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Joyces Share 40-plus Years of Marriage and Saddle Horses

by Ann Bullard

In the Saddle Horse world, few need to ask Steve and Julia who. The name Joyce immediately comes to mind. The North Carolina-based couple have been producing world’s champions before many of today’s riders knew what a horse – or pony – was.

Raised in Yadkinville, near Winston-Salem, N.C., Julia Dobbins "grew up horse crazy. My parents indulged me as best they could with horses in the backyard so I could trail-ride and play with them.

"When I was 12, I somehow found out about American Saddlebreds and decided I wanted to train one. My daddy bought me an 18-month old, Darling’s Delight," she recalled. "I found the book, Riding and Training by Earl Farshler. I never looked back. I took him to every little Saturday night show and had a ball. My mom wouldn’t even touch horses, but she learned to pull a trailer and made lunch for everyone.

"Quarter Horses, Arabians, Tennessee Walking Horses, Saddlebreds and ponies – all were there. I wish kids could do that today," she said.

Steve, a native of Kernersville, N.C., between Winston-Salem and Greensboro, "grew up thinking everyone had ponies in their backyards. We had everything from Shetlands to Hackneys to Appaloosas… you name it," he said, conceding, "a Saddlebred might have been thrown in once in a while.

"When I was a kid, my dad occasionally had a Hackney Pony in training with the Beckers in Winston-Salem," Steve said, pointing out the Beckers’ barn was where Cash Lovell is today. "That was my first exposure to the big time in that area."

Steve and Julia met on that Saturday-night show circuit. "At the time, he was showing this big, fabulously beautiful Appaloosa in western classes. He was really good at it," she said. "We pretty much met over at the hot dog stand. Our families got to be good friends; everything sort of evolved from there."

"I really didn’t get into Saddlebreds until Julia and I met," Steve added. "I was in my first or second year of college. She was still in high school."

Neither planned to be a horse trainer. Steve majored in sociology. Julia laughed when she considers the career her English major might have prepared her for.

"When I was in college, I began working part-time with Ruby Philbrick, a lady who was ‘the’ saddle seat instructor in the Winston-Salem area. She had bunch of kids, some of whom wanted to get horses. I just helped her and the bug bit. When I graduated from college, my parents encouraged me to get a real job. I worked at a bank, and hated it," Julia said. "Working with loans: boring!"

A young man in love often adopts his girl’s passion. Steve soon was boot-deep in the Saddlebred world. They married in 1967.

"Julia and I pretty much worked for ourselves on the Carolina Circuit. We got into the business through trial and error, learning from our mistakes," he said. "I did work for Bill Becker for a short time when he was in Concord, N.C."

When people speak of Steve and Julia, the word ‘integrity’ is the first of the qualities most mention. That comes from the strong Christian values each grew up with and which are the center of their lives today.

"We went through a time when we felt like what we’re doing is pretty frivolous, not really meaningful in this world," Julia said. "Now we understand that wherever the Lord puts us is our mission field. Our hope, our dream is that our lives, our horses and business can be a witness for Him. It’s so very important to us that everyone come to know Him."

She concedes that being in the horse business limits the time they can be active in their local church. "Our horses and people take a lot of time. At some point, we’d like to have more time for church. But we have every day to be a witness," she said, adding that meeting Christ’s standards means a successful day.

Tom Galbreath spoke of such qualities as well as Joyce’s ability with a horse as one thing that caught his attention. "I remember how quiet Steve was on a horse, even when he first was starting in the Carolinas. Few can sit as quietly on a horse as he does and be that effective."

Perhaps Bill Becker’s brother, Dave, being senior trainer at Castle Hills helped opened that door. However it happened, Steve joined the staff as assistant trainer; when Becker left, he stepped into the top role.

"We had a grand time," Julia said. "Being there was very exciting, and a lot of hard work. We had about 69 horses in training. It was like a three-ring circus, sometimes having five or six working at a time. Steve had assistants, but had to oversee it all. We learned how to maneuver and get it done."

There were many show ring stars. But the star of the farm was Sultan’s Santana, for years the nation’s leading sire.

