Lexington, Ky. - Ellen DiBella’s influence on equestrian sport cannot be understated. She devoted her life to inspiring others, created opportunities for equestrians and their horses, and worked for every horse to be valued and cherished.
DiBella passed away the evening of August 20, 2023. A resident of Parker, Colorado, Ellen was born July 26, 1944 to Edwin and Jane McCauley. She graduated from the University of Denver with a degree in Sociology and a subspecialty in medical social work. She worked side-by-side with her beloved husband of 58 years, Dr. Nicholas Di Bella, to build a successful medical oncology practice and raise two children, Catherine (David) Lindsey and Christine (Sandy, of blessed memory) Hamilton.
The 2019 U.S. Equestrian Federation Lifetime Achievement award recipient, DiBella’s career of service to both equine and human alike set a standard few in the equestrian world have come near. DiBella served on the U.S. Equestrian Board of Directors from 2005 until her retirement from the board in 2015. During her time on the Board, DiBella served as both Secretary of the Board as well as Vice President. Following her retirement from the board, Ellen remained very active in governance, including serving on numerous USEF committees until early 2023.
“Ellen was a devoted equestrian and especially loved her Morgan horses,” stated U.S. Equestrian Chief Executive Officer Bill Moroney. “She served for many years as a dedicated member of the USEF Board of Directors and numerous committees, and led the formation of the Western Dressage Association of America. Ellen was a gifted communicator whose enthusiasm was contagious, and she inspired everyone she met with her stories about the special bond between horses and humans. We will miss her dearly, and we are all better people for having had the opportunity to know and work with her.”
DiBella was known worldwide for her love of Morgan horses, a love that spanned more than 50 years and originated with the purchase of her first Morgan horse in 1972. DiBella was drawn to Morgan horses after seeing them used in the rehab program at Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center in Aurora, Colorado following the Vietnam War. This encounter sparked her passion for horses and led to a lifelong dedication as an owner and competitor. For the first 38 years of her equestrian life, DiBella showed her Morgan horses in Western Pleasure.
DiBella’s desire to build an equine community combining the Western traditions of horse and rider with classical dressage led to her popularizing Western Dressage and becoming the founding President of the Western Dressage Association of America, which became a USEF Recognized Affiliate Association in February 2012.
According to Western Dressage Association of America President, Cindy Butler, “Ellen devoted her life to service for equestrian sports and honoring horses. She inspired so many people, including me. Ellen DiBella had a way of making everyone she touched believe in themselves more and we are all better advocates for horse welfare and better people for having had her in our lives.”
“Ellen saw something in me that I certainly did not see in myself,” said Western Dressage Association of America Executive Director Dini Swanson. “She saw that I could lead, and problem solve and had a plan for me. Ellen mentored me through simply volunteering for WDAA 8 years ago to being its first Executive Director. We both feel the weight of responsibility and honor of leading her beloved WDAA into the future with Ellen's dreams guiding us along the way.”
DiBella was involved throughout the equestrian world, and lent her expertise to multiple boards and committees, including:
- American Morgan Horse Association
- American Morgan Horse Institute
- Western Dressage Association of America World Championship Show
- Morgan Grand National and World Championship Show
- Colorado Horse Park
“Ellen left her mark on the Morgan community like no other,” states American Morgan Horse Association President Carrie Mortensen. “She was deeply involved with so many different organizations and gave of her time unselfishly for decades. Her contributions were countless. We will remember her not only for her ambassadorship of the Morgan horse and Western Dressage, but also for her impact on the entire equestrian community.”
Apart from her work for horses and equestrians, she helped found the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center Foundation, which provides financial assistance to cancer patients and their families in meeting living expenses while fighting cancer.
In an interview with the Western Dressage Association of America, DiBella said the following: “Horses offer us an opportunity to be much better people that we could ever be without them. Whether you ride English or Western, you have the opportunity to have a 2-way trusting partnership. The tools and principles of classical dressage naturally make for better and healthier horses and make us a better human being. It really is about the journey.”
In her acceptance of the 2019 USEF Lifetime Achievement Award, DiBella said “I would say to everyone love your horses. Listen to your horses. Be partners with your horses. Share your horses with as many people as you can, because those horses will make you better and make everyone else better.”
Memorials or donations may be made to The Ellen DiBella Western Dressage Scholarship at the American Morgan Horse Educational Charitable Trust. In lieu of a memorial service, there will be a Celebration of Life held at the Western Dressage Association of America’s World Championship Show on the evening of September 29th during the exhibitor party.