Anne Kursinski’s Journey from
Horse-Crazy Kid to Five-Time Olympian
By Lauren R. Giannini
Anne Kursinski has literally jumped through life. Like many kids, she grew up horse-crazy, dreaming that someday she’d ride in the Olympics. Unlike most kids, Anne lived her dream — not once, but five times — and earned two team Silver Olympic medals.
Competing at that level demands talent, wholehearted dedication and determination as well as great horses and coaches. Anne considers herself very lucky. It all began in her childhood when she became a student of the late legendary horseman Jimmy A. Williams, renowned for producing champions, equine and human.
“Riding has always been my life. I just love horses and riding,” said Anne. “I was 4 when I started taking beginner lessons at Flintridge Riding Club in California. After I had worked through the other instructors, it was time to graduate to Jimmy and that was a really big deal. Jimmy was like George Morris. I was only 11, still quite young. It was so exciting. To get to ride with Jimmy Williams was like riding with God.”
With Jimmy’s encouragement, Anne moved to the East Coast to train with another legendary horseman, George Morris. The five-time Olympian is one of the U.S.A.’s most accomplished show jumpers. Her career highlights include team Silver medals earned at Seoul in 1988 and Atlanta in 1996. She was leading female rider at the 1991 World Cup in Gothenberg, Sweden, and at Aachen she became the second female rider and third American to win the prestigious Grand Prix. Also in 1991, the U.S. Olympic Committee named her the female equestrian athlete of the year and she was ranked number-one female and number-one American show jumper rider in the world by L’Année Hippique. All told, Anne rode on 47 USET Nations Cup teams and competed in 10 World Cup Finals.
She’s still going strong — riding, training, competing, teaching and looking for that next special horse for another chance at the Olympics for herself or for one of her top protégées. Her childhood dream turned into an equestrian career spanning more than 35 years. For Anne, it’s still coming true.
Riding Basics With the Master
Anne’s family lived in Pasadena, California. She gives the credit to her late mother, Mary Jo, who had horses in her background, for giving her the opportunity to start her horseback lessons at a very tender age. The nearby Flintridge Riding Club had everything they desired, including master horseman Jimmy Williams.
Like every other horse-crazy kid, Anne loved to hang out at the barn. She just wanted to be near horses. She was a B student in school, but put hours into studying her horse books, which had action photos of jumper riders like Bill Steinkraus, Kathy Kusner, Mary Mairs Chapot, Hans Gunter Winkler and Nelson Pessoa. They became her equestrian heroes.
“I’d look at the pictures of those famous riders day and night,” said Anne. “I dreamed of going to the Olympics, but I didn’t think it would be possible — partly because most everybody who went to the Olympics was from the East Coast.”
As Anne’s basic riding skills improved and she progressed from outright beginner through the various levels, her dream got stronger, not weaker. For several years, she wasn’t really tuned into Jimmy’s reputation. As she moved closer to the day when she’d actually begin to learn from the master himself, she became aware that living in California might actually work in favor of her dream.
“The riders who went to the Olympics were from the East Coast, but then I realized that Mary Mairs Chapot had trained with Jimmy Williams and she got to the Olympics, and Robert Ridland trained with Jimmy and he got there,” said Anne. “And I was going to get to ride with Jimmy Williams. I didn’t really think it would be possible, but I had the dream. It was very exciting.”
Embarking as an adolescent on a quest that has defined her entire life — to be the best possible partner to her horse — implies strength of character and a huge commitment. Anne’s enthusiasm and eagerness to ride and spend countless hours with horses outweighed every other consideration and no sacrifice was too much when it came to horses. “I just loved riding,” said Anne. “My mother would be driving to the barn and I’d be in the car, changing from school uniform to breeches with butterflies in my stomach. I just felt total excitement because I was going to ride.