"He was a grand horse, a show horse every day. We’d lead him out of stall to work or to show him to visitors. He’d put on the darndest show you’ve ever seen and then drop his head and walk back to the stall when it was over," Julia said, recalling the hundreds of visitors, from individuals to those on bus tours who visited ‘The Castle.’

Julia calls the 1980s and early ’90s the ‘glory days’ for Castle Hills. Sultan’s Santana offspring had established themselves in the show ring. Susi Rambler [Day,] Abby Newman and Keith and Craig Kurz, riding under the Honeybaked Ham banner, starred in the junior exhibitor and amateur divisions.

"I was probably 17 or 18 when I came to Castle Hills," Day said. "I knew of Steve, of the whole Castle Hills contingency before that. When I first met him, I was a little intimidated because he was Steve Joyce! He was a big deal, but I didn’t let that bother me."

Steve trained his first world’s champion in 1981 from Castle Hills. Wild Temper was the first of his ‘countless’ Louisville winners in all divisions. CH Moses with Susi Rambler dominated the five-gaited pleasure competition. The Lord’s Affair and Keith Kurz starred in three-gaited. Steve trained, gaited and teamed Craig Kurz with the stallion Santana’s Charm. CH Zoraya, Sinatra, Highland Lady Anne, Duke Of Troy are some others. And few people know Steve started CH Santana Lass, winning the Three-Year-Old Five-Gaited title with her at River Ridge before Mary Gaylord and Redd Crabtree took the mare to a dozen world’s championship and grand championship titles.

"In many cases, people reference Steve and Julia as one," said Keith Kurz, who today is the Chief Operating Officer of the family’s Cincinnati, Ohio based Honeybaked Ham Company. "People’s perceptions of their personalities have helped make them what they are. Julia has the stronger opinions. They say Steve is very introverted, but that’s an inaccurate term. He’s soft-spoken and deliberate about what he does. He never was a person who yelled, screamed or talked down to you about your performance. The way they trained, they never showed any outward emotion, whether exuberance or disappointment. They taught you to be on an even keel. That’s really paramount in Steve’s personality.

"You have to get to know Steve. Once you do, then I think a special relationship forms. People who have developed a one-to-one relationship with Steve speak highly of him. He’s the type of person who doesn’t wear his success or stress on his sleeve. When he’s sitting on a tack trunk, you don’t know if he had the greatest show session in the world or if it were a major disappointment," Kurz continued.

He and Steve developed that relationship. "I had several challenging horses over the years, one after another. In every instance, Steve had his own manner of training to adapt to my riding style, to get the most out of the horse. But I look at the training portion as secondary. I look at his integrity, the special relationship that drove us to be student and coach – and business partners – over the years," Kurz said. "We went from our family’s relationship to having one that’s individualized for me and for my wife, Sally."

Day took the comparison a step further. "They are meticulous as instructors and trainers and created a level of professionalism in our best riders. Our biggest reward was not a blue ribbon, but to please them in some way. They’re not rah, rah; they don’t fill your head full of bull. They’re there to make you the best you possibly could be. That’s why we were there.

"We joke about Steve’s style of teaching making you feel very small," continued Day. "My second year at Castle Hills, we had just bought Moses from the Kurz family. One night before the Indianapolis show I was having trouble catching my trot; I couldn’t get it to save my life. After a while, Steve told me he had other horses to work. He said, ‘When you get it figured out, let me know and I’ll be back.’

"Steve likes to micromanage, but knew I needed to figure it out for myself," she said, smiling at the lesson she learned. "He could see if I were going to be in real trouble.

"We still like to joke about it. Whether it’s a phrase or tone, as riders we carry the things that impacted us as riders with us forever. I don’t know how to put his ability to make you want to be better without being a cheerleader into words," Day added. "He doesn’t come back and tell you what you want to hear but what you need to hear to do it right."

Phillip Galbreath was two years old when the Joyces came to Castle Hills. "I didn’t know life without them. They were there from the time I could remember anything," Phillip said. "When I started riding at nine, they were the first people I rode with. They were second parents to me. One of the toughest times for me was when Dad decided to move to Hilton Head, S.C., and they didn’t. That was a rough time."

