It seems ironic that although women were competing against their male counterparts in Olympic, national and international equestrian events, they were, until 1968, denied jocks licenses. At that point a young show jumper and non-licensed jockey named Kathy Kusner decided that it was time for change. In an interview about inspiring women in a series called Makers, she recalls that the Maryland Racing Commission would have rather died than give her a license. Women jockeys, as far as they were concerned were, “too stupid, too weak, too scared.” She and her lawyer, who worked for free knowing it would be a landmark case, went to three racing commission hearings, and the answer was a definitive “No!” However, when Kusner and her lawyer went to court, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a landmark piece of civil rights legislation in the United States that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin came into play. It took the judge just three minutes before declaring that Kusner could not be denied a jocks license.
She admits that it wasn’t easy being one of the first licensed female jockeys. “Today it is easier thanks to girls like Rosie Napravnik and Julie Krone. They were the real deal and they rode as well as any guy, and the big trainers used them in the biggest races.” Kusner, rode races in the USA, Canada, Mexico, Germany, South America, South Africa, and what was then Rhodesia. She also made history as the first woman to ride in the Maryland Hunt Cup, the toughest timber race in the world.
Kusner was not born into a family with money or horse connections, but she found a way to work with horses and did stable chores. Lessons followed and from the minute she saw a horse show, she knew that this was the life she wanted. “When I was doing all of what I did back then, I never owned a horse. I rode a lot of rough, raggedy horses for professional dealers and was a catch rider. But for my personality, that was great. I loved it, the adventure of it all.” In 1958, the United States Equestrian Team invited her to train with the team.
International Domination for Kathy Kusner
Kusner rose to the top of the show jumping game. In 1960 she was named Horsewoman of the Year even before joining the United States Equestrian Team at 21. She then went on to represent her country in three Olympic Games: 1964 in Tokyo, 1968 in Mexico and 1972 in Munich where she helped win team silver. She also brought home a team gold medal from the Sao Paulo Pan Am Games in 1963, and team silver at the Winnipeg Games in 1967.
The horse who is most often associated with her is Untouchable, the two time Olympic participant. But, he along with two others, Aberali and Unusual, did not come to her as “made” horses. They were green and had issues that Kusner was able to sort out through patience and experience. In one article she puts her philosophy into a nutshell, one that no doubt helped her create success and possibility where others failed to tread: “It’s so easy to make assumptions and go with tradition and/or superstition. That can be limiting. Or, you can think about other possibilities and arrive at the thought, ‘Maybe it’s not necessarily that way. Let’s find out.’ ”
Unusual, a thoroughbred twinned with Kusner in 1962, liked going in a soft bit and Kusner recalls that, “he turned into a soft cloud that went in the air and just stayed.” The pair helped the USET win team gold at the 1963 Pan Am Games in Brazil.
Aberali, a horse competing with the Italian team, “galloped and jumped like a deer,” but had a bad stop in him. However, Kusner wasn’t just every show jumper, and after she bought the horse for one of her owners through Brazilian rider Nelson Pessoa, she began the re-training. She knew what worked with horses that stopped and that if you draw the boundaries and ask only what is fair, you can eventually end the habit. She did. She showed the horse in the states and he was champion at all of the horse shows, and then took him to Europe where he won the puissance at Aachen at 2.20 meters (7’2”). “He did some nice things,” Kusner recalls.
Untouchable, a horse Kusner recalls as, “the best horse of my life.” was her team mate in the 1964 and ’68 Olympics, and one that “was the complete package.”
Untouchable had been a racehorse and Kusner got him he was 11 in 1963. He wasn’t tall standing just 16.1 hands, but he had the gifts that a top flight thoroughbred jumper brings to the table in the ability to jump wide, high and clean. He was a hot horse with instant acceleration, but was not an easy ride sometimes going sideways into a jump so that planned distances disappeared.
While Unusual and Aberali allowed Kusner to enjoy a look around a course on her way through, Untouchable had to be ridden every second of every round. Kusner found a way to deal with his temperament in the ring after watching Nelson Pessoa’s solution with his horse Gran Geste, another superstar whose in-ring performances belied a feisty out-of-ring personality. By lounging the horse before a class at a walk and ambling relaxed trot, Gran Geste was calm during his round. Kusner tried this on Untouchable and the results were amazing. “By the time he got around to being excited, most of the course was jumped.”
Kathy Kusner & Horses in The Hood
Kusner started a program in 1999 called Horses in The Hood (HHLA) This is a non profit program working with groups and organizations in low income mostly African-American and Latino community of Watts and Compton in the South Central section of Los Angeles. At the end of October 2014, over 928 at risk children and adults have taken part in 91 horse camps. For most of these youngsters, getting up close and personal with a horse and learning to care for it over the week is a life altering experience. They are encouraged to help others, and while the work with horses helps develop and form emotional bonds, the shared experience helps promote personal bonds. Ken Mason, professor of African-American History, says, “A little bit of success for these young people can spark an enormous amount of future success.”
Challenges? Bring ‘em On!
Kusner continues to give riding clinics all over the world, but her successes in life reach far beyond the show ring and the horse world. She holds a pilot’s license for commercial, multi-engine, instrument, seaplane and commercial glider ratings. She also obtained a Lear-Jet rating and became the first woman to work as a Lear Jet pilot for Executive Jet Aviation. Oh, and let’s not forget that she also has flying acrobatic skills.
Not content with those lofty airborne achievements, she took up marathon running and has completed 122 marathons as of September 2014 and 73 ultramarathons, including 20 races of 50 miles or longer. She has worked as a TV commentator for Grand Prix events, designs courses nationally and internationally, and writes for publications. She also acts as an expert witness nationally and internationally for topics such as accident reconstruction and prevention, horse behavior, buying and selling standards and industry standards.
Her list of achievements in the show ring and outside are lengthy and include:
1960: Horsewoman of the year by the American Horse Shows Association.
1990: Inducted into The Show Jumping Hall of Fame.
2000: Named one of the 50 most influential horsemen of the 20th century by The Chronicle of the Horse and The American Horse Shows Association.
2000: Inducted into the Virginia Horse Shows Association Hall of Fame.
2005: Received the Pegasus Medal of Honor from the United States Equestrian Federation.
2005: Inducted into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame.
2012: Kathy was a recipient of the John Henry “Pop” Lloyd Humanitarian award.
Kathy Kusner: Show jumper, jockey, humanitarian, expert witness, writer, commentator, marathon runner, pilot. Is there anything this lady can’t do?
All photos used with permission of Kathy Kusner with thanks.