Patience is a hard skill to learn, especially in the horse world. In a sport where competitive success often defines a horseman’s livelihood, it can be difficult to wait for the right moment, show and horse to make a breakthrough.
But if Suzy Stafford has learned anything in her long journey with Beverley Lesher’s Courage To Lead, patience ranks at the top of her list. “I was willing to wait for her because I knew she was special,” said Stafford. “Waiting for something that’s worth it takes a while sometimes.”
In Stafford’s case, it took six years.
She first met “Katy” when the mare was sent to Lisa Singer’s barn in 2003. Stafford had been working as an assistant for Singer at the time, and it quickly became clear that Katy and Stafford had a connection.
“We hit it off from the start, and for whatever reason we understood each other,” said Stafford. “Things have to be her idea for her to think it’s a good idea. I had to make everything her plan, and then she was quite happy to do the work. She trusted me and never gave me any reason not to trust her.”
Katy and Stafford had an outstanding season in 2005, which granted them a spot on the U.S. squad for the FEI World Combined Pony Driving Championships in England. But a few days before Katy was to head overseas, she came up lame.
“She tore a muscle high up in her hip,” said Stafford, who went on to the Championships without her partner but won a gold medal driving Sybil Humphreys’ Cefnoakpark Bouncer.
The following year was a long one for the pair. Stafford took Katy’s rehabilitation slowly and was determined to have her pony ready for the next world championship in 2007. Even though the utmost care was taken to have Katy at her peak, a pasture accident resulting in a broken splint bone left her on the sidelines again.
Stafford traveled to Europe without Katy once more and drove “Bouncer” to a team bronze medal at the FEI World Combined Pony Driving Championships in Denmark. But she was determined to get Katy her moment in the spotlight.
“She never really showed any horrible steps backward while we were bringing her back,” said Stafford. “We just took it super slow. If we would have rushed it we might not have had the same end results. I never gave up on her and never felt like she couldn’t do it.”
With an undefeated qualifying season under their belts in 2008, they finally boarded the plane to Europe together to contest the 2009 championships in Germany.
And at the end of competition, they emerged with an individual bronze medal, though Stafford said just completing the event felt as good as gold. “I feel like people are making a bigger deal about this medal,” said Stafford with a smile. “It’s a testament to people realizing the relationship between the driver and horse. It’s not just about winning medals; it’s about the partnership. Finally getting her there, and even the whole year prior, meant a lot to me. For me, it was more of an emotional year than anything else.”
Boyd Exell, who has been working with Stafford for about 10 years, believes that Stafford’s setbacks have improved her as a driver and a horseman.
“She’s just a little bit more mature now when it comes to competitions,” said Exell, who also coached the U.S. team in Germany. “Suzy knew not to do too many shows and knew there was a fine line. The only way to learn that was by doing too many and realizing Katy’s limit. When it came to the important year, they both knew each other’s limits and capabilities.”
After the World Championships, Stafford and Lesher decided to retire Katy after the USEF National Combined Driving Championships in Lexington, Ky., in September. It was only fitting that the pair finished their partnership with their third national championship. Lesher, who rides in the carriage with Stafford during the dressage and marathon phases, is planning to breed Katy and also hopes to contest some lower level combined driving events.
“Katy started my career and got me on the map,” Stafford said of the pony’s impact on her life.
While there’s no doubt that Stafford will miss driving Katy, she has no plans to retire herself. She’s leasing LR Ami Sahib, an 11-year-old Morgan gelding, for the single horse division.
“A friend of mine once said that the best teachers in the horse world stand on four feet and not two,” said Chester Weber, who served as chef d’equipe for the U.S. team in Denmark. “I believe that Katy was probably one of the best professors that one could hope for. Their competitive drive, along with the entire team around them, has offered the single pony division the inspiration necessary to make us a contending nation in that discipline. They have clearly set the bar.”
Stafford has since struck out on her own and runs a training operation, Stafford Carriage Driving, out of Coatesville, Pa., in the summer and Aiken, S.C., in the winter.
“Suzy has proven to be a success with multiple [ponies],” said Weber. “I know few others that have competed at the top of the FEI level with so many horses. Moreover, I believe that now she’s starting to have the unique insight into what kind of pony it takes to be a champion. For her, the clear next step is to move on to the horses or multiples. I would love to see her with a pony team! I think she has the spirit and competitive nature to give those boys a run for their medals. She now needs to find her new partner to ensure that her future remains as bright as her past.”
Home: Coatesville, Pa., and Aiken, S.C.
Significant Other: John Young
Family: Parents Linda Gallo and Bill Stafford, older brother Bill and younger sister Sheri.
Key Players: Boyd Exell, coach, and Larry Hart, navigator.
Pets: Dalmatian Comet, Doberman Ruby and Lurcher Astro.
Horses: Figment, 4, and Figaro, 2. American Warmblood full brothers.
Competition Partner: Beverley Lesher’s 12-year-old Morgan mare Courage To Lead (Courage Of Equinox—Heartland Sable).
Hobbies: Cooking, drawing and fishing.
2009 COMPETITIVE HIGHLIGHTS
Individual bronze—FEI World Combined Pony Driving Championships (Germany)
4th—team, FEI World Combined Pony Driving Championships (Germany)
1st—USEF National Combined Driving Championships (Ky.) FEI single pony
1st—Sunshine State CAI (Fla.) FEI single pony
1st—Live Oak CAI (Fla.) FEI single pony
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