The Joyces had more than 10 wonderful years at Castle Hills. In the early 1990s, the farm had a dispersal sale; it was the end of an era. Galbreath moved his operation to Hilton Head. The Joyces headed to south Florida and began developing other long-term relationships. Dori Zandy and her family have been friends and clients for more than 12 years.

"I’d admired them from the first show I went to," Zandy said. "When I was at Southeastern in the late 1980s, I’d get up early and watch everyone work horses. I saw Steve working CH Zoraya [winner of the Three-Gaited 15.2 and Over World’s Championship in 1986 and ’87 and the 1987 reserve world’s grand champion.]

"My ears perked up when Rufus Duff mentioned that Steve had called inquiring about leasing his barn. I was in Kentucky at Lexington or Tattersalls, and ran into Steve. I didn’t know him, but I introduced myself. I told him he just had to come to Naples. Steve was on his way to the bathroom and I wouldn’t let him go," said Zandy, explaining, "I didn’t know he was on his way to the restroom or I wouldn’t have talked so much. When he went back to his seat, he told Julia, ‘I just met the weirdest people…’"

Meeting ‘weird people’ didn’t deter the Joyces from making the Florida move. They named their stable Cameo Stable for no special reason, they just liked the name and thought it would make a great logo. Rambler, Joan Adler, the Kurz brothers and the Galbreaths sent horses with them. More followed.

Zandy has enjoyed outstanding success with the Joyces. She bought the wonderful mare, CH League Of Nations, from them. Zandy showed him to numerous victories, including the 2006 Three-Gaited Country Pleasure Adult World’s Championship and a reserve champion of champions title.

Zandy and the Joyces are more than client and trainer; they’re friends. And Zandy is one who will speak of a few of the Joyces’ quirks.

"Julia hates to shop," Zandy said. "I dress them. She’ll tell me I can just pick out things that go together for her.

"Steve doesn’t like certain foods: mushrooms, celery, raisins; he loves steak. He’s given up ordering them when we go out. Every single time in the dozen or so years I’ve known them, whenever he orders steak he has gotten a bad one."

The Zandy’s daughter, Bree, accompanied her mother to shows for years, but didn’t seem to be too interested in riding. "One day she got up on a horse; she was so natural, everyone’s jaws dropped. All the time she was playing in the stands as a toddler, she was watching."

Bree began her show ring career aboard CH Ivy League. She added CH Tipitina to her ‘string’ in 2004, winning numerous three-gaited titles on the tough Southeast and Carolina circuits. Last season, she stepped up into the five-gaited division. At April’s J.D. Massey, she won the Junior Exhibitor Five-Gaited qualifier and a reserve championship aboard The Apprentice.

Zandy spoke of the Joyces as people. "They’re very private; I’ve never heard them say one negative thing about any person. They are very professional and honest and care about their horses like their children. Steve goes back to the barn to check them every night before going to bed.

"Steve and Julia never take a vacation but are horse trainers 24/7. They’re very committed to what they’re doing yet they’re fun to be around. They know this is a business and are always looking out for your bottom line – to make you whole again," Zandy added.

The Joyce/Galbreath relationship really never ended. "We call Phillip the son we never had," Julia said.

Phillip talked about growing up as the Joyces’ ‘adopted son.’ "I was a bratty little kid and talked back to Mom, got fussy in front of them. It was about my riding suit or something else silly. Julia didn’t say anything. The next day, I got to the barn and to [SS] Music Man’s stall. I’d forgotten the night before. Julia pinned me up against the wall and read me the riot act. She said if I ever talked to Mom like that again, I’d never set foot on a horse."

Their friendship extended to Steve being a groomsman at Phillip’s wedding. "At the rehearsal dinner, guys my age were telling stupid, funny stories about me. I was surprised when Steve got up. Public speaking is not something you think about with him," the younger Galbreath said, not divulging the stories Steve told.

