Meet International Driving Horse Champion Suzy Stafford
She grew up in Bear, Del.
This morning, Hunny—natural beauty and athletic ability notwithstanding—is undergoing a total-body haircut as part of her grooming before a competition at Katydid Farm in South Carolina. It’s difficult to know who’s more famous—the horse or the driver who trains her. In 2015, Hunny was named the International Horse of the Year by the United States Equestrian Federation. Stafford, meanwhile, has been winning international driving medals since 2004. Last year, she took second in dressage at the International Federation for Equestrian Sports World Single Driving Horse Championships, held in Austria. As with most equestrian competition, a partnership of horse and driver is crucial—and together Stafford and Hunny are just about unstoppable.
In any sport, it’s hard to beat someone who is both talented and competitively hungry. Athletes often have one of these attributes, but only the great ones have both. Stafford has both, and she has the international trophies and medals to prove it.
Growing up in Bear, she says, “I wasn’t much into sports and didn’t like what the school had to offer. But I had a friend who had a horse, so I told my mom I’d like to try that.”
Her family didn’t have an equestrian background, as so many local competitors do. But her mother decided to let her 13-year-old daughter take riding lessons.
After a year, Stafford’s parents bought her a horse. “That commitment pushes you along,” she says.
Not that Stafford needed much pushing. She joined the Middletown Pony Club and soon was training with legendary instructor Lana DuPont Wright, a member of the U.S. Eventing Association Hall of Fame.
If the rules of equestrian competition are as foreign to you as the fine points of cricket, let’s just say that eventing has been called a triathlon on horseback. As with most equestrian events, it’s not just a matter of how good the rider is, because the horse is perhaps more important than the person in the saddle. To be successful, horse and rider need years of training together.
Soon Stafford was competing nationally in pony club eventing. On the side, she had the job of helping to train students. One day in 1997, Stafford was getting ready to mount a horse that was giving her student difficulty—an old horse just purchased by the stable—and the animal fell back on Stafford, crushing her leg. “They put the ankle back together, and I was expected to be back to normal in six weeks,” she says.
When the ankle failed to respond, she discovered that the cartilage had died. “So I had to have it fused, and I limped around for a long time.”
Stafford was not only competitive, but stubborn. “I had just bought an eventing horse, and we’d taken part in only a couple of competitions,” she says. “He was my move-up [in competition] horse.”
Finally, Stafford had to admit to herself that her competitive riding career was over at a young age. “I could only be a mediocre rider,” she says. “And I don’t like being mediocre.”
But she wasn’t through with horses, not just yet. Stafford figured if she couldn’t ride sitting up, why not try sitting down? That’s when she visited Lisa Singer. One of the best-known trainers of carriage driving and a national champion, Singer has a training facility in Chadds Ford. “Within two weeks, I had purchased a starter kit of a pony, a harness and a cart,” Stafford says. “After all, competing with a carriage is similar to eventing.”
After taking lessons for six months, she started working with Singer as a trainer. Their alliance lasted for 10 years. Everyone knew that Stafford had arrived when she became the first American individual gold medalist in a world championship at the 2005 FEI World Pony Driving Championship in England. The same year, she was named 2005 Driver of the Year by The Chronicle of the Horse.
Since then, Stafford has collected dozens of awards. She’s a six-time national champion, winner of the 2007 team bronze medal for the United States in the Driving World Championships in Denmark, a 2009 individual bronze medalist for the U.S. in the Driving World Championships in Germany, and U.S. winner of the 2011 individual silver medal at the Driving World Championships in Slovenia.
Germany and the Netherlands are generally the top nations in world championship competitions. “Carriage driving is huge in Europe,” Stafford says. “It’s even shown on television.”
Now, Stafford instructs the woman giving Hunny a haircut from head to hoof not to clip deep inside her ears. Stafford has also done winter training in Florida for the past five years. At any time, she may have 12 to 20 horses and/or students to train. Training a horse for top competition takes years. “For horses, about seven to 12 years old are the peak years,” she says.
Without a trace of a limp, Stafford strides toward the carriage barn with her two dogs—Astro, a Lurcher, and Nova, a Dalmatian—at her heels. Hunny, she says, is now working to win a spot in the 2018 world championship. Carriaging is expensive, and there’s minimal prize money. So many of the competitors are also well-to-do recreational drivers. “The average driver is 50 years or older, so I’m still one of the younger drivers,” says Stafford with her trademark bright smile. “In competition, you may have people in their 20s going up against those in their 60s or 70s.”
As she walks among her half-dozen vehicles, Stafford explains that there are basically two kinds of carriages used in competition. One is the marathon carriage for cross-country driving, with a navigator seated at the back for balance and to keep the driver on the course. The other is the presentation carriage—somewhat more elegant and with a shorterturning radius—used for dressage. A beginner’s wood cart can be purchased for around $2,000; a metal one runs $5,000. New carriages for major competitions start at around $15,000.
A few days after our fall interview, Stafford would shift operations to Florida, which means transporting 12 to 15 horses south. “Some owners will ship their own,” she says.
Occasionally, Stafford will hire a shipper. But mainly she gets behind the wheel of a truck herself with four horses in a van behind her. With competitions to attend about every other week, there really is no down time for Stafford, either as a competitor or a trainer.
The competitor in Stafford likes it that way.