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February 19, 2010

Kathy Kusner And Three Thoroughbreds Challenged Tradition

Kathy Kusner and Untouchable competed in two Olympic Games together and won innumerable honors all over the U.S. and Europe.

Kusner saw no limits in Unusual, Untouchable and Aberali.

Untouchable might have been Kathy Kusner’s most famous horse and her mount for two Olympic Games, but there were two other horses that Kusner recalls particularly fondly, Aberali and Unusual. All three horses—talented Thoroughbreds—came into Kusner’s life in the 1960s as green or problem horses.

Kusner was the Beezie Madden of the 1960s. Many show jumping aficionados of the time recall her vividly, picturing her daring jump-off rides and puissance victories as she paved the way for future women show jumpers in the sport then dominated by men.

Unusual, Untouchable and Aberali all benefited from Kusner’s remarkable ability to bring out their best qualities. Each horse presented his own challenges. She found a way to work with each of their personalities and quirks to make them their best.

One anecdote sums up Kusner’s philosophy and the approach that made her so successful.

Kusner twice won the puissance at the Aachen CHIO (Germany)—in 1966 on Untouchable and in 1967 on Aberali. It rained heavily both years, and the arena was deep in mud. “Both times, people asked me why I was entering my little Thoroughbreds in the puissance against big, strong German horses. The first year, Untouchable won it jumping 2.10 meters, which is 6'7".

“Horses standing behind him in the prize-giving were more substantial, with big feet. The next year, Aberali won the puissance jumping 2.20 meters, or 7'2", again in deep mud.

“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.' "

An Unusual Horse

In the summer of 1962, Kusner had just returned from her first European tour with the U.S. Equestrian Team. “Unusual was a horse that had shown a little as a green jumper but hadn’t had any career. I had never seen him, but a friend, Frances Rowe, had him in her barn,” Kusner recalled.

Rowe wrote Kusner a letter, saying that this horse had very interesting breeding. He was out of the same mare as Circus Rose, also known as Miss Budweiser, and Riviera Wonder.

“When I got back from Europe, I went to a horse show in Richmond, Va., met the horse, and got to ride him in the stake in the open division, which he won. I loved him from the first moment. I didn’t have a special horse in my life. It was the beginning of my time with the team, and I was barely on it by the skin of my teeth.

“Unusual was unusually wonderful,” Kusner said. “He was a real quality Thoroughbred horse. His greenness manifested itself in the best way possible. At each jump, he would spend some minutes in the air, so it seemed, as he got very high with his huge leap. It was just the nicest ride, and each jump felt as if you were sitting on a cloud.”

Kusner found the key to riding Unusual, who was sensitive and had a soft mouth. She rode him in the softest bit that was made at the time, a straight, soft rubber bit.

“I asked him to have nice RPMs in his work, so the engine had a lot of energy. He responded to that beautifully. He wasn’t a hot horse that had a lot of natural impulsion,” said Kusner.

“I also had the front door wide open, so he could do whatever he wanted with his head and neck. He didn’t use his head and neck and back a lot. But when I rode him like that, he turned into this soft cloud that went in the air and just stayed. He was a loose-legged jumper, but he was extremely high over every fence. He was the easiest ride—he’d just float.”

Kusner showed Unusual in the green jumpers at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show in the fall, where they were champion. Then, she and Unusual competed for the USET at the Washington (D.C.) International Horse Show and won the President’s Cup.

The Chronicle’s coverage of the President’s Cup included this paragraph about their performances: “Unusual, whose tremendous ability was apparent during the entire show, was at his most sparkling for this featured event and looked like a horse who knew exactly what was at stake—and in complete harmony with his rider, who seems to suit any horse, but is exceptional on this one.”

There wasn’t a spot available on the USET team for the National Horse Show (N.Y.) at Madison Square Garden, so Kusner and Unusual competed in the open jumper division, and Unusual was champion. “He just was a joy. He was absolutely the sensation of the fall circuit,” Kusner said. “It was wonderful. I couldn’t believe my lucky stars that I was riding him. But then he was sold, and my lucky stars weren’t quite as aligned anymore,” she continued.

Kusner still rode Unusual in the 1963 Pan American Games (Brazil), where they helped win team gold, but, “I wasn’t the one who organized his life anymore, and he

wasn’t the horse he had been. It wasn’t the real Unusual in Sao Paulo,” Kusner said.

Then, in 1965, Unusual reappeared into her life. That was in the midst of

Untouchable’s career, but he’d been injured at the beginning of the fall indoor circuit.

“Untouchable was hurt, and I was supposed to ride on the team at the Garden. So, I was told there were two horses in the barn at Gladstone, and I could choose one to ride at New York, and one of them was Unusual,” Kusner recalled.

