By Britney Grover
Portraits by Isabel J. Kurek
What does it take to get from pony kid to Olympic gold — wishing on a star? Unlimited wealth? The most expensive horses? Despite appearances, it’s far from a magic formula, can’t be bought and while it does take some special horses, it’s often a diamond in the rough rather than a million-dollar mount. For showjumping’s Laura Kraut, it was just the right combination of talent, luck, a supportive family and — perhaps most importantly — an undying passion for horses fueling her dedication and hard work.
“I always thought both girls were going to go on with riding — they were dedicated,” Laura’s mother, Carol Kent, remembered about Laura and her sister Mary Elizabeth. “They went to the barn every day. We never had Thanksgiving at home: We went to Aiken. Our life just sort of revolved around the horses; I knew that, and I think both of them knew that.”
But there’s no magic formula for success, especially on the scale Laura’s achieved it. “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you get the prince,” Carol summarized. “It’s not easy.”
A Pony Passion
For all appearances, Laura and Mary Elizabeth were “normal” pony kids, plus a little extra hard work. Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, they got their start in horses from their mother. “I rode as a child — not like they do now, but I’ve always had a huge interest in riding and horses and showing,” Carol said. “I taught them up until the time they were 12 years old. We did everything ourselves — Laurence and I would pack up the two ponies in the trailer and off we’d go. We did our own braiding and care and everything.”
It’s that good old-fashioned horsemanship that Laura remembers most about her early years, too. “Going to the barn every afternoon and working, learning how to take care of the pony, clean stalls, do its feet — I remember we used to love to paint their feet; that was one of our favorite things. We enjoyed the riding, but what I remember most from when I was really young was just that I loved being around the pony. That was the highlight of our day, every day.”
By the time she was 12, Laura’s talent and dedication was catching eyes. “Hunter Hill Farm, one of the top barns in Atlanta, came and asked me if they could have Laura show their ponies and horses,” Carol said. “They would keep her on really nice top mounts all the way through her junior career. The next year they wanted Mary Elizabeth, too, so both my girls ended up at a really top show barn and had excellent instruction and wonderful ponies and junior horses.”
School was never a problem for Laura; she was a very good student and never had to be told to do her homework, but her heart was set on riding. “When Laura went to college, she’d been there less than a year when she came home and said all she wanted to do was ride,” Carol said. “It wasn’t any problem with grades; she was making great grades. She said, ‘I can always go back to college, but I want to ride.’”
“If I had it my way, I never would have even gone to college for the little bit that I did,” Laura concurred, “but my dad wanted me to get that experience. I went for a semester and I told him at Christmas, ‘I think this is a really big waste of money and time. I know what I want to do and I want to get doing it.’ He was great — he said, ‘That’s fine, as long as you plan to take care of yourself, that’s good.’”
“And it was the right decision,” Carol concluded. “I didn’t approve of it at the time — I would rather have had her stay in school. But as it turned out, she’s had quite an education riding.”
Turning Toward the Jumps
Just as Carol didn’t realize the education Laura would get from riding, Laura didn’t realize she would end up an Olympic showjumping gold medalist. “When I was a junior, I had one junior hunter that belonged to Hunter Hill Farm. My goal every year was to qualify for indoors, for the Garden in particular. It wasn’t until I was 19 that I thought that I’d like to try doing the jumpers,” she said. “The same people at Hunter Hill Farm found a jumper for me: He was a Quarter Horse/Thoroughbred and he was just incredible. You look back and you think, If I had ten of those today, I could make a fortune, because he never knocked poles down. I went in never thinking I was going to have a fence down, and I learned how to be fast. I won quite a bit with him in the Amateurs, and it sort of slowly moved on from there.”
Though she continued to focus her attention in the hunter ring, Laura had some impressive early success as a jumper. “I was riding a horse called Benny Hill, who was a Thoroughbred and I just loved him,” she said. In her very first grand prix, she and Benny Hill not only won but beat Ian Miller on Big Ben. “That was like beating McLain Ward on Azur; it was the most important horse-rider combination at the time, so that was memorable!”
In 1992, one horse in particular helped Laura realize her destiny was in jumping. “A man came up to her at a show in Tennessee and said, ‘I have a horse that could do the grand prix and I need a rider,’” Carol recalled. “Laura would ride anything with four legs, so she said ‘I’ll do it!’ And she did. It was Simba Run.”
Simba was an off-the-track Thoroughbred that Geoff Sutton had been riding in amateur jumpers and grand prix. Geoff saw Simba’s potential and wanted to see how far Simba could go. “Geoff had big ideas,” Laura said. “His ideas for where Simba was going to go were much bigger than what mine would have been.” But Simba’s scope and bravery started bringing the pair success.
