Unexpected Job Perks

Sep 21, 2016 - 7:12 AM
Kathy Kusner, right, fit right into my somewhat chaotic household! Photo by Jennifer Calder

I’ve been writing for the Chronicle full time for three years, and I’ve interviewed dozens and dozens (and dozens) of people. Some were quick phone calls, a quote about a steeplechase finish or thoughts on a subject I am featuring, but most of the time the stories I am assigned are in-depth profiles where I get to spend a good deal of time with the person.

A “good deal of time” can be two to three hours—or in some cases, days. I love writing these. I find the process inspiring both in the obvious ways—if we are profiling someone it’s because they have made a significant contribution to equestrian sport—but also in less obvious ways—the ability of someone to open up to a stranger (me) and share the “whys” behind their successes and regrets, the things that make us human.

It’s rarely their riding feats that I find impressive (although they certainly are) but more the person I get to know. They have taught me honesty is always preferable to putting on airs. It not only makes for a better story, it makes for a better life.

I have been included in family birthday parties and been a guest at a black-tie hunt ball in New York City (floor length gown and all) with Ben Hardaway. I’ve gone grocery shopping with and had dinner cooked for me by Chester Weber. I ate a delicious meal of elk (a first for me) felled by the husband of the Jt.-MFH of Big Sky Hounds in Montana and attended a farm to table opening hunt dinner (complete with singing) with Lynn Lloyd of Red Rock Hounds of Reno. The list of generosities extended to me over the past three years goes on and on.

Mostly, these are intense relationships lasting a month or so until the story is published. When our collaboration ends, we all go on our way, maybe now linked by being “friends” on Facebook.

Occasionally, a connection is mutually felt, and an old-school, offline friendship develops. This has been one of the greatest unexpected joys of my job.

Kathy Kusner is one such example. I flew out to California to interview her last winter for a Living Legend feature, and we spent 12 hours together laughing and talking. Anyone who has crossed paths with Kathy knows she makes friends easily. She is inquisitive about everything and everyone.

Despite having very different lives—I am a 46-year-old art historian turned writer and mother of three sons, whereas Kathy, 75, is a three-time Olympian, the first female pilot hired to fly a Lear Jet, the first licensed female jockey, a philanthropist who started Horses in the Hood, an ultra marathon runner, etc.—we connected and often talked about getting together again.

A sad occasion, the death of equestrian legend Frank Chapot, offered a silver lining. The memorial took place at the U.S. Equestrian Team Headquarters in Gladstone, 20 minutes from my home in New Jersey, and Kathy wanted to stay with my (often crazy) family (did I mention we recently got a puppy?). But remember, she’s fearless.

Logan, 15, my oldest son, helped me tidy up his room for her visit. We re-taped slipping posters, cleared the hockey trophies off the top of the dresser, straightened the books on his shelves, and bought fresh flowers for the bedside table in the hopes of drowning out the smell of teenage boy (eh, it’s was an ambitious feat for a small bunch of flowers).

I picked up a happily waving Kathy from the Newark airport, and the boys (my other two are Grady, 11 and Beckett, 10) came out to help carry in her bags. They asked me beforehand if they could ask for her autograph (sure) and if they could tell their friends an Olympian stayed at their house (why not?). But honestly (and to my sadness), they don’t care a bit about horses.


Kathy Kusner (right) and my family.

What did interest them was Kathy’s flying, and she patiently answered the questions they peppered her with. And she asked them just as many. It was an interesting flip, to sit back and watch my children interact with Kathy. I am usually the one visiting and observing someone else’s life, and here I was, sharing my own.

We walked to town for dinner, and my husband indulged Kathy’s request to scoop algae out of our local pond—sorry, not algae, duck weed—something Kathy educated us on (she really is interested in everything). We learned it is because as a child her first and non-wavering obsession was horses, but that seemed like an impossible dream, born to a non-horsey family, so she spent her days roaming the woods and fields collecting critters—snakes, etc., and her father would build her terrariums where she lovingly recreated their habitats using, yes, duck weed.


Kathy fishing some duck weed out as my husband watches.

The next day, after shuttling the boys to their various schools, we drove through the rain to Gladstone hours before the memorial was to begin.

We retraced the steps from the barn to the indoor where Kathy trained with the team and found the small upstairs bedroom room where she once slept. History surrounded us, hers and the country’s. Framed posters lined the walls, oil paintings of equine stars, like Touch of Class, and faded photos of smiling men and women on podiums looked out at us.


Kathy (left) with (from left) Bill Steinkraus, McLain Ward and George Morris. 

As the guests arrived to take part in a moving tribute—an incredible array of who’s who in the equestrian world from Bill Steinkraus and George Morris to Beezie Madden and McLain Ward—I watched Kathy flit from person to person, often reaching back to grab my hand and drag me into the conversation, reacquainting me with the few I knew and many others I did not. Not once, however, did she introduce me as a writer from The Chronicle of the Horse but simply as “Jennifer Calder, my friend.”

I knew, when I accepted this position, it would offer interesting, creatively fulfilling work. I did not anticipate the personal connections I would make (including my colleagues) nor that many of the people I interviewed would influence the way I want to live my life.

Jennifer grew up in Michigan with a mother who had horses as a child (barrel racing) and shared her love of them with her daughter. After getting a masters in art history and enjoying a career in the New York City art world (where she rode at Claremont Stables near Central Park), she decided to stay home with her three boys until they were all in school and then picked up riding again. 

Wanting to combine her passion for writing with her passion for riding, she began to freelance for the Chronicle. She now writes full time for the magazine from her home in New Jersey, conveniently located between New York City and the gorgeous New Jersey horse country with her husband, three young sons, dog, a parakeet and two hamsters. And hopefully a horse of her own soon. 

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