Renaissance Woman Kathy Kusner brings Hope through Horses
It is said that pound for pound, jockeys are physically the strongest athletes in the world. Former jockey Kathy Kusner is no exception, but her inner strength far exceeds her frame. In addition to being the first licensed female jockey in the United States, Kusner is a three time Olympian, ultra-marathoner, and a humble humanitarian. In 1999 she founded Horses in the Hood Los Angeles (HHLA), through which over 500 at-risk kids from the inner cities of Watts, Compton, and South Central Los Angeles have had the opportunity to attend 46 horseback riding camps. Their experiences with horses have literally changed their lives.
Kusner grew up in segregated Arlington, VA where in her early career she served as a groom during a time when most of her colleagues were black men. “They were great riders and horsemen, but they could not participate in prominent horse shows. In fact, when we went to horse shows, I would go into restaurants with everyone’s order and we would eat outside because they couldn’t eat inside,” she recalled. Kusner, on the other hand, was able to participate in “colored” horse shows, which she describes as amazing events with beautiful horses and fantastic riders— and notable hospitality. “Everyone was so welcoming,” she said.
As her career progressed, Kusner overcame walls of all kinds. She broke the gender barrier as a jockey in 1968 as well as jumped 7-foot fences aboard the famed Aberali in Aachen, Germany. A decade later Kusner relocated to Los Angeles, where she connected with another passion – running. She became a member of the black running club the Renaissance Runners. “At this point, everything was legally integrated, and a running colleague asked me why there weren’t any African Americans on any of the Olympic equestrian teams,” she said. “It was a rhetorical question, but that really got me going.”
At first, Kusner wanted to start a riding school in Watts. While still a distant goal, the funds for that kind of multi-million dollar facility have not yet materialized. “What we wanted, ideally, was to have a place where kids could come after school, in their neighborhood.” But without a facility that was not attainable. “So we decided on a camp structure because those stables are already set up and equipped.”
In 1999 Kusner finally was able to get the first camp up and running. To spread the word she made personal contact with programs that dealt with kids at risk in Watts and Compton. One such program is Maryvale, a group home for girls who are wards of the state, girls who have suffered all kinds of physical and emotional abuse.
Once a camp is set up at the participating stable — usually Mill Creek Stable in Topanga where, according to Kusner, they run a wonderful school with quiet and nurturing horses — kids are bussed from Watts to Topanga along the coastal Pacific Coast Highway. For many, it’s the first time out of their inner city environments and the first they have seen the ocean. On day one of the five day camp participants go from having never seen a horse, to learning how to groom, tack, mount, and position themselves on horseback. “It is amazing how quickly they learn!” Kusner said. “At the end of the day, many are posting and steering themselves.” Camp progresses over the five days with riding lessons in the morning and presentations from veterinarians, farriers, or trainers at lunchtime, providing an education in horsemanship. Campers then tack up again in the afternoon and demonstrate what they have learned. Within this short time frame, they learn to walk, trot, post, canter, steer and even go over cavalletti.
In addition to the invaluable lessons learned on horseback, HHLA also provides each camper with a book called Happy Horsemanship and a disposable camera to capture the memories. On the final day of camp everyone celebrates with a pizza party, including parents organizing transport to the stable where they are able to watch their children ride, a concept that was previously unfathomable.
Kusner hopes these inspiring outings stimulate individuals and ultimately create change in the dynamic of the entire community. “We focus on Watts and Compton, the areas that are the most troubled and the most needy,” she said. ”My wish is that in seeing the ocean, learning to ride horses and then knowing what kind of progress they have made in just five days creates a huge jump in potential for these kids. That should put some dreams at work. Maybe they will want to do better in school and accomplish something outside of their communities, which are largely gang run.”
It becomes blatantly clear after speaking to Kusner that for all her athletic abilities and accolades, her heart is even more exceptional.
Want to help? Horses in the Hood is currently looking for transportation, chaperones, and funds for camps. For more information, call 323-564-7669, or visit www.horsesinthehood.org.