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Royalee Cleveland: “She Just Gets It”

by Ann Bullard

When one first sees her, he might assume that the petite blond simply is a nice lady who likes Saddlebreds. Well, change the ‘nice’ to ‘super’ and ‘likes’ to ‘is almost consumed by’ and you have Royalee Cleveland. The Santa Cruz, Calif., lady spends most of her waking hours working with horses, traveling to ride with her trainer 300+ miles south of her home, going to shows or helping earn the money to enable her to indulge her passion on any level.

Her husband, David, is right alongside, and sometimes in front of her most of the way. Royalee began her riding career “with a ‘backyard trainer’ on hunters and jumpers. “When I was 10 or 11, Mom thought I might want lessons. She sent me to a summer riding camp run by an old horseman who also gave Shirley Temple dance lessons. I didn’t want to go home. By the time I was 13, I thought I knew everything. I got mad at my trainer and decided to go somewhere else.”

Fortunately for the Saddlebred world "somewhere else" was at a Saddlebred barn run by Bill Wyse. He told me "If you ever ride one of these horses, you’ll never get on a hunter or jumper again.” Wyse pretty well nailed it.

“He sold us a mare for equitation; they didn’t know she was in foal until she popped milk veins. She had a baby – and Bill found another one for us to buy,” Royalee said.

“He was an older guy. As time went on, he developed phlebitis and had trouble riding. That meant I got to ride everything in the barn, particularly the tougher horses. I got a pretty good education out of that.”
Everything in the barn included a road horse and Wyse's parade horse. At one show, Royalee donned her trainer's parade outfit and went into the ring. She remained with Wyse all through high school. When she went away to college, her father sold the horses.

“My parents couldn't afford to buy me a fancy horse,” she said candidly. Realization of that dream lay years ahead.

Fast forward to the 1970s. Royalee had married, divorced and was working in the finance field. She and a Chicago-raised gentleman named David Cleveland worked together. David's father and grandfather were railroad men. His dad ran trains between Chicago and the East and West coasts while his grandfather worked out of San Diego.

“In those days, it was real cheap for my parents to stick me on the train to San Diego,” he said. “They had two suites with a bath in between. The porters would take care of me.” The senior Mr. Cleveland had purchased some lots at Imperial Beach. He would meet his grandson at the train and bring him to his or his aunt's home.

“She owned two Quarter Horses that she stabled behind the houses. Once I got good enough, my aunt would put me on the horses and we'd ride up and down the Silver Strand to the Hotel Coronado. We'd drop a lead rope, and the horses would stand while we played in the pool or ocean and visited the hotel.
Southern California definitely appealed to the Chicagoan. When he left the military after Vietnam, he decided to settle in Riverside. He and Royalee met when working in finance and real estate for the same company.

“David moved to Santa Cruz first,” Royalee said. “He talked me into moving up here; I think he had other motives than a job.”

They had been friends for years before “it occurred to us to get married,” Royalee said. “We attended a convention in Las Vegas where I was speaking. At the lunch break, we took a free shuttle to a Se Habla Espanol Chapel. The minister asked if we wanted flowers and other things … we told him 'Let's get on with it, we have to get back.' I think it took about 20 minutes to marry us.

“We walked back before the end of the lunch break. This sweet little old lady, who was executive secretary of the organization, saw us and said, 'You just got married, didn't you.'”

After they married, Royalee “kept hauling David off to horse shows. He decided to get me a horse for my birthday; all he knew at that point were the words saddle horse. I could picture him going around Santa Cruz talking to people and someone saying, 'This is a saddle horse. You put one on him and he rides.' Thank God he didn't find one.

“I told him, 'Let's go find Bob Lewis. I had been completely out of Saddlebreds … finding him was like trying to find someone who owes you money. You can't find them,” Royalee said, laughing at the memory. My husband called the Saddlebred Association and asked where he could find this Bob Lewis guy.

“He called and asked Bob if we could come up. The first day we walked in the barn Bob sold me a horse.”
Thus began almost 20 great years with the Hall of Fame trainer. Initially, Royalee said, “My mind could remember what to do, but my body wouldn't cooperate.

“Once I got my feel back, I got to ride everything in the barn. Bob was most generous with his knowledge. There wasn't a minute of the day when he wasn't thinking about his horses and how to make them better. We had bunches of different horses with him. I think I learned more from Bob than from anyone; he really taught me how to ride a gaited horse. He remained awfully sharp, even in his old age.”

Royalee and David bought their first horse with Lewis in 1989. She showed the Flight Time daughter, R-Flight’s Love, for several years, before raising three offspring: Super Radiant by Radiant Sultan, Slama Dora by Phi Slama Jama and The Gatekeeper by Blackberry Winter.

Royalee said she and Lewis did have some disagreements over who would show some of her horses. They remained Lewis’ customers until his retirement, when they moved to Jennifer Dixon at Menlo Circus Club. They remained friends for the remainder of the trainer's life, spending every Christmas together.

In the early 1980s, the Clevelands elected to begin their own finance business, primarily offering sub-prime loans.

“We built up quite a business until the government started to take over,” David said. “We got out of it and went to work for someone else.”

They worked for the firm for “15 years or so,” Royalee said. “The owner sold his businesses but kept me. Today I’m his personal assistant, kind of managing his life. I run the office, made certain every vehicle is insured and so such things as asset management.”
“David left the company for a while, but I stayed,” Royalee said. “One day I called him and said 'you really need to come back. They pay too much money.’”

