BY JESS CLAWSON
Laura Hite has not spent her entire life planning to ride in the Grand Prix ring. Like many amateurs, she grew up riding in hunters and equitation before stopping to finish college, get married, start her career, and have children. Yet unlike most amateurs, her return to riding took her to the top of the sport.
“When our kids started to get a little bigger, my husband took up mountain biking and suggested that I get a hobby too,” Laura explained. “I told him the only thing I know how to do is ride horses and you don’t want me to do that!”
But he insisted that she try, and so she did, in part because her young daughter also wanted to try riding as well. After being turned away from a few Orange County, California barns because she didn’t own a horse, she found someone willing to let her help her rehab her horse. That person insisted Laura get back into lessons, which lead to Laura buying an inexpensive horse to have fun with.
“I took him to a show and won a couple classes. I thought that was easy, so I went to a bigger show, which is where I realized he wasn’t a hunter,” she laughed. She moved to Joie Gatlin and Morley Abey Show Jumping, where she has been riding for the past 16 years.
Laura worked her way up to the high amateurs, which is when she realized that she wanted to survive a trip in the Grand Prix ring someday. In 2008, not long at all into her jumping career, she entered the Grand Prix at Show Park—the first one for both herself and her horse. “It was exciting. I survived, and placed 10th in the class, and I knew I wanted to do it again.”
Shortly thereafter, she rode in her second Grand Prix at the Menlo Charity Horse Show. “I was walking the course with Joie and Morley’s assistant trainer, Tara Mitzner, and measuring the jumps up to my forehead. I didn’t know if my horse could jump that big. I was hyperventilating.”
Tara called Joie, who assured Laura that she didn’t have to do it. “But I wanted to do it,” she said. So in the gate she went, and cleared one jump after the next. “I was so nervous, I forgot where to go, and I took an unplanned inside turn. I ended up being the only clear round in the first round, so I won. It was surreal.”
When Laura’s horse began to slow down physically, she thought her Grand Prix dreams might be over. She started developing young horses, but none of them showed the potential she wanted. Then she found Calypso VD Zuuthoeve, her horse of a lifetime.
With Calypso, Laura has won Grand Prix competitions in France and the US, most recently besting a field of professionals in the $100,000 Ariat Grand Prix in Thermal. She’s ridden in 1.60m World Cup classes, and hopes to make a Nations Cup team. “It’s a lofty goal, but it’s on my bucket list,” she said.
Meanwhile, she’s discovered a way to merge her professional life with her equestrian one. While competing in France, she found a show clothing brand she loved called Harcour. “I realized I was spending all my time at horse shows. I knew how to do marketing and import and distribution, that’s my job, so I contacted Harcour in France and ultimately got the distribution rights in the US. I recently launched the line at Thermal this year, so now I’m doing that and showing.”
Laura believes the biggest difference between being an amateur and a professional at the Grand Prix level is saddle time. “The professionals ride 10 horses a day, and I’m at a desk,” she explained. “They might have three or four in a Grand Prix class, and while I have three horses, only one is competing at that level, so I only get one shot at the course.”
Her advice for other amateurs who want to compete at this level is simple: “Push yourself. It sounds cliche but it’s all about the climb.” Reaching for goals, as much of a stretch as they may be, is guaranteed to make us better riders.
She also advocates pushing ourselves as key to the mental game. “There’s no question, I’ve had fears. And the only way to get over the fear is to actually do it,” she explained. “Once you do it, you know you can, and you gain a little more confidence every time.”
Laura gives credit to her trainers for knowing what she is capable of and never pushing her beyond her limits, which boosted her confidence. “When I started riding with them, 1.20m looked big to me, yet we worked our way up all the way to 1.60m because I knew they weren’t going to compel me to do anything that would get me or my horse hurt. I think it’s so important to have a trainer you trust.”
Laura might have started on the same track as a lot of amateurs do, however, her accomplishments demonstrate how not limiting herself because of her amateur status has opened possibilities she would never have dreamed of in her youth.
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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