As a girl, Nan Meek was likely the only member of the Santa Maria Valley Roping & Riding Club studying books by Colonel Alois Podhajsky, director of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. She learned about him from another book, Marguerite Henry’s White Stallion of Lipizza. Both inspired the young Nan’s passion for dressage, a north star that has guided much of her adult life and her path to becoming a dressage queen California style. It also inspires innumerable contributions to the sport and its enthusiasts — humans and horses alike.
“Nan is very knowledgeable and very curious,” notes her coach, close friend and trainer, Anke Herbert. “But she never needs to tell people that she knows anything. She is always in the background and if someone asks her for information or advice, she’ll offer it.”
If the dressage world was a rock’n’roll band, Anke adds, Nan would be the tambourine player, off to the side of the stage, stepping in to add a bright note at just the right time. In the horse world, Nan’s notes sound of wisdom and kindness, generosity of spirit and deed.
“We love Nan,” says Joan Williams, president of the California Dressage Society. “She does a beautiful job with her volunteer work. And we always see her at competitions, offering moral support, helping friends groom or whatever. She is always positive and uplifting and so thoughtful.”
Along with being a serious student of the sport, Nan has done just about everything in the equestrian industry. As the TheWestEquestrian.com’s dressage editor, she comes full circle. Nan first merged her passion for horses, learning and writing as editor of Horse Lover’s National Magazine in the late 70s. Since then, she’s always found time to write about horses, dressage and the equestrian lifestyle.
She has managed, owned and helped develop horse keeping facilities large and small. She continues to consult private and public equestrian projects and businesses, existing and on the drawing board. Nan is a long-standing, active volunteer and leader with the California Dressage Society and one of its founding chapters, the San Francisco Peninsula CDS Chapter.
The Woodside-area Horse Owners Association is one of many causes close to Nan’s heart. The successful staging of October’s Woodside Day of The Horse family horse fair as a virtual, drive-through, COVID-compliant experience is one example of the creativity and cooperative spirit typically found when Nan is involved.
Equal Opportunity Discipline
When she wasn’t busy as the junior president of the Santa Maria Valley Roping & Riding Club in coastal Central California, young Nan was putting a snaffle bit on her western horse and “trying to ride some of the figures Col. Podhajsky had described in his book,” Nan recalls. “I’m sure I was not riding them correctly — far from it — but the discipline of working at it really helped my western horse.”
Dressage’s ability to help horses of all breeds, ages and disciplines and its combination of spirit and art anchor the Northern California amateur rider’s passion for the discipline. As professional paths wove in and out of the equestrian realm, she’s enjoyed dressage in all forms.
“I never had a big budget for horses, but I always had access to really good education and training,” she says of opportunities in the Bay Area. She and her husband Jerry Meek settled there after college.
“My first dressage horse was actually a cutting horse who was too big to be competitive in cutting,” Nan remembers. “He was a Quarter Horse with a long back and downhill conformation. Not ideal for dressage, but I focused on learning as much as possible from trainers and clinicians.
By the end of his life he had developed a wonderful piaffe and passage.” It’s one of many examples of “dressage bringing out the absolute best in any horse. “There is something for everybody in dressage,” she continues. “You can get highly involved in competition or you can be equally dedicated to the art of dressage by working closely with a trainer to perfect every single aspect of you and your horse’s abilities.”
An Evolving Sport
In the saddle or on the sidelines in a managing, organizing or volunteer capacity, Nan has had a front row seat for major changes in the sport.
“Back in the late 70s when I started riding dressage, we had some local trainers, but dressage education was nothing like it is today,” she reflects. “What I’ve seen evolve is that more people are hungry for better education. Today, you can find clinics with the chief rider of the Spanish Riding School, Andreas Hausberger, and top Olympians like Steffen Peters. If you can’t ride with them, you can audit. And now you can find good information on the internet. Even take lessons over the internet.
“The opportunities for education have grown tremendously and that’s the biggest factor that’s taken the art and sport of dressage so much further than it was 40-plus years ago.
“I was really lucky that I started my dressage education in the San Francisco Bay Area, specifically Woodside and Portola Valley. It was one of the few places on the West Coast that had a lot of dressage at the time.”
Kyra Downton and a group of her friends had established Atherton Dressage, a forerunner of the Stanford Dressage Club. Several of them later helped found CDS, Nan explains. The San Francisco Peninsula Chapter is one of the founding Chapters of CDS and it was a center of education and enthusiasm early on.