Today, David is partially retired and spends his time “doing the horse thing. He’s very supportive of his horses and loves to video them on his Ipad. He shows them to anyone who will look,” Royalee said.”
Among other things, doing the horse thing means taking care of the horses at the boarding barn near home. They keep between two and six horses there.
“I supervise more than actually doing the work,” David said, “although I do clean stalls if I have to.”
The horse thing means trips to Southern California to watch Royalee ride and see the horses in training with David Blevins. It means helping care for their equine retirees, housed on five acres in Bourbon County, Kentucky. It means time spent at the Kentucky farm, and at shows as far away as Kentucky and Texas.
“The company has really been good to us. They let us travel,” Royalee explained. “We don’t have a set vacation but get to take a lot of days off.”

Royalee and David were between trainers when they saw David Blevins win Louisville’s Three-Year-Old Five-Gaited Stallion and Gelding Stake with Busting Out. “She came to me and wanted to talk,” he said. “David invited me down to the barn. It wasn’t long before we went shopping,” Royalee explained. Blevins spoke about one of his favorite clients. “Royalee has been in this since she was a kid. All she’s ever wanted to do is have horses and go to shows. Global Scene was my first for her; at an early show I thought I should ride him to get to know him. She said she would ride … ‘If it happens to you, it can happen to me; I paid for him, I’ll ride him.’

“Still she knows her limitations. She’ll only push the envelope so far; she’s not ashamed to say, ‘This may be too much for me today.’ But she’s not so timid that she won’t try.

“Royalee is the kind of owner every trainer wants,” Blevins added. “You always know where you stand with her. If she’s unhappy, she tells you. She’s been in this business long enough to know horses have ups and downs, that they are individuals. Her reaction to a bad day: Oh well, it will be better next time.

“At Louisville in 2009, we had Global Scene dialed in. When you’re were going down chute, you have to run in with him. I was focused on her and on him and ran smack dab into somebody in front of him. Last year we knew we couldn’t beat six-figure horses. She just wanted to get a ribbon and show twice.”

Royalee achieved her goal. They were sixth out of 22 in the Adult Five-Gaited Show Pleasure qualifier and had a good ride back in the championship.

“Royalee and David have reasonable expectations. They’ve never been unreasonable about anything,” Blevins added. “They’re happy-go-lucky and down to earth. Neither is afraid to jump in and get his hands dirty. We took two horses to Louisville and I thought I could do it all by myself. That was a mistake; she jumped in and rubbed on a horse for me. She’s just a great client.”

Last season, Blevins helped select two interesting horses to add to the Cleveland’s show string. The first: Wednesday’s Surprise (Wendy), a three-year-old three-gaited horse they pur-chased at the Charity Fair Show in Del Mar. The second: Berryred, then a seven-year-old five-gaited gelding that had never been shown.

David introduced Berryred to the show ring at the California Futurity, winning the Five-Gaited Limit or Junior Stake. They were reserve in a seven-entry Five-Gaited Championship.

Royalee has had outstanding rides on both horses at home. They are ready for the spring season. Who will be in the irons has yet to be finalized.

David says Royalee “is in this business for all the right reasons. She never had any expectations of winning a Louisville blue or buying a horse for $5 and selling is for $2,000,000. She sees who a horse is and what it’s worth.

“Most amateur riders find it hard to understand the concept that you have to change your riding style to suit the horse. Each one has its little quirks. I can go down a list of about 12 things a rider needs to do. Royalee goes out and does those 12 things. She makes my job so easy it’s ridiculous.” During a show, David says they know where to find Royalee. If she’s not back at the barn, she’s in the stands watching.

Kim Matoza and Royalee have been close friends since the first day the Clevelands walked into Bob Lewis’ barn. Although Kim has stepped back from the horses for the past several years, she follows the successes of one of her best friends.

“She is so approachable,” Kim said. “When you meet Royalee and David, you feel as if you had known them before in your life. She and I hit it off right away. I soon realized the two of them are joined at the hip; you see one and the other is not very far away. He is her best cheerleader in and out of the ring. They are each other’s one true love, and that’s beautiful to see.

“Royalee is a loyal and dedicated friend; she’s always there for me. She’s the smartest girl I know. And she can ride the hair off a horse, especially a gaited horse. David [Blevins] has the ability to pick out the most talented horses for her; he has everything to do with her success the last few years.” The Clevelands’ home life centers around one another, their dog and cat – and horses.

“I have this crazy horse person schedule,” Royalee said explaining she thinks there are 28 hours in a day. “I get up about 6:30, work full-time and head home at five. It takes 35 minutes to drive to our barn where we keep a couple of horses. I work those guys until about 7:30 or 8. Then it’s time to go home and to bed. I have about one hour of unscheduled time a day. On weekends, we play catch-up.

“The horses are important; we make time for that. We’ve both given up a lot of things so we can play horsey. David is so supportive. He loves to be around them, and especially the young horses. We’ve raised an occasional one.

“David’s favorite part … he does ‘Magnum Man’,” she said, explaining she means magnetic therapy. “He has a small, on-the-side kind of business where he ‘mag-os’ horses for other trainers as well as ours.” With her 28-hour-a-day work schedule, Royalee has backed off from some of her volun-teer work. She was president of the Northern California Saddlebred Horse Association “for eons, until we snagged Sue Valley [Chen] to do it.”

She still does the books and handles all the ‘money stuff’ for the Pacific Coast Horse Show Circuit and is treasurer of the Chapter One Horse Show.

The horse crazy girl who didn’t want to come home from summer camp has grown into a talented horsewoman devoted to her husband, her horses and other ‘fur babies.’ What some may not realize is that she is rather introverted, shy and reserved out of the show ring. However, when she goes through that gate, she’s ready to take on the world.

As her friend, Kim, says, “She just simply gets it!

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