Two weeks ago, on the closing night of the National Horse Show in New York's Madison Square Garden, the $2,500 open jumper championship ended in a tie for the first time in 79 years. The two horses and riders who were called back for a jump-off—the horse show equivalent of baseball's extra inning and hockey's sudden death—were Ben O'Meara on Jacks or Better and Kathy Kusner on Unusual. Ben O'Meara is considered one of the brightest young professionals on horseback. Kathy Kusner is a 22-year-old amateur.
As Jacks or Better and Unusual clomped back and forth over the dirt path leading to the ring on the main floor of the Garden awaiting the jump-off, four grooms gathered in a tack tent in the basement. Huddling over an olive blanket with the Boy Scout seal ("Be Prepared") in its center, each of the grooms threw down a $5 bill and a folded slip of paper. One groom picked up the $20 and began reading the pool slips. Suddenly he stopped and declared, "We ain't got no action. Everybody has picked her, and everybody says she goes clean."
When the jump-off was concluded, Kathy Kusner had indeed gone clean, sailing over each of the 12 jumps, ranging in height from 4 feet to 6 feet, faultlessly. She took her blue ribbon and returned to the Garden basement, which, during the National, serves as a combination paddock, corral, tack room and hotel. Before accepting congratulations she jumped onto an equipment trunk and pinned the ribbon to the border of a canvas curtain that was already lined with 13 other ribbons. She stepped back, looked at them and a bright smile crossed her face.
Kathy Kusner is one of three young horsewomen whose smiles—and exceptional talents—have brightened the horse show circuit this fall. Along with 18-year-old Mary Mairs (it rhymes with stars and not with stairs) and a 20-year-old Canadian girl, Gail Ross, she has captured the attention of horse show patrons, as well as some of the headlines, in Harrisburg, Washington, New York and, just last week, in Toronto.
By the time the equestrian events begin at the 1964 Olympics, there is a good chance that either Miss Mairs or Miss Kusner will be representing the U.S. and a certainty that Miss Ross will be jumping against her for Canada.
In a sport which so often appeals to club members, social pretenders, white-on-whiters and backbiters, Kathy Kusner is the most discussed of all the riders. In Washington, while still suffering from bruises incurred in a fall, she won a double jump-off to take the President's Cup.
It is this sort of performance that is doing much to change the traditional attitude of the horse show hierarchy. Through the years horse shows seem to have played down the importance of the riders, an attitude that is hardly shared by the general public. At the majority of shows, for instance, the programs do not even list the riders' names.
"One of the things which the horse show has long needed to do," says 38-year-old Jim Thomas, the youngest president the National has ever had, "is get interest away from the socialites who sit in the box seats and get the people to take an interest in the competition in the ring." With these three girls, Thomas—and other horse show officials as well—now have something tangible and attractive to sell. "It's high time," Thomas says, "that we began to make this a more popular spectator sport."
Kathy Kusner is a short, attractive brunette from Arlington, Va. There are a few who say she is a true mechanic—as perfect on a jumper as a rider can be—but there are many who say she is as warm, personally, as a machine. One critic has described her as "a circle with the rims removed," but others feel she is as full of talent as any girl rider they have ever seen.
She holds the women's record for a high jump, 7 feet 3 inches, which she set when she was 18, just before graduating from Washington-Lee High School. "I want to ride forever," she has said. Currently Kathy is an alternate on the United States Equestrian Team, and her ambition is to ride for her country in Tokyo. Her ability can easily take her there, but her coolness may well make her less than welcome on a team whose members must live close together for many weeks and, ultimately, depend on each other to pile up a winning score. Many people who have met Kathy find that she exudes an aloofness that surpasses mere rudeness. Once, after promising days in advance to appear on a television show, Free and Easy, on Toronto's CFTO-TV, Kathy decided at the last minute not to go on at all, leaving the show short one guest and with a lot of empty air time to fill.