You can think of Sunny Stevens as our region’s equestrian godmother.
She has taught hundreds of people all around north metro Atlanta, guiding them to become outstanding, oftentimes award-winning riders and – more importantly to her – better people. In a tribute to her abundant enthusiasm and expertise, about 20 of her students have gone on to become coaches themselves, echoing her insights and philosophies to even more riders.
Sunny began riding at age 8, only because her father wouldn’t let her start before. By then, she’d already fallen for horses and the sport.
Today, at age 73, Sunny is still in love.
For the past several decades, she has directed that passion into coaching. Admittedly “very technical and very intense,” Sunny says her goal is to help her students “not just to go to horse shows and win but to learn how to ride the horse, to understand the horse.”
“To me, it’s about learning how to ride versus learning how to go in a show and just compete,” she said. “If you ride well, then you’re going to compete well.”
Equestrians require athleticism, coordination, and teamwork even if those – especially the latter – take different forms than other sports. At a competition, elementary to college-age riders might mingle and even be on the same team. But the core partnership involves the rider and her horse.
“The rider and the horse are the greatest team in the world because everything is done without words,” said Stevens. “I tell my kids… ‘Think about what you want to do, your brain tells your body what to do, so your body can tell the horse what to do.’ It’s that process.”
For many years, Sunny owned and operated Stevehaven Stables off Birmingham Highway. But since 2019, Sunny has shifted gears and now travels to meet these rider-horse teams. On a recent summer day, for instance, she shouted out direction in between sips of water at a Milton ring.
Yet Sunny isn’t just focused on guiding riders. She also wants to “help the younger trainers become better trainers.”
“I didn’t have anybody to mentor me when I started, and I made some mistakes,” she said. “… I’ve seen (younger trainers) do something and I think, ‘What are they doing?’ And then I go, Sunny you were that age at one point… So I’m just trying to help them.”
She certainly has. This is part of why Stevens is a legend in equestrian circles having earned numerous honors such as the Old Salem Farm Lifetime Achievement Award (in 2016), U.S. Hunter-Jumper Association Jane Marshall Dillion Award (in 2019) and Georgia Hunter-Jumper Association Lifetime Achievement Award (in 2020).
Her students, meanwhile, have won thousands of awards of their own, including at some of the nation’s most prestigious events. But as much as she enjoys the competitions, none of those recognitions are the most important thing to her.
“To me, I’ve always felt like the end purpose to my riding was to help these kids grow up to be better adults,” she said. “I have had numerous students come back to me and say that what I did with them influenced them right on through adulthood. And that means more to me than any blue ribbon.”