“When I was 11 and started riding with Jimmy, I think he recognized my passion and my talent although it wasn’t as if I won everything,” she continued “When we were kids, my younger sister, Lisa, won more — she was a more beautiful rider — but I worked really hard on my riding. I was a little barn rat. I was at the barn all day long into the evening. All I wanted to do was be with the horses. It was when I started riding with Jimmy that I thought, Oh, this is reality. I can do more. I can do better.”
Anne’s horsemanship improved by leaps and bounds, thanks to the riding master of Flintridge. She recalled getting on a lot of Thoroughbreds from nearby Santa Anita Race Track when they came to Flintridge to learn new jobs with the master. As a junior, she did it all, riding and showing horses for Jimmy — junior hunters, junior jumpers and equitation. She went east for the equitation finals and placed in the top 10 at Pennsylvania National Horse Show in Harrisburg and at the National at Madison Square Garden (as reported in an interview with PhelpsSports.com in 2008). Anne’s big break came in 1976 when she rode on the West Coast team at Spruce Meadows — opened the year before in Calgary, Canada — which became a world-class show jumping facility.
“I went to Spruce Meadows for the first time with Jimmy,” recalled Anne. “I met Hans Gunter Winkler, the great German rider, and Eddie Macken of Ireland, and all these famous riders from Europe. It was very exciting. I saw a whole other world out there. Jimmy was chef d’equipe for the West Coast team at Calgary for several years after that. A lot of West Coast riders showed at Spruce Meadows and I went there for many years after my first time.
“Bill Steinkraus was at Spruce Meadows as an official — Jimmy and Billy were friends, so I knew Billy through Jimmy,” she continued. “I was 17 or 18, still in high school. Bill Steinkraus said ‘Anne, if you really want to go to Europe, you have to come to the East Coast.’ He was very encouraging. Then George Morris came to judge the Flintridge Fall Horse Show in 1980. I knew who he was, and he knew I had some talent. George said, ‘Anne, you want to come to the East Coast.’ I’d say yes, but the thought of leaving Jimmy was very hard.”
As soon as Anne finished her junior years, she turned professional. “By the early ’80s, I was getting famous in California,” she said. “I was winning and I was huge with Jimmy, so it was very difficult. Thank God I had the guts to be brave enough and say, ‘You know what, I’m going to the East Coast — I’m following my dreams and I’m going to train with George Morris and try to ride against Joe Fargis, Michael Matz, Melanie Smith and those people. I went east in 1981 when I got Livius.”
The First Big Horse
Livius was Anne’s first Olympic horse. He’d been competing in Europe with a Dutch rider, Emil Hendrix, when George Morris talent-spotted him. Jimmy rallied a group of Flintridge members to buy the Trakehner for Anne and they formed a syndicate under the name California Ltd. Partnership. “It was a big thick document and it said we would go to the Los Angeles Olympics — these people backed me and I went to train with George,” said Anne.
Anne had acquired a solid foundation from Jimmy. Under his tutelage, she rode all sorts of horses: good, bad, stoppers, rearers, buckers, kickers. “Jimmy was famous for dealing with problem horses and I rode a lot of them, getting inside of the horse’s head and learning what makes each one tick mentally and physically,” said Anne. “Riding with Jimmy was one whole lifetime and at Flintridge, I often rode 15–20 horses a day. I also did dressage with Hilda Gurney, with Jimmy’s blessing. I schooled through all the levels with Hilda and competed at Grand Prix and actually won one. When I first got to Hunterdon, I had a handful of horses to ride and the focus with George was on my jumping style and dressage. Also, George really emphasized the management of horses and attention to detail.
“Fitness, working with the vet and understanding the chiropractor and the acupuncturist — anything to make your horse better,” said Anne. “Same thing with my riding. I was a good rider. I had won multiple Grand Prix in California, but to become a better rider, to become one of the best in the world, that was George refining me. He said, “I’ll never take away any of the training Jimmy gave to you, but I’ll add on to it.” In California I’d gotten all kinds of horses, good and bad, to win. When I went to George, my style became more refined and more classical.”