“I said, ‘I would love to ride Unusual.’ I just went back to riding him the same as I did before, and he was the same wonderful horse he’d been in the past,” she said.

He won several classes at the Garden in the international division.

“Billy [Steinkraus] had Snowbound there, and Unusual was winning the grand prix until Billy went after me. Billy was brilliant. Snowbound slipped on a turn in the jump-off, but Billy and Snowbound salvaged the round and still were faster than Unusual. They were the headliners. If Billy hadn’t been so very, very good, and Snowbound hadn’t been so very, very good, Unusual would have won the class and been king of the hill. But Billy’s round was beautiful, and it was thrilling to watch.

“At the Garden, Unusual was the same horse again, and I loved riding him again. Later that fall, he twisted his intestine and very sadly had to be put to sleep. It wasn’t a long career together, but that horse was just wonderful. He, again, was a standout horse of the moment at Madison Square Garden. It was a nice moment in time.”

Aberali Goes To Reform School

In the middle of the 1960s, on the European tours with the USET team, Kusner had seen Aberali competing with the Italian team. “I just loved that horse—he was a Thoroughbred, 16.1 and very light-framed,” she said. “He galloped and jumped like a deer.

“I would race to the ring to see Aberali every time he was showing, but the bad part was that he would have refused three times before he got to the latter part of the course. I’d always think, ‘I want to see more of you, Aberali!’ ”

In 1966, Aberali, then 12, ended up in Brazilian superstar Nelson Pessoa’s barn to be sold. Pessoa and Kusner were great friends, and Pessoa contacted Kusner after the horse arrived, noting that he wasn’t expensive due to his stopping habit.

“I was riding horses for Mr. and Mrs. Butler at the time, who now also owned Untouchable. So I organized it with them to buy Aberali. I thought, ‘Holy cow, this is great!’ But he was a terrible stopper.”

The stopping habit didn’t deter Kusner—she believed she could solve it.

“I knew what worked with stoppers. If you draw the boundaries of behavior and don’t ask them to do anything that’s unfair, you can eventually end it. I believed this would work with him.

“As I advanced with his re-education, I would set up all kinds of different things to jump to invite the stop. If he did, he’d get a spanking. After many spankings, he stopped doing that. Sometimes, there wouldn’t be a spanking, because at the last instant, he would vanish from under me. I would continue over the jump by myself; I’d see him getting smaller and smaller as he galloped away.

“At first, all you’d have to do was point him at any jump and he’d often stop, but pretty soon, it took more imagination to catch him unaware so the stop would happen. Finally, you couldn’t invent anything he would stop at—he would have jumped over fire.”

At their first horse show together, in Branchville, N.J., Aberali did stop in the first class. “And he got a spanking! He found out there wasn’t a safety zone in the show ring. He went on at that first show to win the puissance and be champion. He never stopped again!” Kusner said.

“I never even had to think about it. All I had to do was present him to the jump, and he’d soar over it. He was like an antelope or a deer. I showed him at some shows in the United States, and he was easily champion at all, so my thought was in the future to only compete with him in Europe. It wasn’t like he dominated Europe, but he was very successful there. He won the puissance at Aachen at 2.20 meters [7'2"]. He did some nice things.”

Kusner and Aberali even appeared in a movie—footage of them showing at the Washington International Horse Show is in the Disney movie The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit.

The Italians had ridden Aberali in a hackamore. But during the period in which she was fixing his stopping habit, Kusner put a bit in his mouth. “When I got him, I used the same soft rubber bit that I rode Unusual in, only because while he was getting a spanking, he would want to leave town. So, I needed a bit to keep him in town.

“After the stopping wasn’t an issue, I went to the hackamore that the Italians had been using. He was just perfect in it. He had a very light nose; with him, you had the same control as a bit.”

Kusner only enjoyed a few years showing Aberali before arthritis ended his competition career.

He Was Indeed Untouchable

While Aberali and Unusual have special places in Kusner’s heart, it was Untouchable whom Kusner described as “the best horse of my life.” With him, Kusner competed with the USET at the 1964 and ’68 Olympic Games.

Untouchable won countless championships in the United States, including at the National Horse Show at the Garden. Abroad, he won grand prix classes all over Europe, including at Dublin (Ireland) twice, Ostende (Belgium), Lucerne (Switzerland), Hickstead (England), and topped the 1967 Ladies European Championship. They also won the prestigious Pre-Olympic competition in Rotterdam (the Netherlands) in 1968.

