California Riding Magazine • January, 2011

Dacia Peters-Imperato &
Stepping Stone Sporthorses, LLC
Positive environment infuses synergistic, full-service breeding and training program.

by Kim F. Miller

Dacia & For Play clinching the bronze.

Trainer, rider and breeder Dacia Peters-Imperato doesn't like being put in a box. That is, unless she's playing hide and seek with her young students at Stepping Stone Sporthorses, LLC. In the game's context, getting put in a box was great: Dacia won. But in a figurative sense, putting herself, her riders or her horses into a box doesn't fly with this young professional based at the Southern California Equestrian Center (Galway Downs) in Temecula.

"We don't dictate how a student has to do something by saying this is what everyone else is doing," Dacia explains. "Instead we evaluate every person on an individual basis." That goes for horses, too. She and her husband, farrier and amateur rider Mario Imperato, have had success with a wide range of horses, from the finely bred to those who've come in bad health and/or with bad behavior. "The reason we've been able to do that is because we listen to the horses," she says. "We are not so caught up in our own objectives, so we can allow what needs to happen. Riders and horses excel because of the positive environment we create."

Spencer TMH, owned by Monte and Marsha Collins DBA Avocado Farms, ridden by Lexi. Photo © Brent Eriksen DBA Horseinsport.

5-year-old all grown up! (breeder: Stepping Stones)

Cupid blessed Dacia with a like-minded love interest in Mario. The couple married last March and they share the idea that an ideal vacation might involve going to Pollyrich Farms in Solvang for a breed inspection. "Some would say that we are sacrificing a lot for our business; that we don't have a life," Dacia acknowledges. "But we wouldn't have it any other way, it is both of our passions to be involved with horses 24/7 and to be able to do that together makes it our lifestyle."

Despite good-natured nudging from Dacia's mom, the couple does not yet have human children together. But they raise Mario's 14 year old son Dominick full time which adds to Stepping Stone's strong family feel. Picking up students at three local schools is one example of the stable's idea of full-service training. "We've been doing that for a long time now and I love the fact that the kids are still bouncing with excitement to get to the barn after school," Dacia notes.

Rene Frilot is a huge facilitator when it comes to "helping me commit to my type A personality," laughs Dacia of her highly-valued assistant. "She helps me with everything having to do with organization and pours her heart into being a member of our team."

Mario & Chongo Wongo - licensed 4 year old stallion
(breeder: Stepping Stones).

Mario & Seven - stealing the blues in the AA divisions, Thermal, 2008

Dacia is devoted to anything that helps her students become better riders and horsemen. Regular barn outings include visiting Lulu, the riding simulator that lives in Del Mar, for position work. "Being able to stand next to the rider and show them the biomechanics involved is great," she observes. "With Lulu, we can do it without having to be compassionate about what the horse's needs are."

Pilates is another out-of-the-saddle supplement that Dacia is high on, for herself and her students. "In order to give our horses a balanced ride, we have to be balanced ourselves," she notes. Instructor Lori Nelson of Equine Pilates in Temecula works with Stepping Stone students to create riding-specific Pilates exercises. "I think it really slingshots their progress," Dacia says.

Multi-Faceted Business

Dacia has made quite a name for herself since importing the Elite Hanoverian stallion For Play three years ago. She owns him with client Debbie L. Sibilio under the Topline Farms banner. Stepping Stone functions as a breeding, sales and training endeavor, with the latter aspect welcoming riders of all experience levels and competitive desires.

Dacia & Ambre, the 2007 purchase that led us to For Play.

Kira & Mr. Biggs in the WCE.

Stepping Stone students are best known on the Southern California hunter/jumper circuit. The balance of clientele has fluctuated between amateurs and juniors and is currently tilted toward the latter. A top-notch string of ponies and pony riders are aiming for the Pony Finals back east this year, while an older student plans to make a run at the North American Young Riders Championships.

With For Play, aka "Player," Dacia has also made her mark on the dressage circuit. A son of international champion jumper, For Pleasure, and grandson of Furioso, Player has bloodlines that scream "jumper," but Dacia has campaigned him very successfully in dressage. She recently earned her USDF bronze Lifetime Achievement award with For Play. The award requires scores of 60 or above, from two different judges, in First, Second and Third Level tests, which the pair did on their first try each time and with scores in the 70s.

