Laura Kraut: Talent and Timing – Part I

3534
Laura Kraut & My Guy

BY ANN JAMIESON

In the Beginning

Riding was what Laura Kraut’s family did. Her mother Carol rode, so both Laura and her sister, Mary Elizabeth, began riding at an early age. The only one who didn’t ride was their dad, Laurence. While living in Harrisonburg, Virginia, three-year-old Laura helped herself onto a horse for the very first time. Climbing the paddock fence in her back yard, Laura launched herself up onto a horse’s back. Carol looked up and there sat Laura, very proud of herself.

Carol had fallen in love with horses as a child. In grammar school in Charlotte, North Carolina, she began riding Saddle horses, and later migrated to riding hunters. When she moved to Atlanta, Carol rode at Rockridge Farm where she took clinics from icon Gordon Wright and his assistant at the time, George Morris. She rode until the girls were born.

Carol’s education with Gordon and George served her daughters well, as she was able to put great basics on them. She didn’t just teach the girls to ride; they learned horsemanship as well. After school the girls headed for the barn where they cleaned stalls, groomed, learned to braid, cleaned tack…and painted feet. Laura remembers how much they loved to paint their ponies’ feet! While they loved to ride, it was more about the love of the animal. Just being around the ponies was always the best part of Laura’s day.

Family life revolved around horses. When Laura was five years old, they moved to Roswell, Georgia. There, Laura and Mary Elizabeth went to the barn every day. They cared for the ponies, took lessons, and went to horse shows. That suited Laura just fine.

Laura and her pony

When Laura was five, their first pony was an 11.2 hand buckskin, a “little devil” says Carol, named Siamese Cat. While he was meant mainly as a pet, both girls rode him, occasionally showing him locally and always earning ribbons. 

By the time she was 12, Laura’s talent and dedication was clear. Her family showed on the southern circuit, including Aiken, Tryon, and Atlanta. At horse shows she competed with her pinto pony, “Plain and Fancy,” who was pure white with one brown ear and blue eyes. At first Laura didn’t want to ride the pony because Fancy looked so different from all the other show ponies. But one ride convinced her, and she fell in love. “She was the best beginner pony you could ever have,” remembers Carol. Fancy and Laura qualified for indoors in the medium pony hunters. 

Laura & Plain and Fancy

The school the girls attended absurdly decided riding was not a proper sport and refused to forgive their absences for horse shows (while excusing swimmers and tennis players). Carol and Laurence solved the problem by transferring them to The Galloway School for Athletes. Students had to be serious competitors in their sport to attend. The transfer meant the girls were now free to pursue their passion while keeping up with schoolwork. Classes were in session from 4-7 p.m., but basically they could schedule what they wanted as long as they kept their grades up.

Hunter Hill Farm

People were keeping an eye on Laura—people who would be instrumental in her career. “By luck,” says Laura, “the trainers (Kathy Paxon and Anne Kenan) at Hunter Hill Farm saw me ride. They had fancy ponies like Polaris Cookie. They called my mom out of the blue and asked if I could ride their ponies. It was a big break!”      

Hunter Hill was one of the finest show stables in Atlanta. Kathy and Anne taught Laura how to ride show hunters, and shared their extensive horsemanship knowledge with her as well. In addition, Laura upped her braiding skills, doing it for all shows including indoors. While Carol had taught the girls all she knew, she says “It was nothing compared to what Kathy and Anne knew.” A year later, they would ask Mary Elizabeth to join them as well.         

It was the perfect situation for horse crazed girls. They could ride every day at a top show barn, with excellent instruction on everything from green ponies to top junior hunters. The girls worked hard. They wanted to learn everything they could. Riding so many different types of horses taught them how to handle any challenge, and to never quit. Rather than believing they couldn’t do something, they would ask themselves, “How can I accomplish this?”

