BY EMILY DAILY/JUMP MEDIA
As a life-long rider and fourth-generation equestrian, Laura Connaway always knew she wanted to center her livelihood around horses. But she also realized that a professional riding or traditional equine job was not where she was best suited. Instead, she decided to forge her own innovative career path within the industry that she loves.
Horses in Her Blood
With equestrian roots stretching back to her great-grandfather in the Danish cavalry, Connaway, 54, grew up riding and training young horses at her parents’ farm in Little Rock, Arkansas.
As a junior, she competed in the hunters, jumpers, and equitation on inexpensive, but talented, horses her mother found locally. “My sister, Carolyne, and I would train everything we rode to jump and luckily the horses were nice types and happy to do all the things we asked,” Connaway says.
“I had one special horse who would do the junior hunters and the junior jumpers at the same horse show,” she adds. “Sometimes we had to jog back and forth between the two rings!”
When Connaway began gaining more experience, she discovered her true love lay in the jumper ring. Inspired by the likes of Hap Hansen and other top riders of the 1980s, she knew it was the right sport for her. She trained hard and by the time she was in her 20s, she was competing successfully at the grand prix level.
One of her most rewarding riding opportunities would come later, in the late ‘90s, when she trained with Olympian Laura Kraut. “That was just the ultimate experience because she was so welcoming and she had such a passion for the horses,” recalls Connaway.
One horse that Kraut helped Connaway with was a Thoroughbred named Dansk that Connaway had bought at a local auction. “That was how we got horses, like most people did at that time in their 20s,” Connaway admits. “You didn’t have a lot of money and you just kind of found a horse.”
Connaway had originally purchased the gelding as a re-sale project slated for the hunter ring, but she quickly discovered his fondness for bucking and squealing at the most inopportune times during her rounds. Kraut encouraged her to try him in the jumpers, and soon Dansk began to shine in his new role. “He ended up being a grand prix horse – he was fabulous,” recalls Connaway.
Connecting with Clients
Although Connaway continued to ride throughout college, she focused on gaining a solid education that would give her the future she desired. She knew horses and showing were expensive, and she did not feel competent to ride professionally. So, she decided to create a business that would allow her to enjoy the best of both worlds: a chance to compete her own horses, but also enjoy a fulfilling career in the equine industry.
With her horse-savvy background, Connaway focused her budding career on the equine and farm insurance industry. She got her property and casualty license, and in 1990, began working as an agent for Shawna Dietrich, founder of Dietrich Equine Insurance. Two years later, Connaway launched her own agency, Connaway & Associates Equine Insurance Services, Inc.
Connaway recognized a need and opportunity for an equine insurance firm specializing in sport horses. She wanted to create a company where she and her customers could find common ground, and at that point, no such insurance agency existed for equestrians. “Working with Shawna Dietrich was a great opportunity because she had vast knowledge of the horse industry as well as the insurance industry,” says Connaway. “She was not actively riding or competing at the time we worked together. Being a contemporary and competing alongside our customers was a driving force in starting my own agency.”
“Years ago, when I would go to insure my own horses, I had no idea who the person sitting behind the desk was,” says Connaway. “If you had a problem, you could call someone, but they might not be able to answer your question, or maybe not even take your call. I thought it would be great if there were somebody out there that was your contemporary, knew the sport, and answered your questions face to face. It would be a lot more personal, too.”
Her business venture paid off, and these days, the successful company includes a staff of five, including her mother, Annette, who is the Vice President, and her sister, Carolyne, who manages the farm and liability department.
Connaway and her team’s ability to be relatable is a huge benefit for their customers. Because her agents are horse owners, they’ve often encountered the same types of problems that their clients have. “It’s not just a flippant thing with us, because many times we’ve experienced something similar with our own horses,” says Connaway.
Several times throughout the year, Connaway takes her office on the road with her when she travels to shows, while her team holds down the fort at the office in Arkansas. This gives her the chance for more facetime with clients, but also allows her to stay connected to her agency’s daily business. “I log into my home computer remotely and I can work exactly as if I was in the office,” she says.