"Some of the judges tell me I'm crazy to jump him because he has the potential to be an international dressage contender." In this arena, Dacia receives valuable help from her mother-in-law Diana Muravez, the veteran dressage trainer and USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist. Dressage's focus on suppleness and balance has been incorporated into every aspect of Stepping Stone's work, from starting young horses to teaching students.

For Play

Energizer Bunny-level energy is one of Dacia's trademarks and she is enthusiastic about every aspect of her business. The breeding side of things, in particular, really gets her going. It all began when she was able to purchase Player in December of 2007. She found him in Europe while shopping for another horse on a client's behalf. Player's conformation, jumping ability and temperament grabbed her attention and she was thrilled when Debbie Sibilio agreed to partner up in buying the stallion.

Since then, Dacia's only beef with breeding Player is that she can't stand waiting for his domestic-bred babies to be old enough to strut their stuff in the performance world. To answer the market's curiosity about the performance potential of Player's babies, Dacia looked into importing a few of his European bred youngsters. But at 80,000 Euro, roughly $105,000 U.S., she and her partner decided against that.

Father and daughter, Nick and Jackie, celebrating a win!

Even if Player never put a baby on the ground, it would not diminish Dacia's affection for this horse. Currently campaigning him in the hunter and dressage rings, she raves about his elastic stride, lovely gaits and an effortless jump that feels as if "he has wings behind his girth." On this issue's cover, Player is pictured jumping a 4'6" fence that "felt like nothing to him." Some big jumpers are hard to stay with in flight, but not this one. "He is careful with his hind end but he doesn't crack his back over the jump. It's just like he's lofting over the jumps." Hunter Derbies are in Dacia's sights this year, along with continued dressage work and competition on the side.

Player's great traits show up consistently in his babies. The 16 hh liver chestnut has thrown colors from every hue in the equine rainbow, including a black foal about once a year. Height-wise, he's sired everything from a 17 hander to a pony prospect stallion named Fire Fly, out of a Welsh mare. He adds bone to Thoroughbreds and refinement to the Warmblood breeds, plus great character and athleticism to any breed. The Stepping Stone team is excited about another stallion, the coming 5-year-old Chongo Wongo. Named with the phonetic translation of the Spanish for "wiggly monkey," Chongo Wongo is by the late Holsteiner Corlando, out of a Corofino mare. He earned his name by easily counter cantering on a 10-meter circle and other feats of balance and athleticism. Campaigned and co-owned by Mario, Chongo Wongo is already licensed with the Oldenburg North American
registry, but won't start breeding until he is performance proven. When that time comes, Dacia anticipates no problems in asking Chongo Wongo to do double duty in the show ring and breeding shed, as For Play does. "He's like a Labrador," she says. "He exhibits no 'studdy' behavior. He just stands in the cross ties and never does that stallion screaming."

Jackie & Dust Bunny showing off in the Small Pony Hunters.

Mario & Dacia.

Filling A Gap

Dacia's talents as a trainer and the breadth of her team's expertise have enabled Stepping Stone to fill what is often a gap between breeding horses and developing them into show-ready sales prospects. "A lot of breeders are sending us young horses for starting because we have a background and proven ability in show jumping, dressage and hunters," she explains. "We are a great outlet for finding what is special about the horse, while still supporting the things that may be a bit weaker.

It's a combination of what we know and being able to pair that horse with a rider that complements its strengths."

Stepping Stone's homebreds are poster children for this aspect of their business. Long-lining plays a big part in starting the youngsters right because it builds the balance and strength necessary to make carrying a rider feel safe and comfortable to the horse. "Out of the hundreds of horses that we've started, I think we may have gotten one buck when we first rode them," Dacia reflects. "That's because it's not a scary thing for them. We've already partnered up with them by that time. They know how to walk, trot, canter and turn around and they are already strong enough to carry a rider."

With the riding, training and breeding components functioning so synergistically at Stepping Stone, Dacia continues to dream big. Her next goal stems from her appreciation and passion for horses and horse sports and her belief in their power to positively affect a young rider's life. She is developing an idea for a non-profit organization that would enable more kids, regardless of financial circumstances, to be involved in the sport.

"If I won the lottery, I would fill Galway Downs up and do everything for free!" she asserts. "Seeing progress is my payment: seeing my students' faces light up and feeling the horses smile underneath me."

Stepping Stones is now accepting new students and horses to be a part of their team. Visit www.SteppingStoneSporthorses.com for more information or visit them on Facebook.

Dacia Peters-Imperato & Stepping Stone Sporthorses, LLC
Photo © Robin Quasebarth