Anne got very involved with sports psychology, an interdisciplinary science for improving performance, which had grown rapidly during the Cold War rivalry between the United States and Russia. She started reading books on the subject in the early 1970s: “If I rode great at this show, how can I do it again?” she said. “I wanted to know how to be my best, working with the horses.”
She also studied fitness and conditioning strategies for both rider and horse. “I learned a deeper understanding of horses with George,” she recalled. “I was learning to be able to ride top horses. It was all about how could I be a better rider and athlete, a better partner for my horse. Like a racecar driver, you start out in a jalopy and slowly move up to the big, powerful cars.”
In 1983, Jimmy and George saw their coaching come to fruition with the launch of Anne’s international career as a member of the United States equestrian team. In May, she became the first woman to win the Grand Prix of Rome and went on to win individual Gold and team Gold in August at the Pan Am Games in Venezuela.
“That was amazing in Rome with Livius — I couldn’t believe I’d won,” said Anne. “Livius was a great horse. After Rome, he went on to win double Gold. Livius taught me about international show jumping and what having Olympic scope meant.”
In 1984, Anne and Livius went to Los Angeles for the Olympics. The show jumping was held at Santa Anita Park, about 10 minutes from home. “In a way, getting there was like a Disney story,” she said. “There’s this girl, Anne, who wants to go to the Olympics and her trainer Jimmy gets a syndicate with her family involved to buy the horse and then gets her training with George — it was all really amazing.”
Anne and Livius qualified for the Olympics. “There was all this focus and determination to go to L.A. — every day living it, thinking about it, breathing it constantly, even in the back of my mind,” said Anne. “I was a hometown favorite. Hilda Gurney was riding on the U.S. dressage team and she was a hometown favorite, and I was riding with her. It was rather disappointing when Chef d’Equipe Frank Chapot named me as the alternate even though I’d won a lot of Grand Prix and two Pan American Gold medals.
“At the time it was a big blow, but still it was a great experience to be part of it,” she continued. “The team (Joe Fargis – individual gold, Conrad Homfeld – individual silver, Leslie Howard, Melanie Smith) won the gold medal. It was also a great learning experience for the next quadrennial and, by God, I wanted to go to the next Olympics: Korea in 1988.”
Starman Had Seoul
At the end of 1986, Anne acquired the ride on Starman, a 9-year-old Westphalian stallion owned by Fran Steinwedell. In 1987, the duo contributed to the U.S. winning three Nations Cups: Hickstead in England, Aachen in Germany and Calgary in Canada. The American Horse Shows Association named Anne Horsewoman of the Year.
“We had a great team, great camaraderie — Joe Fargis, Lisa Jacquin, Greg Best, myself, Catherine Birdsall was alternate — and Seoul was amazing,” said Anne. “We won the team silver, the Germans won the gold, France the bronze and Greg Best and Gem Twist won individual silver. It was amazing to jump in there. I ended up fourth. We had one rail down over the Liverpool and Starman barely touched it. Who knows why? We just missed an individual medal over one rail down in the second round.
“It was great to be individually fourth at the Olympics and Starman was a great horse,” she added. “He was a real character and a very polite stallion. We had a great connection and the basic dressage connection made him a better horse. I could jump anything with him — the bigger the course, the better. He was very intelligent, had huge scope and beautiful technique. It was an amazing feeling when he was jumping. I really believed he could jump anything. He was one of my Pegasuses.”
In 2012, Starman was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame.
Cannonball at Barcelona 1992
“I think that Cannonball was a little too green for the Olympics — he’d be a super horse today because he was so careful,” said Anne. “The U.S. ended up in fifth place. Cannonball and I went first in the Nations Cup. The courses were ugly, stark, hardly any filler and the fences were huge, light and airy. A lot of horses had trouble at Barcelona. Cannonball stopped out in the first round at a triple combination. I was like ‘OMG, we’re at the Olympics, I can’t believe you’re doing this!’