Throughout her decades in the industry, Connaway has built life-long friendships with her customers. “Making lifelong friends through our business and being able to enjoy the success of our customers, whether it’s long-distance or they’re standing next to me at the ring, makes it so special. And when things aren’t going as well, in the show ring or with their horses’ health, being able to understand the trials and tribulations our customers are going through is really important.”
A Venture Into Breeding
By 2002, as she found herself at the helm of a thriving company, Connaway also decided to start a small-scale breeding program at her and her husband, John’s, 16-acre farm in Little Rock. Most upper-level jumpers were out of her budget, and since she’d always trained her own horses, she felt she might have the opportunity to ride at the level she wanted if she could start off with the best possible model. She saved enough money to travel to Europe and buy the best young mare she could afford—Ceranova—who would go on to become Connaway’s successful grand prix partner, as well as the farm’s foundation broodmare.
Nowadays, Connaway’s breeding program is in its third generation, though she’s never bred more than a horse every other year and has only bred six horses in total. To date, she still owns every homebred except for one, who is competing with a friend in the A/O hunters.
“Breeding is intoxicating because it’s easy to breed more and more horses,” laughs Connaway. “For me, more is not better because the horses only become as good as the time you spend with them. When discussing bloodlines with people you find out that most all horses are well bred and are athletic, so my belief is what makes a difference in a well-bred, well-formed horse is the time and patience spent training them in a methodical way they understand. I breed solely for my own use, which is unusual in our industry. My goal is to love riding and working with each one so much that I would not sell it. With this in mind I must be careful and not breed more than I can show and train.”
Though Connaway works with various professionals at horse shows, she does most of her training at home, including starting all of the youngsters. “When they’re young, I adhere to the Clinton Anderson program and I train everything from the very beginning,” she says.
Currently, Connaway’s top two partners, Quite Funny (nicknamed “Hap,” in honor of her idol as young rider) and Ceralena, are taking a break after a successful winter season competing in grand prix classes in Ocala, FL, and Gulfport, MS. Though both horses share the same sire (the Holsteiner stallion Quite Easy I), they have complete opposite personalities.
“Hap is totally a surfer dude,” explains Connaway. “He thinks he’s too cool for school and really doesn’t think he needs to practice. On the other hand, Ceralena is extremely business-like and organized in everything she does.”
With shows sidelined for the foreseeable future, Connaway is enjoying training her two youngsters. Giving each of her horses a solid foundation, with a chance for longevity in the sport, has always been one of her key missions. “One of my main goals is to have a horse that when they’re 18 is sound and willing to go out there and still jump at the top level,” she says. “That would show that I’ve kept them happy and healthy. It’s got to be the result of ultimate horsemanship. We have customers that do this, and I admire that so much. “
Though many businesses in the industry have slowed down during the coronavirus pandemic, Connaway and her crew have stayed busy helping their customers. Like many companies, they’ve found creative ways to stay productive and connected while also social distancing. They’ve utilized PPE and also worked in shifts at the office to limit numbers.
Connaway is staying committed to implementing one of her long-time goals for her staff: a four-day work week. “I consider it a huge accomplishment because everybody who works in our business is basically a partner in the whole company,” she says. “We have such longevity with our employees and they’re so dedicated and wonderful—they deserve this.”
Luckily for Connaway, there’s no lengthy commute to her job each day. Her property borders her parents’ old farm and serves as Connaway’s home, work, and stable all in one: her company’s offices are housed above the barn.
Being able to find time away from work and horses is also important to Connaway. She and her husband are avid hikers and love exploring the outdoors as well as catch-and-release fly fishing. Physical fitness is a key part of her life, and she’s a lifelong runner who’s completed the Boston Marathon twice. Connaway also always tries to find time for a weight lifting or boxing workout with her personal trainer – whom she’s had for the past twelve years. “I find that it really helps me with my riding as well, because we work a lot on balance work, core strength, and coordination.”
Whether she’s focusing on growing her business, or planning future shows with her homebreds, Connaway always keeps things in perspective. “I don’t take anything for granted,” she says. “I always remind myself how lucky I am to live this life.”