“When we went up to the Olympic Trials in Gladstone, they said, ‘Laura who?’” Carol remembered with a laugh. “She hadn’t done a whole lot, but Simba took her there.” Simba got Laura to her first international experience in a big way — the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
“I was the reserve, which was probably a good thing because I’d never been out of the country, I’d never been on a Nations Cup team, I’d never done anything,” Laura said — she’d even had to get her first passport. “But it was a wonderful experience to get to go over there and see that. Because they had the African sleeping sickness in Spain, the horses had to stay for 60 days in Europe so I got to compete in Italy and at Rotterdam. I got to do the Nations Cups at both those shows, and it just became an addiction. I knew that was definitely what I wanted to do.”
Working to Win
Laura went back to the United States with her eye on international competition. Though it took her the better part of a decade to return to that level, once she did, she never left. Her career can be found in the show jumping history books and includes winning team gold at the 2008 Olympics with Cedric and again at the 2018 World Equestrian Games riding Zeremonie.
While she has ridden into the winner’s circle all around the world, winning team gold at WEG was a highlight. “It was one the proudest moments of my career to win in front of the home crowd,” she said. “My teammates were amazing, and I was happy I could be part of such a great team.” Now, she’s got Tokyo and the 2020 Olympics in her sights, and her family’s been behind her every step of the way.
“How many people get to do what they love, to have their work be their passion?” Carol said. “I think they’re really lucky because they do: Mary Elizabeth has been with Laura through all of this. My involvement was up until both girls were 12 when they went on with different trainers, but I had them when they were young and it was fun. I had fun with them with the ponies, and I loved every minute of it.”
“It would have been hard to do what I’ve done without my family,” Laura said. “My sister, she basically manages and runs everything; she takes care of all the details as well as riding horses. We ride very similarly, so I know when she rides one and she says it feels good, she’s right. I can trust her 100 percent with everything. The most vital part of what my mom has done is she helped raise Bobby, my son. She spent many, many, many months with him as he was growing up. While I was away in Europe competing, she was taking him to school, picking him up from school, basically taking care of him. Without that I wouldn’t have had the freedom to travel and go to the competitions that I wanted to. Across the board, they’ve enabled me to be competing at the top level and also still maintain a family life.”
Laura maintains another valued relationship with Nick Skelton, the British rider who made an incredible comeback to win team gold at the London 2012 Olympics followed by individual gold in Rio 2016. “It was a very thrilling and proud moment,” Laura said, of Nick’s comeback. “It was a great culmination to Nick’s career.”
Laura said they met in 2005 or 2006. “Everything was changing in that I was starting to really compete in Europe a lot, and I went up a notch in what I was doing,” Laura said. “We met and it was one of those things where we just got on; we clicked. Nick has a funny sense of humor and I really like that. He has a great outlook about the horses and about competition, and he has a really good eye for a horse. We like similar types; everything about where we each were made it so we were just compatible.”
As a power horse couple, and both in the limelight, they have had to juggle their careers and the fact that they often competed against each other. “It’s been a great experience to have a different perspective on riding and training,” Laura said. “I am sure he has influenced my riding more than I even realize. Now that Nick is retired, we no longer compete against each other. When he was competing, we obviously each wanted to win but I never felt we were against each other.
It’s not just her relationships with people that have contributed to her success; it’s her relationship with each horse she rides as an individual. “I absolutely do love the horses,” Laura said. “I love spending time with them, and I think that because I like them so well, I’m willing to work a little longer or a little harder to get them to where I think they can go. Sometimes I’m wrong and they’re not what I had hoped they’d be, but there are a few horses that if after six months I had said, ‘Oh this one’s no good,’ and sold it, I would have regretted it because a year later the horse turned out to be fantastic. I think I’m willing to stay patient and put the time in to get the best out of them.”
One horse Laura certainly got the best out of was Cedric. Only 15.2-hands, Laura picked him out of a crowd as a green 7-year-old in Belgium and followed her gut feeling about his potential all the way to the 2008 Olympics, where she was rewarded with a gold medal. Cedric retired sound and happy in 2017 at 19 years old and having earned over $2 million in prize money. He and Lauren Hough’s mount Quick Study, aka Joey, are turned out in the English countryside and have “gone completely feral,” Laura reported with a fond laugh.
“He’s happy as a clam and just looks wonderful,” Carol said.
Not Slowing Down
Now, Laura spends summers in England at Nick’s farm, Ardencote, and returns to her home in Wellington for shows and family the rest of the year. Carol lives in Camden, South Carolina; Bobby’s in college, so Laura visits him in Boston. “A goal for me is to make sure I’m physically strong enough, as I’m getting older, that I can still stay at the top of the sport,” she said, having recently celebrated her 53rd birthday. “Right now I’ve got the most wonderful owners, I’ve got a wonderful group of horses, and my goal is to make sure I stay as high a level as I can so that I can perform as well as I can.”
Hot off team gold, the first for the U.S. in 32 years, at WEG 2018, stellar results continue to pile up proving that Laura isn’t going to stop riding — and riding at the top — anytime soon.
But then, she’s always known that. “There was never a magical moment that I decided to become a professional,” she said. “I started riding when I was 3, and after that it was like breathing — I was just always going to ride. I never, ever, once had a thought in my mind that I wouldn’t ride for any reason. It was just part of me.”
All photos by Isabel J. Kurek