“I don’t like being judged. I just want to ride fast and jump high,” says Dani G Waldman, who is so competitive that only the pure, clean, against-the-clock competition of showjumping will do. Ever since she first got in the saddle as an eight year old, this standout individual has dreamt of Olympic gold. It might have happened already if it weren’t for a global pandemic, but that won’t stop Dani. Whenever the games return, she will be as motivated and determined as ever to achieve her life-long goal, but at the same time her unique sense of style and forthright personality is also changing the sport for good.
The American-Israeli show jumper is a hugely animated character who bristles with energy. She dares to go where others don’t: the now iconic tumble of thousands of home-made feather extensions that cascade with her long curly hair are as colourful and free flowing as the lady herself. She often has a full-face smile and speaks on any subject with the sort of down-to-earth honesty and openness that you normally get from old friends. This strong sense of self is what has led her to become one of the most talked about athletes in the all-too conservative world of equestrianism.
At first that might have been because of her unique appearance – the feathers, the non-conformist clothing she competes in, or the aggressive manner in which she rides. But after a run of success that started with a first Grand Prix win aged 16 and led on to European Championships, World Equestrian Games and team competitions in the Global Champions League, Dani most recently qualified to represent Israel at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and is one of five female ambassadors selected by the Israeli Olympic Committee to represent gender equality in sports. Now, then, all that people talk about are her results and performances in the saddle.
“I was a pain-in-the-ass as a kid,” she laughs, explaining that she has always been someone who knows her own mind. Today that manifests itself in a number of ways. Rather than kowtowing to the deeply entrenched traditions of a sport rooted in the English military, Dani just does Dani. There is no anti-establishment motive, or some big desire to set her own agenda, she is just being who she has always been: colourful, and concerned with her own self-expression. In time, however, her actions are sure to expand the often reserved and judgmental values of a traditional sport.
The yoga pants she chooses to compete in are simply the product of starting each day with yoga before heading out to ride. The crop-tops she wears are a comfort thing, but if they also serve to modernise the sport and appeal to a wider audience, or inspire younger generations to be themselves, all the better. She isn’t trying to be showy, just herself. “I just think I look and feel better in the clothing I wear than when I wear regular breeches. I always had a very bold personality and my choices are just a reflection of that. I never set out on a mission. I wasn’t intending on ‘doing things my way’, I just live my own life. That’s the only way I know.”
As someone who has been interested in fashion since obsessively wearing a Tinkerbell dress as a child, Dani is now branching out into designing her own capsules. At first they will bring her distinctive sense of style and elegance to riding wear, but in future she will branch out into wider realms. “I want to design sport oriented apparel with differentiation between men and women.” Her hope is that one day showjumping can be elevated to a level where sponsorship deals and media coverage are on a par with NASCAR. “Without public interest we will never get that. If it takes feathers in my hair or wearing a crop top to get noise around it, I’m willing to do it, even if I have to take the flak that comes with it.”
World level sport runs in Dani’s family. Her father was a number one ranked squash player who only missed out on the 1980 Olympics because it was the year the USA boycotted the Games, and her mother was also highly ranked. “They recognised the competitive side of me and nurtured it from a young age,” she says, before explaining she did everything from gymnastics to competitive tennis to playing an instrument, “despite having no talent and being tone deaf. But I did have good hand-eye coordination and often played with boys rather than girls so they saw I was tough and a bit of tom boy.” To this day she competes with men, and often beats them: in 2019, she was the first woman to ever win the Shanghai LGCT Grand Prix.
As a teenager, Dani – who now also has a pilot’s licence – played high level tennis, but was less keen to practice at the courts than she was to don her riding gear. “They never had to push me with the riding. More often it was them asking, ‘really, another show, are you sure?'” Four years studying a BA in Global Economies and Urban Development at Duke University meant Dani didn’t get in the saddle once. It was a timely break that came when she was risking burnout, but also served to prove to Dani there was nothing she wanted to do more than ride professionally.
Dani’s contribution to the world of equestrianism doesn’t end with what she does in the saddle. Following a bat mitzvah trip to Israel as a 12 year old, she felt drawn to represent the nation in international competition. It certainly wasn’t the easy path to take, but that has never been Dani’s style anyway. As an unintentional figurehead for the next generation, Dani hopes to emphasise the role of women in sport and the equestrian industry. “My choices are a silent language to explain to people who I am on the inside without having to use words.”
In the past this has taken the form of an International Equestrian Education Series in the United States that offered a 360 degree education on the care and management of competitive horses for people of all experience levels. She is also on the board of her family’s charitable foundation, the Sunny and Rosenberg Foundation, and is responsible for awarding discretionary grants to causes important to her. Dani often supports therapeutic riding schools in Israel for soldiers coming out of the army with PTSD and physical trauma.
Her own education has come largely on the job, by spending every waking hour with her horses. She also dove into the deep end and took over the management of her family’s Starwyn Farms in Florida, eventually developing several innovative programs that are contributing to the educational needs of the equestrian community and raising the bar on integrity and professionalism in the sport. Now based mostly in the Netherlands, Dani and her husband Alan Waldman own the internationally renowned Waldman Horses, where they breed and train horses, with around 600 currently under their care.
It is no exaggeration to say, then, Dani G Waldman is leading from the front. Her bold, confident yet feminine personality is making a truly global impression. She is taking control and showing that individuality and creativity can happily coexist with ruthless competitiveness and dedicated professionalism.\