By Doris Degner-Foster
Portraits by Kristie Nichols
A serious relationship between an amateur English hunter-jumper rider and a true professional cowboy may seem unlikely, but for Laura and Dan Keen, it works. Together they run L & D Sport Horses near Austin, Texas.
They married last October — but have been together for the last six years — and they share a great sense of humor along with their passion for horses. Dan can laugh at himself as he admits to being a softie who sometimes tears up, even at Hallmark commercials.
Although Dan’s background was in the Western world and team roping, his common-sense training methods proved to be helpful to horses in various disciplines, so Laura turned to him for help earlier in their relationship.
“I had this jumper that I hoped to be able to compete, but at the first couple of shows we just weren’t successful. I couldn’t even get him into the ring, so I told Dan he had to show the horse for me,” Laura explained. “He said he wasn’t going to do that unless they changed the dress code to blue jeans and a cowboy hat. Over a couple of bottles of red wine one night, he agreed to wear the English outfit. I quickly bought the clothes online so he couldn’t change his mind.”
“The horse knew the difference between a professional and an amateur, he was just that smart,” Dan remembered. “Laura got me the attire and the next day I showed the horse — and it wasn’t like it was a schooling show, it was at Pin Oak! I knew I had to do what I said I was going to do, so I strapped all this stuff on and took the horse into the ring.”
Dan had consulted with successful Texas hunter-jumper riders such as Peter Pletcher and Michael McCormick in his training business, and had jumped many horses at home, so he knew what he was doing. It was just that the correct English breeches, boots and helmet were unfamiliar. After Dan’s very first show jumper round, where he successfully got the horse through the course, he joked that if he won the class he’d lay down in the arena and make a sand angel. Dan was warned by another trainer that if he did that, he would be fined $500 by the show officials.
“I said that I would pay the fine!” Laura said. They both laughed at the memory and Dan added, “So I made the sand angel and I still have the picture of it.”
Laura said, “But since it made everyone laugh — including two very serious paddock masters — Dan was not charged a fine after all!”
While the memory made the couple smile, Dan said with serious conviction about this start in the jumper world, “It made me a better horseman. For a while there I thought, How can a cowboy go in there and do this? You’re just out of your realm, but now, I don’t think about that. Instead I think about the confidence that I’m giving each horse that goes into the ring. These days my cowboy friends don’t make fun of me anymore, they actually have a lot of respect for me when they see what I can do and how it has made these horses better and safer for their owners. It’s made me a better rider, it’s made me a better horseman, it’s made me a better person.”
Learning from the Other
Their love and respect for each other was clear as Laura and Dan shared stories and about their work and personalities, their trials and tribulations and their different ideas and experiences.
“I wish I could say there’s one person that has made me who I am today, but you don’t have enough paper to write down all of the people that have influenced me,” Dan said. “Some aren’t even professionals who have made me a better rider, trainer and horseman, and my wife is one of them. There were so many times when I was confused, frustrated and wanting to quit that Laura would slap me on the head and say, ‘Quit thinking like that, you have to think like this,’ which has changed my thought process. I call Laura my voice of reason, and I get to wake up with her every morning.”
Laura had ridden as a teenager in the Houston, Texas, area but had drifted away from it until she started with horses again later in adulthood. What began as a few horses at home led to her getting back into lessons and showing. Laura became even more immersed in the horse business when she opened a boarding facility on Lake Travis near her home in Austin in 2010. It was there that Laura met Dan through a client and he began to do some clinics at her barn and helped her and her boarders with some of their horses.
“I wouldn’t be doing any of what I’m doing or be where I am — or be as happy as I am — if it weren’t for Dan,” Laura said. “I’ve watched him work with amateurs as well as those more experienced and horses with all personalities, problems, disciplines, breeds and much more. I see the difference Dan makes in both the horses and people. I’m thankful that I get to experience that every day. He’s my hero.”
“She has come a long way,” Dan said with pride. “When we first met, Laura said that her goal was to be able to jump a 3’ fence, and now that height is what she warms up over.”