“The second round was another monumental moment in my career. I rode for my life and got him around with the good old Jimmy Williams ‘under, over or through, I believe you can do it’ training,” continued Anne. “Cannonball had one rail down at the second-to-last fence, but I got him to jump around. We personally had a four-fault score. At first, I was disappointed, but I felt better when people kept telling me that I deserved a Gold medal for getting the horse around after he stopped like a donkey in the first round.”
Eros — A Horse to Love
Of all the horses in Anne’s career, the two standouts are Eros and Starman. She thinks that Eros might have a bit of an edge over Starman, because she has had him since he was 5 and he’s retired at her farm in New Jersey. Also, he’s an Australian Thoroughbred and Anne got quite fond of the ex-racehorses she rode during her formative years with Jimmy at Flintridge.
“Eros was just light-light-light like a bird when he jumped,” said Anne. “He was such a Thoroughbred — not a nut case or anything — a little on the hot side, but crowds got him excited. It was a matter of keeping him quiet. Starman wanted a little bit more seat and legs, but with Eros, it was cluck-cluck, whoa-whoa, and very light to my aids. I really believed we’d go to the Olympics and it was a fabulous journey: Atlanta; Monterrey, Mexico; and the World Equestrian Games. Eros won and won.”
Anne and Eros enjoyed many successes. They earned team silver at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics with Michael Matz, Peter Leone and Leslie Burr-Howard and, in 1997, racked up two Nations Cup team victories at Rome, Italy and St. Galens, Switzerland. In 1998 Anne and Eros partnered to win the $450,000 Pulsar Crown Grand Prix in Monterrey where Anne became the first American and the first woman to win what was, at the time, the richest grand prix in the world. They competed at the Rome World Equestrian Games where the U.S. team finished ninth. They continued to win or place together for nearly a decade.
“I could write a book on Eros’ life and his story and all that he taught me — he’s just an amazing being — huge heart, so intelligent, always trying so hard, and I felt he could jump anything,” said Anne. “He’s another Disney story. Adam Wooten from Australia brought him over and was working with George. Eros was a little over 16 hands, a weedy little chestnut with a ewe neck. George thought he’d be a great horse for me. All these great riders tried Eros, but didn’t buy him. To make a long story short, the minute I sat on Eros I knew that I had to have him. It was meant to be, as if God said, ‘Yes, you two are supposed to be together.’ He was a green, young, hot little Thoroughbred and he just flew over his jumps. He wanted to win and he loved to go fast.”
George gave Anne a week and she scrambled to get a syndicate together. She owns part of Eros, along with Fran Steinwedell, Carlene Blunt and a group of people who believed in Anne when she said that she believed they could go to the Olympics. And that’s exactly what they did. Eros and Anne also placed five times in the Budweiser American Invitational in 1997, 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2004. As Anne stated earlier, Eros won and won.
Beijing and What’s Next?
In 2008, Anne got the ride on a 16.3 hand, 9-year-old Holsteiner stallion named Champ, a scopey, attractive bay bought by Bob and Sandy Mockoviak. “I got him over here and got him fit. It was 2007 and we did one show before the Olympic trials and every week I’d say to the owners, ‘I don’t know — he’s a lovely young horse and I don’t want to ruin him; if it’s too much for him, if it’s over his head, we’re going to stop,’ ” recalled Anne. “By God, he just kept getting better and better. He was learning my style and I was learning how he went. By the end of the trials, we’d made the short list to go to Europe. I had another horse, a mare, Roxana, and she’d won some grand prix, and she and Champ both qualified for the top 10 long list for the Olympic team.”