Carol ran the horse show office for Hunter Hill Farm’s five “A” rated shows per year. When Laurence witnessed Carol’s endless nights processing entries, he said, “You know, computers ought to be able to do this.” He headed to a store, bought a computer along with a book on programming, and promptly wrote a program to help Carol process the entries. It made Carol’s job infinitely easier. He then expanded it, and soon they were leasing the program to horse shows everywhere, including Mexico, Canada, and indoors. It was one of the first complete computer programs in the U.S. to run horse show offices. Horse shows would send Laurence their prize list, he would enter the information on a disc, send it back, and they were ready to go. “It made doing horse shows so much easier for everyone,” recalls Carol. After Laurence passed away, Carol continued to do horse shows around the country.  

In time, Hunter Hill bought Jimmy Lee’s “Winning Hand” for Laura to show in the Junior Hunters. The horse had been competing with his wife, Judy, in the amateur-owners. Hunter Hill competed on the Southern Circuit, which was strongly focused on the hunters. Laura qualified for and competed at the Garden every year. Winning Hand was spicy hot, and taught Laura a lot about sitting quietly and riding a sensitive horse. It served her well when Cedric entered her life.                                            

Laura & Winning Hand

Although she did compete in Medal/Maclay, Laura did not have an equitation horse. Instead, Winning Hand had to fill the role. Back then, most riders had one horse, and that horse was expected to do it all. Even though she qualified for and competed in the equitation finals, Winning Hand, says Laura, was “the farthest thing from an equitation horse.”

When Laura qualified Winning Hand for the Junior Hunters at the Garden, the local Atlanta TV channel asked if they could come to the farm and film Laura riding. After filming was complete, Carol recalls, “We were walking back to the barn, and the reporter asked, ‘Do you ever think she’ll get to the Olympics?”‘

She answered, “The Olympics? I haven’t thought ahead that far. At this point we just want to get through the National Horse Show!” 

While school was easy for Laura, a very good student, it wasn’t where her heart lay. She just wanted to be around horses, and ride. Her parents insisted she attend college, so she went in order to satisfy them. She lasted one semester. Despite great grades, when she came home for Christmas, Laura told her father it was a waste both of money and time. She knew what she wanted her life’s path to be, and was ready to move on. Her parents agreed. In the end Carol could not be more proud of what Laura has accomplished in her riding career. “When I look back and see what she’s accomplished, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Early Jumpers

It was only when she turned 19 that Laura decided she wanted to try the jumpers. The trainers at Hunter Hill Farm found her the perfect horse: a Quarter Horse/Thoroughbred cross named Newsbreak who “was just incredible.”  Laura says she could make a fortune today if she had 10 horses like him! 

“He was the best first jumper you could ever ask for. He never had a rail down. He was fast and turned like a Quarter Horse. For not knowing anything about what I was doing, he gave me such confidence. I never worried or thought that it was difficult or dangerous. I could go in knowing I would be clean and my only worry was how fast I could go! I won quite a bit with him in the Amateurs, and it sort of slowly moved on from there.”

Laura & Newsbreak

Laura lucked into yet another great situation when she got the ride on Benny Hill. She was working for Rodney Bross at the time, and his friend Allan Chesler had a big 17 hand Thoroughbred, which he sent to them. Laura loved him. “He was probably a hunter/jumper (competing in both rings); you had to ride him like a hunter. He wanted you to be smooth on him.” With all her experience with hunters, Laura fit the bill. “He was brave as a lion; you could gallop and slice and he would never question you. He was the perfect first Grand Prix horse!” And that perfect first Grand Prix horse, in their very first Grand Prix, took Laura to a win over Ian Millar on Big Ben, one of the top combinations in the world at the time. 

Laura’s ability to be in the right place at the right time continued in 1992, when Geoff Sutton came up to her at the Germantown Charity Show in Tennessee. Laura had seen his horse, Simba Run, quite often and was familiar with him. 

It was a stifling hot Labor Day weekend, around 100 degrees, and Geoff never did enjoy competing in such heat. He said “I’m too old to do this in this heat, is there any way I can get you to ride him?” Besides the heat, Geoff was interested to see what Laura could do with the horse.

Simba was a quirky off-the-track Thoroughbred, and it wasn’t always easy to find riders for him. Geoff remembers when he first saw him. At five he was “wild and wooly and weaving between the jumps. But he was amazing over the top of the jump.” Geoff wondered what kind of a horse he would be given a really good rider.  “Mind you,” says Geoff, “I was not granting myself that kind of skill.” He asked what the horse’s price was, but it was too high.