Laura added, “It’s not only that, it’s the whole thing — it’s horsemanship. I’m not just a rider, I’m not just a passenger; I feel like I’m more of a horsewoman and I’m able to recognize the silly things I used to do, the mistakes I made — and still do, the excuses I’d made and just how little I knew at the time. Dan brought things into a completely different light for me. He has exposed me to reality and instilled confidence in me I otherwise would have never had. He changed my thought process as well.”
The Relentless Pony Rider
Dan grew up on his family’s ranch in Fayetteville, Texas, where horses were needed to care for the family’s cattle herd. He had responsibilities on the ranch as a boy and rode his pony checking fence lines and working with cattle. He loved to ride so much that when his father took his tack away because he insisted on riding his pony without a break, Dan made a bridle from hay twine and rode bareback. Regardless of the fact that the pony easily tossed him off without a saddle, he still kept at it. It was in his blood.
“Later on in high school, I wanted to become a roper so I took a thousand dollars I’d made from the show steer that I raised myself and bought my first real roping horse and started roping,” Dan said. “I found that I had a real passion for it and after high school, I started a roping career while also training and breezing young racehorses for a big racehorse facility. After four years, I stopped racehorse training and I became a professional farrier for 24 years. I enjoyed it and became really good at it. I ended up shoeing for some very well-known facilities all over the country and won many awards.”
While working as a farrier and roping professionally, Dan also started helping others who had problem horses. He was so successful that people began to bring higher-level horses to him. When USEF “S” Dressage Judge and trainer Fran Dearing-Kehr told him, “Do you have any idea of what you have to offer? You have the ability to help these horses and people,” it became a turning point for him.
“Fran brought something out in me that I didn’t even know I had,” Dan remembered. “So the full-time farrier business began to decrease because I started getting more horses that were problem cases and young horses, and I just didn’t have time for both. I began to really focus on my training program. I’ve trained horses and competed in just about every discipline and have done several colt-starting competitions. I can honestly say that my favorite discipline to compete in is whatever horse I’m sitting on at the time and what his gift is.”
Dan finds show jumping to be especially intriguing because of the technical aspects, and that every horse reacts differently to the work. “I truly enjoy seeing these jumping horses succeed, raising their confidence to use their mind and body parts to carry the rider. I really get a thrill from seeing progress from day one of a show to the last day. I think that giving the horse a chance either to learn for the first time or start over in his or her training is my gift.”
The Woman Behind the Man
Growing up, Laura didn’t have the same opportunities as Dan but she focused more on her riding as an adult. Laura’s trainer encouraged students to learn as much as they could, even seeking outside help, which is a not always a common philosophy to be found at some barns.
“You’ll learn something from everyone,” Laura advised. “Find what works best for you and keep an open mind. Trainers have seen and done much more than you have, so listen to different trainers, not the other amateurs. It’s your journey, not theirs.”
Although Laura is not a professional rider, she and Dan have benefited in several ways by helping each other. “Riding and training are second nature to Dan so I feel I bring to light some of the very real concerns that amateurs have that Dan just doesn’t always think of, which I believe helps him with his clients.”
Laura is able to help Dan by occasionally riding his client’s horses so that he can see how well the horse is progressing in training and how well they will do with their owners.
“I don’t get quite as nervous as I used to when showing and I think it’s because of just doing it again and again and not caring about what everybody else is thinking,” Laura said. “As an amateur, you kind of size yourself up and compare yourself to others and that can be a detriment. Because of the nature of our business, I’m able to focus on the fact that I’m doing this to get young horses out here into the show ring, and for some of them, it’s with an amateur for the first time. It’s a much different ride with me in the irons than Dan, which is a true testimony for Dan’s work. I also learned the hard way that you have to walk out of the warm-up ring feeling good, keeping in mind that the horse is still in training and it may not be perfect.”
Dan emphasized that Laura is a vital part to his business when he said, “It takes a great woman to make a great man!”
Photos by Kristie Nichols, moonfyrephotography.com