Champ continued to improve so much, competing in the Super League at La Baule, Rome, St. Gallen, Rotterdam and Aachen. Anne was the only rider who’d qualified two horses on the Olympic short list. George put two teams together for the Super League circuit, so Anne was able to campaign Roxana and Champ. “Sure enough, by the end, I got selected to go to the Olympics at Beijing with Champ,” said Anne. “He had all the scope, all the ability. I was delighted. I wanted to go to the Olympics again, absolutely. Unlike 1984 with Livius, this time I had lots of experience. That’s why George wanted me on the team. Champ jumped great at Aachen, but in the end they named us alternate and I was disappointed. Champ had the ability even if he lacked experience at that level.”
The Olympic flame continues to burn brightly for Anne, who admits she’s always on the lookout for another top horse, another chance at the Olympics, for herself or a protégée. She’s doing more teaching, thanks to technology and the launch of her new website, which offers her knowledge as a riding and jumping mentor. For a reasonable monthly or yearly subscription, members have access to video tutorials in jumping and flatwork — videos of Anne riding and schooling while offering running commentary on what she’s doing, how and why, as well as a wealth of exclusive online articles geared to help riders become the best possible partners for their horses, and a monthly “Ask Anne” forum where she answers your questions.
“I’m excited now, even though, initially, I shied away from the idea of online coaching, because I’m not at all a techie kind of person. I’m hands on,” said Anne. “But this has turned into an exciting venture. I love the idea of riders being able to sign up and learn by online auditing! It’s such a great option for riders who don’t live near enough to take lessons or to ride in a clinic with me or who have limited means.
“I love helping riders and I love to teach,” said Anne. “I’m so fortunate I grew up with Jimmy Williams, who was a great horseman and a great teacher. I learned so much from George Morris and Hilda Gurney. I was fortunate to ride with Bert de Nemethy while he was still teaching. Any riders who wish they could learn from the legends like Jimmy, George, Hilda and Bert, they’re the coaches and mentors who made me a five-time Olympian. I look forward to sharing what I learned from them with every rider who dreams about riding at the highest level and being the best partner they can be for their horse or pony.
Know Thy Horse
“I get very passionate when I’m teaching and it’s more for the horse’s benefit, because horses need and want their riders to become more educated,” said Anne. “To have that feeling of being one with your horse — whether it’s a pre-green horse or doing the Eros and Starman stuff — is magical. Not to dominate and dictate to the horse, but working with the horse. Finding that harmony is one of the greatest joys of riding.”
Anne takes on students during the winter circuit in Wellington and the rest of the year works out of Market Street, the world-class, 130-acre training facility in Frenchtown, New Jersey. Amenities include a 10-acre grass jumping field with every obstacle to school for a show anywhere in the world, an outdoor ring 300 by 180 yards, and an indoor arena 200 by 90 yards, attached to a 28-stall barn, plus great trails ideal for hacking, another form of flat work.
“Use flatwork as an opportunity to learn about your horse,” said Anne. “Yet, it isn’t only the dressage that’s important. You have to be totally on top of the stable management. Success with your horse is about attention to detail, knowing your horse inside and out — in the stall, barn, trailer, outside in the paddock, leading in hand, on the lunge and under saddle, but also inside and outside of the horse itself. How does your horse feel? Is it hot or cold? Is it focused? The horse is a reflection of the rider and you have to know your horse and want to be the best partner for your horse. That’s how I was successful.”
Everything that Anne learned from her horses and teachers, every detail that helped to make her dreams come true, benefits her students. “I love to teach and train riders and their horses,” she said. “I also love to mentor riders and help them to follow their personal dreams, whether they aspire to ride in the Olympics or however far they want to go.”
Whatever your goals, Anne can help you and your horse to achieve greater harmony. Learning to know thy horse is a requisite that will empower you to improve your riding skills and equine management beyond your wildest dreams.
For more information visit, www.annekursinski.com
Jimmy A. Williams
Jimmy A. Williams (1917–1993), well known for training Olympic horses and riders, received this tribute from George Morris in “My Own Memories of the Show Jumping Hall of Fame” (Chronicle of the Horse, April 17, 2008): “Jimmy Williams. He was a master horseman, a master teacher. He was a star and bigger than life. He leaves legions of pupils who are tops in their own right.”