"Steve and Julia don’t have much of a silly side," Phillip said. "They’re just sincere, genuine people. I hope they know how much people who’ve been with them for years really love them. Their ability aside, we love them as people, for everything they are."

Phillip continued to ride with them through high school. He tried to get down to Florida every month or two. He told of the ‘formal agreement’ that brought his ‘second parents’ to the new Castle Hills.

"I was so excited when they and Dad started talking about it," Phillip said. "At Asheville, they wrote a deal to get them back to Hilton Head on a napkin at McDonald’s. Sir William [Robert] was two, going on three. I was pretty excited about it."

"Since Steve was around and helped lead and present Santana as a stallion, he was very familiar with those bloodlines. He really developed Santana’s Charm, the first stallion to win the amateur stake at Louisville," Tom Galbreath said, pointing out that Sir William Robert is by Santana’s Charm.

Sir William Robert and Joyce were undefeated in two and three-year-old fine harness classes. They were first of 21 in the ASHA Two-Year-Old Kentucky Futurity and first of 11 in the ASHA Three-Year-Old National Futurity the following year.

Once Bree Zandy learned to ride, Julia thought she was "out of the lesson business." Phillip and his wife have two children, the oldest of whom is two-years-old. She is committed to training those kids.

Like others in the Southeast, George Ann Nash had known Steve and Julia "to say hello to over the years." She sent a couple of futurity babies to them. In 2002, she asked Steve to find her a horse.

"He called me from Kansas City and said he had found a two-year-old he thought I would be interested in. He had ridden him; I liked the way he was bred and bought him over the phone," Nash said.

The horse was Our Silver Charm. Nash currently has three horses with the Joyces. "They’re very nice people; their horses are their life," she said. They’re very honest and forthright and hard workers. Both love their horses and put the animals’ best interests first."

She calls Steve "meticulous, with a dry sense of humor. Dori and my jobs are to keep him light and airy. He’s good with his kids [riding at the farm.] We have gotten him to lighten up a little bit. Sometimes it’s hard for trainers to remember customers do this for fun. Not every customer sees the business side of it."

Tom Galbreath calls Julia "a good helpmate because she is a very, very good ground-person. She is a good teacher; Steve listens well to her and values her opinions. Together they’ve been very successful for themselves and those they represent.

"Julia is a very effective teacher for their riders. She knows how he prepares their horses and she can instruct them to ride them efficiently," he continued. "Some couples say different things when they are at opposite ends of the arena; that doesn’t happen with them."

Day said, "The most important part of Steve is that he is the ultimate professional and one of the most ethical people you’ll come across in the horse business. He is a perfectionist, a gifted horseman who, in my opinion, has been under-recognized.

"Julia is a big part of that. You see Steve in the forefront, but she is a big part of the formula behind the scenes. Their success is as a pair. She always worked horses at Castle Hills, but has done less and less riding over the years due to issues with her back."

Steve and Julia will have been married 41 years in August. "After that long, I’d call it a partnership," he said. "We divide our work. Julia hasn’t ridden for several years; we’re fortunate to have good helpers who can do a lot of riding too.

"She is really a good ground person both as far as looking at a horse and also long lining and starting a horse on a curb in the lines. She really is good at that, probably more patient at that step than I am," he continued. "I like to ride, to get up and go. She gets them to that point; she is very meticulous and patient with that."

Their commitment to their horses and clients leave the Joyces with little personal time. They work long, hard days, then come home and crash. She loves to read, but rarely has time. He is an avid NCAA basketball fan. They take a brief vacation with their families every year.

Sunday evenings and whenever else professional bull riding may be on television,

Steve is as glued to the set as time allows. "I’m obsessed with it. I can’t imagine getting on something when you know you are going to fall off! I try not to fall off!"

Steve would like to be able to go to the PBR Finals. Unfortunately, the show schedule, particularly if one is going to the American Royal, gets in the way.

As for the future, after 40-plus years in the business, Steve and Julia still have their eyes on the prize, for themselves and their clients. They have learned that Louisville isn’t the end all, be all, but one more time riding a horse that wears the roses could put an exclamation point on two outstanding careers.

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