More and better education manifests in many ways. “I think it stems the decline of horse sports,” Nan says. “On the one hand, dressage has a higher profile than it used to. You can even see it on TV occasionally. On the other hand, the rising cost of keeping a horse has ushered some people out of dressage and out of horses all together.”
Better education leads to better horsemanship, better riding and better horses. That increases the odds that those in or entering the sport will stick with it.
She has observed and experienced the shift in what type of horses are most popular for dressage. Thoroughbreds like Hilda Gurney’s 1984 Olympic partner Keen ruled until a gradual influx of Warmbloods displaced them. Now, horses are specifically bred for dressage and in large numbers. Having gone from a converted cutting horse to current mounts that were bred for the sport, “I can tell you it’s quite a big contrast.”
Andalusians and Lusitanos have been increasing in popularity for a while now, a trend concurrent with riders riding longer in their lives. “There’s a big difference in what kind of horse you look for between ages 25 and 65,” Nan comments. “I see more people riding and competing into their 70s and you didn’t use to see that.” Some of that fits with people staying healthy and fit longer in general. Some can be attributed to horses that make dressage more enjoyable and safer for the “mature” equestrian.
A Little Help From Friends
“The generosity of friends has been a theme throughout my life,” says Nan. That includes a neighbor who befriended her shortly after moving to the Bay Area. “I looked up dressage trainers in the area, but nobody had school horses. My neighbor offered to let me share a weekly lesson on her horse. One of us rode half the lesson, then got off and the other person rode half the lesson.”
Nan moved on to leasing a horse before buying Half Moon Bay, the former cutting horse.
Next was fulfilling her young girl’s dream of owning a Lipizzaner. Pluto III Amelinda, aka “Maestro,” was a retired performance horse from Las Vegas. He had specialized in amazing casino audiences with the levade, among other airs above the ground movements. “I wish that I had got him a little earlier in his life so I could have caught up with him, but I was the luckiest person on earth to have had him.”
Her next Lipizzaner, Maestoso II Athena II-1, known as Andy, was trained to Prix St. Georges. Nan attained her highest competitive accomplishments to date with Andy. “I was lucky to train with some fabulous clinicians and with Anke,” she says of a stretch highlighted by their United States Dressage Federation All-Breeds Reserve Championship at Third Level and later showing at Fourth Level and Prix St. Georges.
After Andy’s passing, friends pushed Nan to try out the Spanish warmblood Helio Jerez 2000, a then 19-year-old Prix St. Georges schoolmaster. Nan’s original plans for competing Helio were derailed by the time required by her growing equestrian business consulting company, which coincided with critical family health challenges. “My focus then became educating myself and being a better rider.” Lessons and clinics advanced their partnership at home.
Helio, Here We Come
Helio is still sound and frisky at age 30. He lives at Nan and Jerry’s two-stall home barn and pasture in the Half Moon Bay area’s Montara. From her office window, Nan has kept a special eye on him of late. Helio’s devoted stablemate, Neapolitano Angelica II-1, aka “Mischa,” just recently passed away.
Nan hopes that she and Helio can make their United States Dressage Foundation Century Ride in 2022, when their combined ages will equal the required 100 years. Even better will be if her friend Claudia Deffenbaugh and her horse Celtico III can join them in a Century Ride pas de deux, as 2022 will be their combined 100-year milestone, too. Meantime, Claudia has generously offered for Nan to ride Celtico. She returned to competition after a 12-year break, most recently showing at Starr Vaughn Equestrian in the fall.
In show mode or not, Nan “always has that magic touch with a horse,” says Anke. “She always feels for the horse: if it is sick or tense. She is very sensitive for horses, in her care for them and in her riding.”
Making Things Grow
Nan frequently mentions the generosity of friends.
That’s exactly what her friends mention about Nan. “She is like my big sister,” explains Anke, who came to the States from Germany with little English and less understanding of simple things like “writing a check,” the Bay Area-based mobile trainer now laughs. “She guided me through my whole life here. She introduced me to people, she showed me how to do show entries. Nan is always that motivator in the background. The gardener watering the flowers, making things grow.”
More recently, it was a horse that needed help. Nan and another friend of the late Peninsula horsewoman Annamae Braun organized and are promoting a fundraiser to help Annamae’s horse have a safe and healthy rest of his life. (For more information and to contribute, please visit Grigio.) It’s the latest of many ways this passionate horsewoman quietly makes the dressage scene and the larger world better for everyone.