As a teenager, Cathleen Driscoll didn’t have a regular trainer. Instead, the aspiring jumper rider would sign up for clinics, study videos of the best riders at the biggest shows, and spend some of her competition time hanging around the schooling ring, listening in on the advice trainers and riders shared with each other.
Everything she could absorb she’d take to the barn to help train her green Thoroughbred, and while she says in hindsight that she made plenty of mistakes, she was able to forge her largely self-taught way from fresh off the track to the 1.30-meter jumpers with the young mare.
Since then, Driscoll’s come a long way. She and Plain Bay Farm’s Dame De Pique, an 11-year-old Holsteiner mare (Casall—Wilma XVIII, Crawford 5), clinched their first FEI grand prix win July 17 in the $73,800 CSI2* Grand Prix at the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival in Traverse City, Michigan. And just days before, Driscoll also topped the $37,000 CSI2* Welcome Stake on July 15 aboard Plain Bay Farm’s Magnolia (Mylord Carthago—Dena-Sienne, Van Gogh), a 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare.
Driscoll, 29, and “Dame,” who stands at an Amazonian 18-plus hands, have been together for less than a year and have already found success in some impressive company. The pair took fourth place in the $30,000 American Standard Grand Prix at the Upperville Colt and Horse Show (Virginia) in June, and they won two large classes at 1.40 and 1.45 meters in February at the Winter Equestrian Festival (Florida).
We caught up with Driscoll, the 2018 Lindsay Maxwell Charitable Fund/USHJA Emerging Athletes Program winner, to ask her more about her unconventional background and what’s next for her and Dame.
How did you get into riding? And how did you come to teach yourself?
I’m the youngest of three; I have two older sisters. They both rode before me at the local level, so I got into it at a pretty young age. I was 5 and seeing them ride, being at the barn, and just immediately, I was hooked. I knew from a very young age that this was going to be my career in some shape or another.
Growing up in Maryland, I competed mostly on the local hunter/jumper circuit and dabbled in eventing up through the preliminary level.
When I was about 15, I switched over the jumpers. It was a decision I made from the standpoint that I felt like I had a more competitive shot with jumpers than with hunters. I didn’t have the financial backing to have competitive hunters. So I started the jumpers on a 4-year-old, off-the-track Thoroughbred that I got out of a field—I thought she looked attractive—and that’s how I got my start. At the time, I didn’t really have a trainer, and I didn’t know who to work with. So I brought the mare up through the levels on my own, up through the 1.30-meter jumpers.
And at that point, I was hooked on the jumpers.
I’d go to clinics, watch videos and I would go to the schooling rings and watch the trainers, coaches, students from the side. And I just tried to pick up and absorb every piece of information that I could, and then filter it back into my own riding and my own training as it felt necessary and correct.
I’ve always been a pretty ambitious and independent person. So bringing myself along and bringing the horse along at the same time wasn’t really as intimidating as you might expect it to be. And for sure I was doing a lot of things wrong at the time, in hindsight.
But I really, strongly believe that everything has a way of working itself out in the end, and I feel like that path allowed me to be able to go to horse shows that I might not have otherwise been able to afford had I been at a more expensive barn with a trainer. That experience gave me the connections to end up where I am today.
You won the Emerging Athletes Program in 2018. Would you recommend the EAP to other young riders?
Yes, I cannot speak highly enough about the Emerging Athletes Program. I think it’s such an integral program. I’m so glad that the USHJA came up with it, and that they’re continuing to support it and develop it.
I think there is a big disconnect in this country, especially between riders at the grassroots level, the introductory level to the sport, and bridging that gap into the top level, and into FEI international competition. For me personally, [EAP] was a huge part of how I am having the success I have these days. I absolutely recommend it to any young riders looking for an opportunity.
The program touts itself as opening eyes and opening doors, and that is absolutely what it did for me and what I hope it can do for riders in future generations.