With the USET, they earned team silver at the 1967 Pan American Games and helped win 12 Nations Cup competitions. Untouchable also won many puissance classes, including at Aachen (Germany), with the wall set at 2.10 meters, or 6'7".

“Right from the very beginning, he was a great jumper with fantastic technique. Horses can have a wonderful technique but be limited, or horses can have mediocre jumping form and be great. Technique is just one part of the story. Untouchable was the complete package—he had great technique, and he could jump high and wide,” she said.

Benny O’Meara had found the Thoroughbred in the winter of 1962. At the time, Untouchable was 11 and had raced quite a bit. “Benny brought him to where I had some of his horses in Maryland and told me, ‘Here’s one that’s perhaps very interesting,’ ” Kusner recalled.

Kusner named the horse Untouchable, in keeping with the theme started by Unusual. She hoped to show him in Florida in early 1963 but was committed to preparing with the USET team for the Pan American Games with Unusual.

So O’Meara showed Untouchable in Florida in the green jumper division, where he was champion throughout the winter circuit.

“When I was back from the Pan Am Games, Benny delivered him back to me. From there on, Untouchable was in my life, very luckily for me,” Kusner said. “He was a fine, light, little Thoroughbred, just 16.1 hands. People talk about power, but none of these three horses used power—what they used was talent. It’s like a track and field star. They’re weren’t weight lifters—they were light and small and athletic. It wasn’t power that was brought to the table. They could jump high and wide and—most importantly—clean.”

At first, O’Meara and Kusner questioned one aspect of Untouchable’s ability. “We wondered if he would have the kind of scope needed to get the longer distances in combinations with wide fences. He had a high, round stride at the canter and such a very round bascule,” Kusner said.

“But Untouchable could do it. He was a very hot horse, and he could accelerate instantly. If you had to be steady from A to B in a combination, he could get the width of the B oxer with his engine and then land and accelerate instantly to be at the take-off spot in a long distance to another wide oxer—and jump out cleanly. He didn’t have any limitations.”

Kusner had her biggest challenge with Untouchable, though, as his sensitivity and hotness created the most difficult ride of her career.

“In the latter part of the course, he might start scampering sideways during final approach to a jump. I would have a distance established, so I thought, and then he’d start going off to the right. The distance would vanish! A stride would be added, and you were now not just deep but also in the right corner. Once he completely scraped me off on the right standard in the puissance at Madison Square Garden. But normally, he was such a good jumper. When he did go sideways, he would jump out of these very awkward take-off spots and usually be clean. It would make me think, ‘Wow.’

“Before the class and while on course, I’d be planning and doing of all the things I knew to do to keep him as level and straight as I could. Where Aberali and Unusual were the easiest rides, Untouchable was by far the most complicated. With the other two, I’d go in the ring and have time to enjoy the scenery. Not with Untouchable. I was plotting the whole time. I didn’t mind though—I was honored to be in on the ride! He was such a wonderful horse.”

Toward the end of Untouchable’s career, before the 1968 Olympic Games, Kusner borrowed a strategy from Pessoa to help deal with Untouchable’s quirks.

“I used to watch ‘Neco’ prepare his horse, Gran Geste, which was quite a good horse. Gran Geste was a hot, strong horse, but you’d never know it when you saw Neco ride him around a course. It was so nice; he looked like a marshmallow. I knew Neco well, and I’d ridden and jumped Gran Geste, so I knew this was a hot, strong horse. He’d ride Gran Geste normally between shows, but when he’d get ready for a class, the whole plan was different.

“He’d have his groom put the horse on a longe line, and the horse would walk and trot slowly, in a very lazy way. It wasn’t a tiring exercise—just a wandering, relaxing time. When it was time for them to go in the ring, Neco would get on at the in-gate, go right in the ring and have a beautiful performance. I’d been seeing this and finally decided to try the same with Untouchable. I did the same, and the result was like Gran Geste. It was such a joy to ride Untouchable after he had loosened up with only that slow wandering on the longe line. By the time he got around to being excited, most of the course was jumped,” Kusner said. “I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t done it sooner! It worked perfectly.”

After the 1968 Olympic Games, Untouchable was getting older, and his career was winding down. He was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 2001; Kusner was inducted in 1989.

Kusner appreciated her horses for the pure enjoyment they gave her, not for the accolades and honors they won.

“But they sure brought me opportunities to continue this wonderful horse life at the best places and in the best company. (In other words, I stayed on the team!),” Kusner said. “Whatever was going to happen with my career was just going to happen. I wasn’t thinking I had to do this or that for my career; I was just thinking that I had to do this or that to have nice horses in my life and to do the best with them that I possibly could. It was about the joy of it all, and the rest was a byproduct.”

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