BY JESS CLAWSON
For many of us, riding as a kid meant galloping bareback through fields instead of glossy ponies and hunter courses. Ada Cosby is no exception. She began riding at six years old and did all the things a kid can do with a pony—from foxhunting to riding down to the corner store to buy candy.
“It was a luxury,” she said of her upbringing in horses. “It expanded my love of horses as well as my knowledge.”
As she grew up, she got more interested in competition and moved into bigger barns. Eventually, she would compete for the Hollins equestrian team, as many of Virginia’s well-known professionals have. “I loved it. It brought in a whole different aspect of equestrian life,” Cosby said. “When I was riding in the juniors and the Maclay classes and all of that, it was an individual competition. But in college your score mattered for your team, and the score of the beginners in the walk trot classes mattered as much as those of the riders in open equitation.”
Cosby loved the collegiate equestrian element, and has carried that sense of the teamwork throughout her professional life as the owner of Walnut Knoll Farm outside of Richmond, Virginia. “I emphasize that we are a team and we cheer for each other,” she said. “If you’re not the winner, you’re cheering for your barn mates to be the winner.”
When Cosby graduated from Hollins, she didn’t immediately decide to become a professional. “I took a job at a bank, and it was fine, but I wasn’t passionate about it,” she said. She rode horses here and there and got paid a bit, which lead to more paid opportunities to ride. Eventually, she realized she could make a living without the bank.
“I’ll give my husband credit,” she said. “We had only been married about a year and he encouraged me to be my own boss, which he probably regrets.” The two bought property together and her husband, who is not a horse person, built the barn. “I think he’s like, another horse show? When are you going to retire?”
But Cosby is not one to sit idly, and neither is her husband. “He could see in me that I needed horses in my life to be happy,” she said. Her business grew in both the quantity and quality of horses and clients, and for the past 30 years, Walnut Knoll has been a presence on the A circuit.
“I believe the difficult horses can teach you as much or more as the easy ones,” she said. And Cosby has had many equine teachers in her life, including several ponies. “I had a very difficult junior horse who I loved desperately, but he was not easy. He taught me how to work with one who was sensitive and not as talented, but who could still help me reach important goals and learn how not to get frustrated.”
One of the keys to Cosby’s success is that she emphasizes that it’s the rider’s job to figure out how the horse wants to go and ride them that way, instead of riding each horse the same way and expecting them to conform to that. That’s what brings her enjoyment in riding and sets her horses up to be their best.
Cosby speaks with joy about ponies she has coached on, including Solaris, a large pony hunter she bought for a client and who lived on her farm for most of his life, moving from one owner to the next but staying in her program. “He made all the kids’ dreams come true. He was a paint pony. People underestimated him until he started to canter, and then they forgot what color he was. He’s one I’ll never forget.”
Walnut Knoll is as special as the horses and riders who have come through it. “We have such a fabulous group of people at my barn. I have the luxury of being able to keep it small and make sure that it’s cohesive and everyone gets along. Right now I’m just enjoying the ride, being with this lovely group,” she said.
Cosby pointed out that enjoying the ride is part of the gift of horses. “When you’re younger, you just have this compulsion to achieve. We don’t do this sport to lose, but I do think the journey is as special as anything else,” she said. “Sometimes juniors have grief when their junior career is over, but then they realize amateur life is great.”
Horses have been good for Cosby and her family. “The parents who give this gift to their children are giving them far more than riding lessons,” she said. “It’s a lifelong love. It’s an expensive sport, and I hate that, but what it gives back in life lessons, and love and passion, is immeasurable.”
About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
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