Jimmy’s legacy of horsemanship as a rider, teacher and trainer lives on in his former students, including Mary Mairs Chapot, Hap Hansen, Robert Ridland, Susie Hutchison and Anne Kursinski, and in 37 professional trainers who got their start with him. He also shaped countless other riders of all levels during his nearly 40 years as riding master of Flintridge Riding Club.
In 1989, Jimmy was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame (founded in 1987). In 2001, the National Reined Cow Horse Association honored Jimmy’s western horsemanship with induction into the NRCHA Hall of Fame and, shortly before his death, with the Vaquero Award. In 1989, the American Horse Show Association (now USEF) honored Jimmy for his achievements with a life-size silver cowboy hat trophy, which jump-started the annual prestigious tradition known as the Jimmy A. Williams Lifetime Achievement Award.
Jimmy started riding at 3 and credited his father, who showed and sold horses, for teaching him “to ride like a gentleman” (as stated in his obituary, Los Angeles Times, November 3, 1993). Jimmy could do anything with a horse, no matter the discipline or sport. He worked as a stunt double in Hollywood westerns and trained Albarado, the equine star of “The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit.” During World War II, Jimmy learned dressage while stationed in Italy during his Army service. In 1956 he went to Flintridge Riding Club where, as riding master, he put his genius to work establishing a most effective program of riding instruction.
“It’s what you learn after you know it all that really counts” is one of Jimmy’s most frequently quoted sayings.
Anne’s Students Speak
Producing Happy Horses
Cara Dayton, now 26: “I started riding with Anne when I was 13 and she took me up to the High Junior Jumpers. I got a new horse and in 2010 we won the Classic at Saugerties and the Low Amateurs at Hampton Classic. I took a break to get a degree in Physics at University of Pennsylvania, but I learned that I wouldn’t be going into an academic career. I ride before and after working at my family’s refrigerant gas company. Anne helps me with younger, problem horses.
“There is a misconception when people see Anne ride with so much natural feel that it’d be difficult to convey that to a student,” continued Cara. “She’s very analytical, technical and logical and she teaches you how to use various exercises to help you experience that feel and reach your goals. Her program is very holistic and she leaves no stone unturned when it comes to producing a happy horse that’s fit and sound. Anne continuously works the foundations to improve the rider’s basics. In her mind, there’s always room for improvement.”
Getting Your Ph.D. In Riding
Jennifer (JJ) Januzis, 29: “I did one of Anne’s clinics and by the end of the three days, my horse felt better than she ever had. I’m only nine miles away from her farm in New Jersey and she’s the best for me. She’s brilliant. When you go for a lesson, you have her complete attention and you know she’s putting everything she has into that lesson. She doesn’t miss anything. She says you can make mistakes, but you have to try to do what she’s teaching you. Believe me, when you do it right, you’re successful and it’s amazing. Anne puts you in the horse’s mind and my riding has more feel to it. Anne, in a short amount of time, has changed everything for me. My horses are very different since I started going to Anne last August. Riding with Anne is like studying for your Ph.D. in riding.”
Amazing To Work With
Hunter Holloway, 17: “Anne’s an amazing rider and an inspiring person. I heard good things about her teaching. I went to a George Morris clinic and Anne did a demonstration ride and I got to talk to her. I went to Europe to ride on the Young Rider team and when I came back, I arranged to work with Anne for about a week before the Hampton Classic last summer and it was very good. I thought I had improved a lot. Anne gives you a lot of polish. She taught me a lot about feel and getting inside the horse’s head, figuring out what they’re thinking so you can get the best out of your horse. I’m in Ocala — my mom is a trainer, Brandie Holloway — and I look forward to opportunities to compete in Wellington because Anne is amazing to work with.”