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March 2, 2011

Three Days Three Ways Interviews Sally Cousins

Photo by Kat Netzler.

Eventer Sally Cousins is a familiar name on the U.S. Eventing Association leaderboard. She regularly places in the standings, and in 2010 she earned the Auburn Labs Lady Rider of the Year, the Intermediate Adult Rider high-point award, and she rode Penny Wilson’s Troy to the Intermediate Horse high-point award. However, eventing is a second career for Cousins, Oxford, Pa. She spent 16 years as a stockbroker at Merrill Lynch before becoming a professional rider, and she has steadily built a string of successful horses and become a popular teacher and clinician. Cousins, 47, took some time out of her busy schedule to answer questions with blogger Three Days Three Ways.

Q. When was the first time you thought about horses or saw them?

A. My mother always wanted to ride. When I was 5 she took us for weekly riding lessons, and that's pretty much how it started. We moved to the country and boarded ponies, and it snowballed from there. I had two brothers and a sister, and for 15 years all four of us rode.

Q. What was that like?

A. Great fun. My brother, Fred, was considered the most natural rider of all four of us. He doesn't ride anymore but certainly was very good rider. I don't remember being competitive with them. We spent a lot of time riding around bareback on our ponies. We played games and had fun. That's what I remember about it. 

Q. What makes a successful rider?

A. Talent takes a back seat to work ethic. You have to be mentally tough. There are a lot of disappointments in any horse sport. You have to have a great ethic and be mentally tough. Talent comes after both of those things. Sometimes people say you're such a natural, and I say well, yeah 30 years later! After all that hard work it looks easier, but it didn't start out that way.

Q. What did that hard work look like?

A. A lot of lessons over the years. I had a huge number of lessons when I was first getting into the sport. I started off riding with Mike Plumb, and that was a huge amount of education. I rode a lot of horses that maybe weren't the easiest. I had to persevere through lameness problems. I was pretty dedicated.

Q. Were there influential horses in your life?

A. When I was 12 my mother bought a 2-year-old named Maryland from Joanna Glass who now runs Sporting Days in Aiken, S.C. I was 12, she was 2 and green broke. By the time I was 20 I jumped her clear around [the Burghley CCI**** (England)]. I didn't know that was as unusual as I know it is now. She shaped my desire to do this sport. I had a taste of the upper levels early on. I went to England when Torrance [Watkins] rode and Bruce [Davidson] rode, and they really looked out for me. I didn't know how unusual that was: That you would get a horse like that at my age, and she would go on to do those things.

She was just one of the most generous creatures ever. To go around a four-star you have to have ability, but she had a great heart and was very generous and made up for a lot of my mistakes. I think horses are amazingly generous creatures. They need to listen in so many ways, and when we make a mistake they need to ignore us and fix it. It's a careful training balance we need to pay attention to. If they always listened to us, then we better never make a mistake!

Q. How do you teach that balance?

A. That's so much what Lucinda Green is trying to address with her training. What I teach is that we have to be responsible for speed, for the balance that they're in, for straightness, and then we need to let them have some initiative. It's a hard balance to find. As much as we want them to take direction we can't take away their sense of self when they come off the ground.

Q. Is it particularly that way with eventing?

A. Probably more so. I can only speak for eventing at upper levels, but I would say it's really important with eventing and lower level jumping of any kind that you want them to have some initiative. Whether Rodrigo Pessoa's horse needs initiative I can't say.

Q. Anyone who you loved and looked up to?

A. I trained with a number of people like Torrance and Bruce and Mike [Plumb]. I remember I always wanted to ride like Juliet Graham. She was on the Canadian World Championships in 1978 in Kentucky. I wanted to ride like her for a long, long time. She could really ride cross-country.

