by Marcella Peyre-Ferry
The southeastern corner of Pennsylvania is home to some of the world's best combined training riders, including the US Eventing Association's Lady Rider of the Year for 2008, Sarah "Sally" Cousins.
Sally, (maiden name Hoey) started riding at the age of five. She showed ponies in the hunter divisions and fox hunted. She was a member of the Pickering Hunt Pony Club when her family lived in Chester Springs, PA and later the Lanchester Pony Club when her family moved to their farm in Oxford, PA. It was in Pony Club that she was introduced to eventing, and her love of the sport began.
"Back then it was the focus of Pony Club. I liked it from the start," Cousins said.
Her work as a young rider was good preparation for Cousins' successful rise in the ranks of eventing. "It does help to have a good junior career," she said.
Living in the heart of eventing country, among the top riders in the sport, has also helped Cousins progress. She has drawn from her own lessons with eventers Mike Plumb, Bruce Davidson and Torrance Watkins. "Because I believe in drawing on other disciplines' strengths, I have also ridden with Frank Chapot, Anne Kursinski, and George Morris. My dressage training has been with Gunnar Ostergaard, Donnan Sharp, and Scott Hassler," she reports on her Web site.
As a teenager, she completed her first three-day event at Radnor, and her talent in eventing was already apparent. She moved steadily up the levels and traveled to England to compete at Badminton and Brughley when she was just 20 years old. While there, she bought Strike-A-Light, the horse she rode at Badminton in the spring of 1986 before returning home to work as a stockbroker at Merrill Lynch.
As an amateur she won the 1991 Essex Three-Day with Castle Cay and that same year married Nat Cousins. "We work together and he also events at the training level," she said.
Competing at the top levels of eventing while working full time is a challenge, but Sally managed both successfully until deciding to devote herself to the career she loves most – riding.
"It's neat. I get to make a living doing what I would do for free," Cousins said. "It's a lot easier now. I have such admiration for the people who work and event."
In 2005 Cousins left Merrill Lynch and purchased property in Aiken, SC so she could compete and teach there during the winter months, while retaining her home base in Oxford, PA the remainder of the year.
Cousins has a strong following of students in Pennsylvania, and some of them follow her south in the winter. "I teach mostly adult amateurs. A lot of them will come to our place in Aiken as a vacation. It breaks up the winter," she said.
In her teaching, safety is always one of her main concerns. "I always keep in mind that if everyone has come back in one piece it has not been a bad day. From there, however, confidence and competence of the horse and rider come next. I do think that both of these things need to go hand in hand. It is no good if someone is confident without the skill to support it. I also teach a lot of riders who are quite capable but not overly confident. I work with each partnership to try to close that gap," she explains on her Web site.
She trains both horses and riders and helps riders choose appropriate events and the level to enter. " I get a thrill helping to solve a problem and enjoy seeing the progress. It doesn't get any better than to be a part of a horse and rider (team)," she said.
Cousins has students competing at the advanced level as well as some that are competitive at the two star level.
Her experience in the business world has helped her make a success of the equestrian business. "That really stood me in good stead. I think that had I gone right from riding into doing it, I would not have been as successful," she explained about taking her time making the switch from amateur rider to professional. "I was just afraid to do it because I'd seen so many people struggling in the equestrian business."
Ranked among the top ten riders on the US Eventing Leaderboard for the last six years, in both 2007 and ‘08 she finished the year ranked third overall. She has now added the title of USEA Lady Rider of the Year for 2008 to her long list of accomplishments, with expectations for even better results to come.
Some of the highlights from Cousin's 2008 season were a first place finish for The Robber Baron at the Advanced level at Plantation Field's Horse Trials, and a third place finish at the Bromont CCI Three-Star in Canada on Tsunami. Throughout the year, Cousin's horses regularly finished in the top three, and rarely placed out of the ribbons.
Cousin's current top horse, The Robber Barron, known as Robbie, is an ex-racehorse from Maryland. "He's a funny, nondescript bay gelding," she describes him. "He really reads the jumps well."
Tsunami is a new horse for Cousins this past year. "She is a big huge mare. She's very opinionated and like things her way."
Cousins is leaving her options open for 2009. "I haven't really decided whether to take Robbie to Rolex," she said. "He's done two three stars well, so it would be a likely progression."