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Kusner, Kathy (1940—)

Kusner, Kathy (1940—)

American equestrian who was the first licensed female jockey. Born in Gainesville, Florida, on March 21, 1940.

Won the President's Cup, the New York championships, the Prix des Amazones, and the Irish Trophy; also competed on the U.S. Olympic team; was the first woman in ten years to join the U.S. equestrian team (1961); filed a sexual discrimination suit against the Maryland Racing Commission for refusing to give her a license as a jockey (1967), a case which she won.

Kathy Kusner's love of horses was unique in her family. She was raised in the fox-hunting states of Virginia and Maryland, so horses became a part of her landscape. Her father, a mathematician who worked for the government, was mystified by his daughter's obsession, but he believed she should pursue her interests. At age ten, given her own pony, Kusner cleaned stables and groomed horses to earn its keep. Riding lessons at Mrs. Dillon's Junior Equitation School and show and ring events soon became central to her life. Her high school years were spent riding, grooming, and training, as well as showing horses for dealers.

At 18, Kusner set a women's horse-jumping record of 7'3". In 1961, she was the first woman in ten years to join the U.S. equestrian team; equestrian competition is the only Olympic sport in which men and women compete against each other. At this point, Kusner was a leading international dressage rider, an event in which the rider controls the horse through precise movements. She had won most of the world's major prizes—the President's Cup in Washington, D.C., the New York championships in Madison Square Garden, the Prix des Amazones in Rotterdam, and the Irish Trophy in Dublin. Kusner rode on the American gold medal team in the 1963 Pan-American games and again in the 1964 Olympics. In 1966, she won the International Grand Prix in Dublin for the second time in a row. She and her horse, Untouchable, were the only rider and horse in the history of the Dublin Grand Prix to win the event back-to-back.

By 1967, Kathy Kusner was an equestrian of top rank in the world, but she could not ride on American racetracks. In 1943, Judy Johnson had been granted a license to ride in the Pimlico track steeplechase, but women had not been granted jockey licenses, effectively keeping them off the track. When the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 forbade discrimination on the basis of sex, race, national origin or religion, Kusner believed the act could pertain to racing. "Horse-riding is more a game of technique and skill than strength," she commented. "It's the same as playing chess with men, so I don't intend to give up the fight." In 1967, she applied to the Maryland Racing Commission for a jockey license and was turned down.

The battle went to court for a year. In the end, Judge Ernest A. Loveless ordered the Maryland Racing Commission to grant Kusner the jockey license that had been denied on the basis of sexual discrimination. Though she was the first woman to receive a license, she was not the first to race professionally. Because Kusner was sidelined for much of 1969 with a broken leg, Diane Crump rode into the history books at Hialeah on February 7, 1969. Kusner was victorious at Pocono Downs in September 1969. Continuing to compete as an amateur dressage rider, Kusner also won a silver medal in the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Women's proficiency on horseback is not a modern phenomenon. In the 20th century, women began to demand legal equality in an area in which they had long demonstrated their talent. Kathy Kusner raced for justice and won.

sources:

Hollander, Phyllis. 100 Greatest Women in Sports. NY: Grosset & Dunlap, 1976.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Karin L. Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia

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