Q. What does that mean?

A. To present them in a positive way, in a good balance, and it looked like they were really jumping well.

Q. What do you try to create or present?

A. Whenever I get on a horse, my first goal is not to do any harm to it. Just like us, horses have good and bad days and that can be in training or at an event. Our job as riders and trainers is to recognize when they're having a good or bad day and not get in an argument or go beyond what they can do. Do no harm to existing training.

I love what Scott Hassler says—whenever you ride you should think about your training that day as if taking your horse to gym. Think about stretching it out then strengthening, then you might work on specific movements, then recognize when they're starting to get fatigued. For each horse it's a little different.

The third thing that's a major goal is to ride a horse as it goes best. I adjust my riding to some degree so a horse can be as good as it can be. Each horse is different, so I ride them differently. As a rider I adjust to get more out of each horse.

Q. How did riding become such a big part of your life?

A. I was a stockbroker for 16 years. I had gone to England to compete at 21 or 22, somewhere in there. I had taken one to Burghley and one to Badminton. I was concerned about making a living in the sport.  The sport has hugely grown. There's an opportunity now to run a successful business. I was a stockbroker for Merrill Lynch then left horses to pursue riding and training.

Q. That was a big shift.

A. It was a little scary. I was giving up a lot of benefits and security. So it was a little scary but something I always wanted to do. But when I was 21 or 22 I just was afraid I wouldn't make a living. I had friends failing trying to run horses as a business. What I learned there [at Merrill Lynch] stood me in good stead.

Q. Like what?

A. Keep track of the bottom line. Try to behave in business-like fashion. Communicate—get back to people promptly.

Apprenticing with someone is a good idea whether as a working student or as a job. Apprenticing with someone who runs a successful business is a good idea. You may decide you want to copy some things and that you don't want to copy others. Try to figure out behind the scenes things. How much paperwork or travel is involved? Not just how many horses do you ride or lessons you teach. Trying to find a niche is a good way to go. You need to have all three parts of it—horses in training, some horses sales and lessons. You can focus on one of those things, but you need to have all three. Though there's probably someone out there that just does one and runs a great business!

Q. How would your best friend describe you?

A. I would like to think they would say I am understanding and compassionate. I know they would say I am hardworking and focused. I think the softer things are just as important.

Q. Are there traits you look for in every horse?

A. This is a sport about jumping. You can't be too far behind in dressage. But if you win dressage and can't jump you won't win. Second thing is you’ve got to have a really good work ethic. I'm not sure that the work ethic doesn't come first. I have ridden some less talented horses that keep finding a way over the jumps, and that goes a long, long way in my book.

Q. How has the sport of eventing changed?

A. When I was first eventing our season started maybe late March. And I'm from Pennsylvania so late March is early if you're from New England. The eventing season was much shorter. We'd back off in July and pick up in the fall. The season wasn't so long. In many ways you have to be careful now. I don't necessarily think horses can go well January through November. If you start early, you can give them some breaks. The travel has really, really increased. I don't do as much traveling as many people. But it's more, sure it's a lot more.

I think it's a lot harder on the professionals because the season goes on so long. But having said that, it's what makes it possible to make a living at it. So I do think some of the growth and extending out of season makes it a more viable business. I do think you have to be careful that horses are given breaks during year. If you're competing in February and your three-day is in April that's perfectly appropriate. As trainers, you have to be careful when the horses are mentally worn out. Travel can be hard on people and horses and be aware when you need to back off. And I think most good trainers are. There's a lot of good horseman out there in this sport right now.

Q. Important happy moments for you? Or hard?

A. Unfortunately, yes. We've all been there. I had a horse that was quite talented end up dying of a lung infection; we just couldn't get a handle on it. We've all had those situations. I remember that being an awful time. I try to every day enjoy what I'm doing. It's something I really love doing, and it sure beats sitting in an office. I know that first hand.

Courtney Young conducts in-depth interviews with the elite of the equestrian world on her blog Three Days Three Ways. Check it out for a behind-the-scenes look into three-day eventing.

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