By George Williams
This past month, U.S. dressage lost one of its greats. Throughout her equestrian career, Carol Lavell set an example of how hard work, persistence and nose-to-the-grindstone-style commitment can make goals become a reality. She inspired many during her competition years and ultimately left a legacy through The Dressage Foundation that helps others make their dreams come true. Since Carol’s death at the age of 79 on March 27, I have read numerous wonderful tributes to her on social media. Carol’s story is being told by others far better than I can ever pretend to tell it.
Let me just say that her wonderful horse, Gifted, caught the eye and imagination of many. Probably the only Olympic horse to come up through the national levels, Gifted won the USDF Horse of the Year award at nearly all except Training and First levels. We all felt like we knew both horse and rider by the time Carol started showing him at Grand Prix. As a result, we rode with the two of them every time they went down the center line in a major international competition. Writing for USDF Connection in 2014, Jennifer Bryant stated, “The flashy bay 1980 Hanoverian gelding (Garibaldi II – Lola, Lombard) with the enormous movement and range was the first modern American equine dressage superstar.” Not surprisingly, and deservedly so, he was the first horse to be inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame. At the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, Carol and Gifted placed sixth individually, ending a 16-year dry spell to lead the U.S. team to a bronze medal—its first medal since winning the bronze at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.
I remember watching Carol and Gifted compete in one of the early Palm Beach Derbies that was modeled after the famous Hamburg Derby. I was shocked that she would let others ride her incredible horse. Her response was matter-of-fact and revealed her practical side. Carol claimed she needed the money to return to her home in northern Vermont at the end of the Florida season.
Another still-vivid memory that sticks in my head is the time I placed second to her in an AHSA Eastern States Dressage Finals. While in the awards ceremony, even though it was only a Second Level class, I recall feeling like I was on a pony sitting on my 17.2-hand horse as we stood next to the already bigger than life Carol and Gifted. Urban legend has it that Gifted’s great size and scope is the reason the zigzag in the Grand Prix was reduced from six to five half passes.
Carol was part of what I consider to be the second, or perhaps even third, generation of trailblazers of American dressage. These individuals played a significant role in the development of our sport. Working with Michael Poulin, Carol started to be noticed in the dressage world in the late ’70s and early ’80s. She competed at the Insilco U.S. Dressage Championships (the precursor to the U.S Dressage Finals) held in Kansas City in 1982. By the late ’80s and early ’90s, she and her new horse, Gifted, were our top/star combination.
When you think that this year the U.S. hosted its seventh FEI World Cup Finals for dressage (the first one being in 1995 in L.A.), it has hosted two dressage World Championships (both were part of a WEG), and how major the Florida circuit has become, it’s easy to assume that dressage has always been strong in the U.S. The reality is that each generation of dressage enthusiast has helped to create what we have today. In order to add volume and depth to our sport, we need to remember them, for all too often they are forgotten. As they say, it does take a village, but it also takes a few strong women (and men) to occasionally lead the way and make it happen. And without a doubt, Carol Lavell was one of them.
Photo: Carol Lavell with her Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame inducted horse, Gifted.