year-old Holsteiner Fleur-De-Lis’ Cherie (Clarimo—Tovita, Lancer II) another former sales horse with whom he has formed a special bond, now owned by a group of investors called The Cherie Group. Together the pair won the $50,000 Wellington National Golf Club National Grand Prix (Florida) in December and finished second in a $37,000 CSI3* 1.45-meter class at ESP Pre-Charity (Florida) in November.
Jad is quick to express his gratitude for his horses’ owners as well as Howard.
“Leslie is still competing and still very competitive, but many times I know that she puts me first,” Jad said. “I can’t say ‘thank you’ enough. It’s more than just, ‘Thank you for that.’ It’s, ‘I owe you everything.’ ”
His success in Florida has come at a price, however. Jad has not returned home nor seen his parents, Mohamad and Rola, in the past two years. Nonetheless, his father remains a huge coaching influence in his life. Jad habitually calls his father before a big class and sends him the course map.
“I am on the phone with [my family] all the time,” he said. “My father knows my horses like he trains me. I call my dad all the time before the class. Sometimes he watches the first two go, and then we call, and he tells me what he thinks.”
While Jad’s path from Lebanon to the U.S. may be unusual, he has always had confidence he could cut it on the main stage given the opportunity. And now, with his recent string of successes, he’s allowed the possibility of the 2024 Paris Olympics to creep into his dreams.
“Nobody has been to the Olympics from Lebanon yet, I don’t think. For sure we have this in the back of our minds for Paris. I hope that we can get there,” he said, acknowledging it likely would take investors and a bigger string of horses to get the necessary experience .
“I know what it takes—and I am very realistic that way—but at the same time I have big big dreams and big goals, and I wouldn’t be that way if I didn’t have Leslie and Peter [Howard] to inspire me,” Jad said. “When you have someone like Leslie by your side who has been there and done that, she knows what it takes, and she creates my path for me. She guides me like nothing else, and I have full trust in her, not only because she’s an incredible rider and trainer but as a person. I don’t think there’s anyone like her. She’s one in a million.”