Have you found other areas in life where you’ve enjoyed teaching yourself new things?
I would say I’m really a self-starter in a lot of ways, and I’m not afraid to kind of grab the bull by the horns and jump in headfirst. That’s most prevalent with my riding.
But I dabble a little bit in golf. And other sports, and I’ve always been very comfortable and confident and learning on my own and taking risks in that way.
What was your game plan like coming into the ring with Dame for the $73,800 Grand Prix? What were your goals for the day?
I’d already had a stellar week. I have two FEI horses, Dame and Magnolia. Magnolia won the Welcome [Stakes] on Thursday, and she’s quite the opposite type. She’s a little smaller-strided and a very hot, very aggressive mare. And I went first on her in the grand prix, actually. So switching from her to Dame, it’s a very different game plan and a very different strategy. Dame is a very large mare; I think she sticks 18.1—our 18-hand measuring stick is too short!
So with a horse as big as her, I really have to use her strengths to my advantage. She has a very big stride, very big scope, so going in for the first round, I knew I had to be a little bit mindful of the time allowed. But she’s very careful, very willing. She jumped around beautifully, and the jump-off actually suited her quite well. There were a lot of long gallops and places where I could leave out strides. I was able to do one less stride from the first to the second fence in the jump-off, and one less stride to the last fence. When I can keep her on a gallop, she can be competitive with the best of them, even the smaller speed horses.
You work for Katie and Henri Prudent of Plain Bay Farm in Wellington, Florida, and Rosières-Aux-Salines, France. How did you meet them, and what is your role at the farm?
It was in early 2019, after I’d been through the EAP. One of the clinicians, Colleen Reed, really helped me a lot throughout that year, and she later saw Katie on the West Coast when they were both clinicians for the USHJA Gold Star clinics. Colleen told Katie, “Hey, I really think this girl might suit your program,” and Colleen came back to me and said, “OK, I have it set up. Go ahead and give Katie a call.” And I met with Katie later that season in Florida.
I came into their program as a groom that spring and just progressed through the levels. I started doing some of the sales horses and helping out with lessons with clients.
Within the last year and a half or so, I’ve really stepped up into the head trainer and rider role, and the last year especially has just been unbelievable for me. I actually jumped my first grand prix just over a year ago.
I have an unbelievable string of horses right now. I’m so grateful to the Prudents; they’ve really believed in me from the start—maybe before I believed in myself enough. I’m so excited for this success for them, and for our whole team to start seeing the results after they’ve put so much time and effort into me.
You and Dame have been competing together for about six months. What’s she like to ride?
We stepped up to FEI level at the end of [the Florida circuit], and she’s a horse I’m very excited about for the future. I think she has the potential to jump some very large classes. So I’ve just been taking my time really getting to know her—figuring out the ride [because] she’s a little bit of a more difficult ride for me, being as big as she is. So I’m taking advantage of this time now at the two-star level and the three-star level to really get a good partnership with her, figure out the gears a little bit, and then I’m looking forward to this fall. We’ll be heading off to Europe shortly, and I’m looking forward to continuing to move her up the levels.
What are your goals for the rest of the year? Long-term?
We’ll be in Traverse City [Michigan] for the next two weeks for the two and three-star competitions. After that, we’re going to head over to Europe. We are based at the Prudents’ farm in Rosières, France, for the remainder of the fall.
My goal for the end of the year is to try and get on to the CSIO3* teams. Looking forward from there, I’m really anxious to get on these senior teams and move up through the four-star, five-stars and ultimately, you know, team championships.
Do you have any advice for young people who want to take a similar career path?
This career path is something that I would say I didn’t have a lot of foresight, I just knew in my heart that it’s what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it.
And I think for any young riders that have that same ambition and drive, you know, you back it up with hard work, and I really feel like opportunity follows hard work, and if you are devoted enough and put in the time and put in the effort, opportunity will find you.