Twenty-eight years ago, I attended a baby shower for Susan Sullivan, as she was expecting her first child. Susan and I were part of Central Coast Equestrian Team and had the same Eventing coach. I have fond memories of our weekly summer evening jumping sessions with our friends and our coach, Brian Sabo.
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Susan was two life-steps ahead of me at the time; I was finishing college and looking toward my first career job, and she was married and expecting her first child. Yet, we shared the same love and passion for horses, and enjoyed the same people who were in our eventing circle.
As it happens in life, we lost touch as our lives went different directions. However, we recently reconnected over the phone, as I called to get her story regarding her recent success in the Dressage arena with her horse “Tattletail”. During this phone conversation, we found more than horses as common ground; we both have said goodbye to parents in the last few years and we both found a way to keep riding our horses through motherhood . . . and through life.
Transitioning from Eventing to Dressage
Susan, an Atascadero resident, continued to event and only recently focused solely on Dressage. “We are Eventers, Tattles and I,” Susan explained. “However, we’re coming up on our two-year anniversary of a bad fall on cross-country. My horse had a complicated injury, and so did I. We both just rested for about four months after the accident.”
“My horse healed, and so did I, although my left leg is weaker now. I brought her back slowly. We decided I was not going to jump anymore, so I started back in Dressage, where we left off in Third Level,” Susan continued.
“I wanted to prove to myself and others that she was okay and I was okay, so we started preparing for Fourth Level Dressage. My Tattles is just a gem. She is a miracle,” Susan gushed.
Susan and Tattletail were Fourth Level Reserve Champions at the recent RAAC (Regional Adult Amateur Championships) held at the Paso Robles Horse Park and hosted by our local SLO California Dressage Society. Susan is also fresh from the DASC (Dressage Association of Southern California) Championship, where the pair earned the Fourth Level Championship Title.
Dressage rider Hilda Gurney, an Olympic Bronze medalist (1976) and Pan Am Gold Medalist (1979), who celebrated her 73 birthday at the DASC show, inspired Susan through her dedication to the sport. Hilda shared the Fourth Level spotlight with Susan at the awards ceremony, as Hilda won the Open Division and Susan the Adult Amateur Division.
“Hilda rode six tests on Friday, seven on Saturday and five on Sunday. She had all the tests memorized. I have difficulty memorizing one!” exclaimed Susan. Hilda told Susan how to receive her award, “We’ll have a victory round with all the riders, then a lap by ourselves.” Susan then told her side of the experience, “Hilda was working the crowd and doing upper-level movements, while I was off in my corner just trying not to pass her!”
Making Horses Happen with a Family
Looking back at her years in the saddle, Susan realizes that it took choices and structure to continue riding while raising a family. “My friends at work told me I should consider getting rid of my horses when I had my two babies,” Susan recalls.
“But I said, ‘No, I can make this work. I didn’t sign up for a life without horses!’”
“I’m very structured for sure!” replied Susan. “You have to be structured and know what is expected and what is coming. If you don’t, how do you get anything done?”
How did Susan structure her life? “When the kids were small I also worked three to four days a week. I didn’t ride on those days so that I would be home when they were home. I purposely picked the events to show at based on having family nearby so the boys could hang-out with my mother (Ram Tap in Fresno) or sister (Woodside).”
Ron is a very supportive husband to Susan, but even with the boys gone, family still comes first. “I have more free time with my boys gone, but with work it’s still time management. Family, as always, comes first.”
Her babies are now grown men of 28 and 24 years old. “Looking back I realize it was a good thing to keep the horses, because it helped me keep my identity. Plus, I showed my boys I could be responsible, have a passion, do well and have fun!”
Hard Work and Riding Success
Susan has been riding and competing for most of her life; even when married, even with little boys and even with taking care of her aging mother. “You work hard and things go your way, but sometimes they don’t. It’s all part of life. I know my boys are telling their friends, this is what my mom does.”
It takes tenacity and a strong will to maintain and realize your dreams while also maintaining and focusing on a family. Many of us learn, as we grow, that horses bring focus to our lives but we have to make sacrifices to keep them going. All of the work and time pays off in the end.
An Inspiration to Others
Susan looks around her and sees mostly younger riders, especially with the Eventers and Jumpers. However, Dressage tends to draw more older women to be involved. She was competing at Shepherd Ranch Horse Trials a few years ago and won the Preliminary Division. Susan described an encounter she had there, “After winning, an older lady came up to me and grabbed my leg. ‘Excuse me,’ she said, ‘I have been watching you all weekend. You are an inspiration to me. I’m going to do this!’”
“I was speechless,” exclaimed Susan. “I couldn’t believe it. I guess you never know who is looking and who will be inspired.”
A final thought from Susan regarding riding through life, “Continue to believe in yourself and stay strong. I like to feel strong. I like being athletic, and that carries into every aspect of life. You see what happens when you get old. I don’t want to be saying ‘I wish I had…’, instead I want to be reasonable and go for it!”
Photos: Courtesy of Susan Sullivan
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