A few good books and a brave horse have helped Kelly Sult reach the upper echelon of the eventing world at the young age of 21—all without any professional coaching or training and on a shoestring budget.
Growing up in Erie, Pa., in the northwest corner of the state, Sult didn’t have much exposure to eventing trainers. She gained most of her riding instruction through Pony Club clinics and her father, Mark, who coached her from the ground. Mark, a truck driver, has no riding experience but reads training books and manuals and helps Sult through the information gleaned from authors such as Jimmy Wofford and Sally O’Connor.
“He’d just read the books and put them into my language, and that’s how we went,” Sult said. “We didn’t have all that much money to send me anywhere, so basically my dad, my family, my sister and I tried to do as much as we could. We put all of our skills together, and that got me where I went.”
Not A Hand-Me-Down
By the time Sult was born, her older sister, Michele, was already an avid rider. So, at the age of 2, Sult started following in her footsteps. The girls shared several ponies and horses, with Sult getting the hand-me-downs as Michele grew out of them.
“I wanted to be just like her when I was younger,” Sult said. As Michele outgrew ponies, and eventually horses, Sult inherited them.
Sult spent a fair amount of time in Pony Club, beginning at age 5, and achieved her C-3 rating by the time she decided to give it up at age 16. She gained some competition experience through games, show jumping and dressage rallies, but most importantly, she said that it gave her a solid flatwork and jumping background. Additionally, Sult said that Pony Club taught her the responsibilities of having horses and the importance of horse management.
When she was 14, Sult just happened to find Hollywood.
Then 8, “Reggie” was a racetrack reject who had failed at alternative careers. “They tried to make him into an A circuit hunter. He wasn’t exactly up for that,” Sult said. “He bucked the trainer off several times. So, they took him to a western barn, and they said he was crazy. The girl who owned him did nothing but lunge him for an hour and a half, and that’s all they’d do with him.”
Reggie had found his way to the same boarding barn where Sult rode. Since Sult frequently rode other horses in the barn, one day she found herself on Reggie. “He had been sitting around for several months, but we kind of clicked together. I had to sell the other horse I had to get him,” she explained.
Sult took Reggie to a Pony Club camp during a trial period. “We heard all these horror stories about how he was, so we put in a kind of strong bit. He’d run straight to the fence and then gallop off bucking afterward,” she recalled.
After consulting with her father and sister, Sult tried the opposite approach by using a Happy Mouth snaffle, and she found she had a new horse. Until the pair started competing at the advanced level, Reggie went in a Happy Mouth. He now goes in a Dr. Bristol.
Finding Their Way
Sult and Reggie’s eventing career didn’t get off to an impressive start—they met elimination at the water at their first novice event, the Erie Hunt & Saddle Club Horse Trials (Pa.). But Reggie’s fear of getting his feet wet didn’t last long. They had one stop at the water at their next event at South Farm (Ohio), and then they won on their third trip out at Stonegate Farm (Ohio).
By 2005, they were winning at preliminary level and then placed third in their first intermediate event, Champagne Run at the Park (Ky.). In 2006, they won at both the preliminary and intermediate levels. In August of 2007, Sult and Reggie helped Area VIII claim the silver medal in the CN North American Junior and Young Riders Championships CCI** (Va.), where they also placed sixth individually.
The month before the NAJYRC, they completed their first advanced-level horse trials, placing fifth at the Maui Jim Horse Trials (Ill.). As preparation for Fair Hill in the fall, they won an intermediate division at Erie Hunt & Saddle Club and placed 11th at the CIC*** at Richland Park (Mich.).
Sult has developed her own style with Reggie. “We both kind of back each other up: when he tells me he wants me to leave him alone, I do,” she said. “I don’t mess around with him and try to be perfect to everything. When he goes to a jump, he wants to be left alone. I just have to be sure I’m there to guide him through and then let him go.”
Like numerous event horses, Reggie’s weakest phase is dressage.
“He does not like dressage, which I can’t say I blame him!” she joked. “He’s fine when we go warm up for dressage, and he’s fine if I go a couple days beforehand and ride him in the dressage ring. But as soon as we go around the outside [of the ring], I can feel him getting nervous and he’s nervous in the ring. He’s complicated to figure out in dressage.”
Hepp thinks that Sult will be able to solve some of those problems. “She takes instruction really well, and she’s game to try new things. I think she’ll find that as she gets more training, the dressage and other technicalities will come together a little better for her,” Hepp said.
“She’s such a capable rider,” said Nell Hardy, a fellow Erie eventer and owner of a few horses Sult has trained. “She’s got so much talent mixed with humility, and I think you don’t see that very often. And she has absolutely no fear—whether it’s her age or her talent, she goes out there and gets the job done.”
For Sult, her relationship with Reggie has more than filled any holes in their unconventional education.
“He’s basically my best friend. We kind of know what each other is thinking when we go to an event. He tells me, and I think I understand what he wants,” Sult said.
“We probably know each other better than anyone I know or who knows me. We get along extremely well, whereas my sister rides him, and they don’t get along very well.”
While Sult said that there isn’t anything in particular on cross-country that fazes her or Reggie anymore, her fellow competitors have a tendency to intimidate her.
“When I first get there, I see all these top riders—Karen O’Connor, Darren Chiacchia, Phillip Dutton. But when I’m riding, we don’t think about any of that stuff. We just think about what we came there to do and what we’ve worked so hard for at home,” she said.
Making a name in any sport is tough, especially in the equestrian world. Sult has managed to defy the financial gap.
“It does surprise me [I’ve come so far] with limited resources,” she said. “When I go to the events and see people camping out in RVs with big screen TVs, on horses that [a professional] has trained, I’m like ‘Oh boy.’ But, once we get going, I know that my horse is on the same level, if not better. When we go to events, he puts on a straight game face and is all about business.”
At competitions, Sult’s father is usually around for moral support and eyes on the ground in the warm-up. Father and daughter have honed their system together, and it works for them.
“In dressage, I warm myself up. But when it came to cross-country, my dad would be out there helping me with the jumps. He gives me some advice. He walks courses with me. Sometimes, we’d walk them four times. We’d discuss each jump and which way I’d go. If we had differences, we’d put things in a different perspective and come up with a route we agreed on,” she said.
While their method of training has been successful to date, Sult will train this spring with Jon Holling in Ocala, Fla. She was chosen to participate in the USEF Developing Riders program in Florida, and she was the recipient of a $5,000 Beacon Charm Grant through the U.S. Eventing Association that will help offset expenses.
“My dad and I have been doing an awesome job. We probably could keep going, but it’s hard at this level. I haven’t been doing advanced for very long—the judges want it done a certain way. I just wanted to work with someone who’s been there, done it, knows exactly what they want and can help me succeed in giving them what they want,” Sult explained.
Sult has a few lower-level horses she’s bringing up through the ranks for owners. She also gets lots of extra time in the saddle, as she exercises race horses and breaks and trains 2-year-olds.
“It’s clear how hard she’s worked to get where she is,” said Hepp. “In being a professional, the key is dedication and hard work. She’s proven that she can do that.”
Credit: The Chronicle of the Horse, Chrissy Lane