Clubhouse Q&A: Her Derby hats help horses

Sally creating a hat

Sally Faith Steinmann is a hat-maker, an artist, and horse-lover who has been in the news lately. Both CNN and the New York Times ran lengthy articles about her Kentucky Derby hats, and the way she has parlayed her gifts as a milliner into charity for ex-racehorse Thoroughbreds.

In this week’s Clubhouse Q&A with OffTrackThoroughbreds, Steinmann describes her work, and her passion for horses.

Q: Stories about your Kentucky Derby hats have graced the New York Times and Sally, first of all, congratulations. How did these major media outlets find you? 

A: The timing for the interviews could not have been more perfect; the requests came days apart and about a week before the Derby. Melissa Hoppert, editor of the New York Times horse racing blog, The Rail, contacted me and asked if she could speak with me about my passion for Derby hats and about my ties to the world of horse racing. Two days later, Ashley Strickland, Features Associate Producer of requested an interview with me and permission to include me in a feature article she was writing about Kentucky Derby hats for the Living section. I was thrilled to participate in both stories.

Q: In the CNN article, you mention that fashionable hats at the Derby are like “theater.” How has being on this grand stage helped you, your Cape Cod-based business?

A: I have always thought of the Kentucky Derby as theater; with both old and new players returning to the stage at Churchill Downs, and making their entrances in a series of scenes and acts all leading up to the two most exciting minutes in sports.

Women wearing hats is an important part of the theater.  Over the years, women have been finding me through my website business at in their search for just the right chapeau for their “part” in the Derby play.

The woman who asks me to create a hat for her wants something unique, something that will always remind her of her special day at Churchill Downs. As part of the design process I offer my ladies their own personal milliner, someone who is there from start to finish in the designing, ordering, and shipping. For some of them the creative process can take many months, even a year, and because the Derby is such a special event they will invest considerable time and money in the purchase of just the right hat that will suit their sense of style and taste.

They want to feel like a participant on this grand Derby stage, and part of that experience is finding the right hat that will match up to all the drama and excitement of the pageantry that awaits them.

Q: Your hats also help horses. Please describe the link between Maggie Mae Designs and horse charities.

Inspired by racehorse Arson Squad

The charity work that I do for the retired racehorses began as a result of my connecting on a very personal level with the Kentucky Derby.

I have always loved horses and horse racing and as a little girl I loved watching the Kentucky Derby with my family here on Cape Cod. Then, as an adult, I began creating Derby hats for women as my passion for hats brought me back full circle to my very earliest childhood passion for horses.

However, I did not always feel positive about the sport of horse racing. Over the years, as I saw great racehorses like Ruffian and Go For Wand suffer catastrophic injuries, I came to realize that all racehorses do not experience happy endings.

And many more meet with unhappy endings once their racing and breeding careers are over, and they are no longer deemed “profitable.”

In 2006 when Barbaro broke down in the Preakness, I like many others, followed his daily progress under the care of Richardson and others at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center. His death in January 2007 came as a shock to me and I felt compelled as an artist to create something to honor this amazing equine athlete and personal hero.

I created a hat for Barbaro and named it, “Run for the Roses”. But this was just the beginning. I created a new webpage called “Hats and Horses: A Lifelong Love Affair,” to showcase the growing number of horse organizations around the country dedicated to the wellbeing of racehorses and horses in general.

Barbaro had been special in that he made people care and want to participate more actively and diligently in the aftercare of racehorses.

On May 2, 2008, I teamed up with Thoroughbred Charities of American and Foxwoods Resort Casino of Connecticut for a Derby fundraiser for the Eight Belles Memorial Fund, creating and donating a very special, one-of-a-kind Derby hat honoring Eight Belles for the event’s auction.

Looking back, I can see how my passion for horses was leading me to the cause of Thoroughbred aftercare which is desperately needed to protect these magnificent animals once their racing and breeding careers are over.

And, the Kentucky Derby has provided me with one of the greatest stages for showcasing my hats, and at the very same time, for bringing attention to the charity work that I do for the racehorses through these hats. I like to think of my hats as ambassadors for spreading the word for Thoroughbred aftercare once their racing and breeding careers are over.

Q: Tell me about your Hats off for the Horses work, which has benefited Old Friend Equine of Kentucky? 

Arson Squad. Photo by Matt Wooley

A: Combining hats and horses into a fundraising effort always seemed like a natural to me and in 2009, I created my concept, “Hats Off to the Horses: The Road to the Derby.” The online fundraiser now in its third year with Old Friends Equine of Kentucky with all proceeds going to their Thoroughbred aftercare facility.

We have raised substantial funds for Old Friends, nearly $13,000 to date, and each year the “Hats Off to the Horses” fundraiser gains more attention from people who want to be involved in supporting these retired racehorses.

It seems like such a simple concept, and yet it had never been done quite in this way as each hat personalized the retired thoroughbred it was honoring through the hat’s style, color (not only the horse but the racing silks of the stable) and what I would describe as attitude or spirit.

To funnel additional traffic to the auction, I created web pages linked to my millinery website that describes how each individual horse inspired the hat that was up for bid. People tell me that they can feel the spirit of the horses in these hat designs, and that sometimes the hats actually even look like the horses themselves. The process of making these hats for the horses is by far the most challenging and creatively stretching experience of my millinery career.

Q: Creating a hat to reflect the spirit and beauty of a specific racehorse sounds like a job for a fine artist. How do you do it?

Creating a hat out of fabric, thread, and trimmings to celebrate a living, breathing equine athlete is not as simple as it may sound!

A lot of research goes into each hat long before I get anywhere near the cutting table.

I need to get to know each horse as well as I possibly can in order to create a fabric representation that truly does reflect the horse’s individual conformation, spirit, and career.

Old Friends provides the information that they have on each horse including photographs and biography.

Then I go online and uncover old articles, videos of races, and photos-anything that will provide me with a clue about each horse’ life and spirit. I pay attention as to how their movement, their conformation, the stable’s racing silks and the horse’s racing history might inform the design.

This can take weeks. Along the way, I take out my sketchpad and begin drawing.

I also begin the process of collecting pieces of fabric and trims that might – or might not – become part of the final project. Sometimes the process is so intense that I need to back away from it for a few hours or days, allowing the vision to become clearer or more details to rise to the surface.

Her hat meets horse

Sometimes the early sketches do indeed come to pass, while other times the design takes a sudden turn and evolves into something far beyond what I originally imagined. If I can just get out of the way and trust the process, the final design that is bubbling and simmering just below the surface will float to the top and reveal itself.

And the resulting millinery designs that emerge, take my own breath away, and I mean that from a place of humility and gratitude. It is because of the horses that these new designs have evolved. It is their gentle equine spirits, their magnificent athletic beauty and their inspiring personal stories that get stitched, layered and woven into each and every hat.

Q: What is your wish for the way your efforts will contribute to horse welfare?

I hope that the auction series is reaching the hearts and minds of some people who may never have thought about racehorses or what happens to them when they can no longer race or breed.

If creating stunning Derby chapeaux moves some people to support racehorse aftercare and the horses of Old Friends, then my efforts have been worthwhile.

If any of your readers would like to read more about the “Hats Off to the Horses” auction series, they can go to the following link — — and from there check out some of the hats I have created for the past three years.

Old Friends and I are looking forward to an exciting fourth year for the series and have some special surprises in store for the next auction hats and the auction format.


One response to “Clubhouse Q&A: Her Derby hats help horses”

  1. Sumiko

    Second try: love this idea and love the hats. I think that the Wooden Phone hat is particularly lovely. The colors really speak to me.

    And I’m still browsing the website!

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