Kelly Sult and 'Reggie" Looking For Their Hollywood Ending
Scrappy 13-year-old girl gets a throwaway horse. Truck driver father reads a few equestrian books and thinks the girl and horse might have a future in eventing. Father coaches the girl from the ground and helps her qualify for the prestigious Rolex Three-Day Event.
It’s not supposed to be that easy, and it wasn’t … not for Kelly Sult, not for her father, and certainly not for her castoff horse, the racetrack reject formerly known as “Mighty Reckless.”
Typically, a story like Kelly Sult’s only happens in Hollywood. But in this case, Hollywood happened to Kelly Sult.
Since June 2001, Sult and Hollywood have competed in 70 recognized events and taken home 20 blue ribbons, including one in the advanced division of the 2009 Southern Pines Horse Trials. They have been to Rolex three times, and are primed for a fourth trip to the Kentucky Horse Park pending the outcome of this weekend’s Southern Pines II Horse Trials.
At 19, Hollywood — or “Reggie” — is in the twilight of a career nobody saw coming, while Sult, at 24, is at an age where most upper levels riders are still dreaming of their first Rolex run.
A lifelong resident of the decidedly non-horsey hamlet of Erie, Pa., Sult has, in recent years, expanded her training program to include seasonal stops in Southern Pines with Olympic veteran Bobby Costello, and Ocala, Fla., with Jonathan Holling.
This season, she elected to focus on dressage — the bane of every thoroughbred’s existence — and train in Aiken, S.C., with Charlotte Bayley.
“She’s remarkable,” said Sult, who has struggled with Reggie’s dressage intermittently throughout his career. “She’s able to pick up on a horse’s issues right away and figure them out. We’ve been putting quite a bit of pressure on him in the lessons, and he’s taking it quite well. A lot of shoulders and haunches in on a circle, and when he gets a little uptight, just let him stretch down.”
Sult laughed. “Really, it’s just common sense that apparently I didn’t have,” she said.
Sult has also been fine-tuning Reggie’s jumping with assistance from Boyd Martin, Australia’s latest gift to American eventing. Martin, who has dual citizenship, rode for the U.S. team at the 2010 World Equestrian Games.
“Basically, both of them are just examples of pure, raw talent,” Martin said. “She reminds me of an Australian rider … unbelievable physical ability without too much formal training.”
The unorthodox path Sult has taken to the upper echelon of eventing has, she believes, made her a better horsewoman.
“Most upper level riders have four or five horses going,” she said. “In a way it’s been nice to concentrate on one at that level. I like to do my own legs — icing, wrapping — so he gets all my attention.”
Sult followed her older sister Michelle into horses, attending her first show — as a spectator — at only 4 days old. Through the years, Sult acquired many of her sister’s hand-me-downs, horses being no exception. The most valuable inheritance — by far — was Tanza, a gray quarter horse Sult credits with making her a confident rider.
“That horse would do anything to try to help you,” she said.
While Michelle focused on hunters, Sult gravitated to eventing. Both girls rode with the Lost Hounds Pony Club. “I liked eventing because you didn’t have to be perfect,” Sult said. “The only thing you were judged on was dressage. In hunters, everything you do is judged. If a judge likes Hanoverians and you’re on a thoroughbred, you’re pretty much screwed the whole time you’re in the ring.”
Sult’s father, Mark, agreed with his youngest daughter’s assessment of the sport’s politics. Mark Sult played football through his junior year of high school, but his riding experience was limited to the occasional trail ride with his daughters.
After watching Michelle dominate local hunters only to exit the ring ribbonless at the bigger shows, he decided to look into eventing as a competitive option for the girls. He read “Training the Three-Day Event Horse and Rider” by eventing legend Jimmy Wofford as well as “Common Sense Dressage” by Sally O’Connor.
“We didn’t have the money to send them to the bigger trainers down South,” Mark Sult said. “There really weren’t any event trainers nearby, so we had to do it ourselves.”
Up the Ranks
With her father’s coaching, Sult and Tanza competed up through the preliminary level. When she was 13, she heard rumblings about a horse at her riding stable that had been banished to an isolated area of the farm because of his ill temper.
“He was quite underweight,” Sult said of Reggie, who had arrived at the farm two years earlier fresh off a racing career in which he failed to hit the board in 12 races at Beulah Park. “They were afraid of him, so they were just occasionally lunging him. He had such a ‘sad puppy’ look.”
Sult took pity on Reggie, and began to groom him regularly. She brought him apples and carrots; when she bought him a blanket her father began to pay attention. She ignored the warnings from others who had been bucked off by Reggie, and began riding the neglected horse.
“I would spend an hour and a half getting the mud off before I could ride him,” Sult said. “He had been ridden in harsh bits, so he would take off way in front of the jumps and after them.”
Mark Sult suggested trying Reggie in the kinder, gentler “Happy Mouth” bit, which is made from a high-tech plastic. Sult still rides Reggie in a Happy Mouth for dressage, but uses a Dr. Bristol mouthpiece for jumping.
“He was a completely different horse with the Happy Mouth,” Sult said.
By 2005, Sult and Reggie were winning at the preliminary level, and placed third in their first intermediate outing. In 2006, they won their first intermediate; in 2007 they were part of Area VIII’s silver medal team at the North American Junior and Young Riders Championships CCI.
A month before Young Riders, Sult and Reggie tackled their first advanced horse trials, placing fifth at Maui Jim.
“That was a really good course,” Sult recalled. “It was quite hard.”
Sult had long suspected she might have a capable Rolex horse in Reggie. “But you really don’t know until you actually get there,” she said. “You go up the levels, and as you go up you analyze how well he did the previous level. For us, it was a matter of, well, we did a three-star, how well did he handle this or that?”
With no expectations, Sult and Reggie made their Rolex debut in 2008, and finished a respectable 14th of 58 starters. The following year, they wound up 27th of 50 largely due to Reggie’s 69.5 in dressage.
Later that year, the gelding turned in a smashing performance at the Fair Hill International CCI*, adding only 3.6 cross-country time penalties to his 56.4 dressage score to finish third.
Still ‘Rarin’ To Go’
Last year was to have been Reggie’s Rolex swan song. He had an uncharacteristic cross-country stop when he slipped before a water jump, and stopped at the first fence in stadium jumping; the pair finished 28th of 53 starters.
Sult and Reggie rebounded from their Rolex disappointment to win three straight events, including advanced at the Plantation Field Horse Trials. Reggie won intermediate at Full Gallop last weekend — finishing on his dressage score — and now Sult thinks he’s earned another trip to Rolex.
“That fact that he’s still so game, so rarin’ to go, is why he’s still out here,” she said.
Despite one or two gray hairs in his mane — and teeth not unlike mah-jongg tiles — Reggie is a remarkable physical specimen, a low-maintenance steed who only gets Adequan and Legend for the two weeks preceding Rolex. His licorice-colored coat gleams with health, and his kind, intelligent eye is bright.
Sult says she would probably have gone to college and studied nursing, if not for Reggie and the demands of his competitive career. She still might go back to school, once Reggie decides to start shopping for a rocking chair big enough to accommodate his well-muscled hindquarters.
“Reggie and Kelly know each other so well,” said Martin, an unabashed Reggie rooter. “They’ve figured out a way of going that works for them. The toughest thing, if you can believe this about a 19-year-old horse, is to try to get him to not be so enthusiastic. He almost tries too hard sometimes.”
Martin chuckled. “That horse is one of the most experienced good old boys on the eventing circuit,” he said. “He has fantastic ability, but above all he has a heart of gold.”
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