That spring, he saw him again. Randy Mullins was leading a black horse that Geoff recognized down to the arena. 

He asked, “What horse is that?”

Randy answered, “You know who this horse is.”

Geoff said, “Oh, I really like him, but I couldn’t afford him.”

“Oh but you can now,” was Randy’s reply.

“So I bought him, for $10,000. He was unique, very opinionated and wild, but very talented. His way of going is his way of going. He was not really much influenced by anyone else. He went his way, and you were just along for the ride.” For the next six years, Geoff rode him and did well, showing in Amateur-Owner Jumpers and Grand Prix, but “all the time I wondered what he would be like with a really good rider, someone really talented, like Laura.” Aware of Simba’s potential, he wanted to give him the opportunity to see how far he could go. He approached Laura.                                                                                                

Laura recalls, “I had a saddle, and I would ride anything with four legs, so I said ‘I’ll do it!'” 

While Geoff had big ideas for what Simba could do, Laura remembers, “They were much bigger than what mine would have been.”

Simba quickly won her over to Geoff’s way of thinking. “He was as brave as any horse I ever rode; he could jump anything. He could be typically Thoroughbred hot, but if I got him between the standards, he would jump it. And he was careful.”

After showing him at Germantown, Laura was going to a Grand Prix in Illinois and asked if she could take him. Geoff readily agreed. After placing fifth in the Grand Prix there, she asked if she could take him to indoors. Geoff was thrilled, and of course said yes! Simba’s scope and bravery along with Laura’s tactful riding immediately started bringing the pair success.

So much success, in fact, that the team wound up at the Olympic Trials in Gladstone.

Laura didn’t have much of a track record yet, but what she and Simba had accomplished got them to the Trials. And to her first international experience: the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.  Laura went as the reserve, which she felt was probably a good thing since she’d never been out of the country, never been on a Nations’ Cup team, and didn’t even have a passport when she was selected. She was part of a terrific team: Michael Matz on Heisman, Anne Kursinski on Cannonball, Norman Dello Joio with Irish, and Lisa Jacquin with For the Moment.

It turned out to be an incredible opportunity for her. Because of an outbreak of African Sleeping Sickness in Spain the horses had to be quarantined for two months in Europe. Laura was able to compete in Italy and Rotterdam, doing the Nations Cups at both shows. “It became an addiction,” she says. “I knew that was definitely what I wanted to do.”

While Laura sometimes “lucked into” great situations, and great horses, her strong work ethic made it all come together. Her natural talent, combined with endless hours of hard work from a very young age, put her in the perfect position to attract “luck” into her life. Carol says that if Laura has a bad experience in the show ring, she puts it out of her mind, and doesn’t carry it on. She says, “I did it, it was wrong, and I’ll correct it and go on. That is sort of her attitude in life.”                                                                                                            

Thoroughbreds

Laura has always been a big fan of Thoroughbreds, and has achieved tremendous success with them. She loves just how light they are; they take very little leg and not a whole lot of hand. Although they can be hot and flighty, she loves their innate speed and their quick getaway from a fence. Several Thoroughbreds, including Winning Hand, Benny Hill, and Simba Run, have helped catapult Laura to the top of the sport.

It was Cedric’s lightness that reminded her of a Thoroughbred and first drew her to him. And it was the same when she tried Baloutinue, her team silver medal partner in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She loved that he rode like a Thoroughbred.  

“Baloutinue has got a lot of blood, he’s brave, and scopey, and has all the best qualities of a Thoroughbred. He’s just a fast horse.” 

Click here for Part II.


About the Author: Ann Jamieson wanted to be a horse show judge since she was a child, and has now held her USEF “”r”” judge’s cards for over 30 years. She writes about both horses, and travel, (and particularly loves combining the two). Ann is the author of the “”For the Love of the Horse”” series, four volumes of amazing true stories about horses, and the proud mom of her Secretariat grandson, Fred Astaire (Tucker).
Read More from This Author »