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Gumption, talent and serious hard work – find out more about Laura Collett’s early riding career
Posted in Behind the Scenes
She’s just claimed her second five-star title in as many years, and her efforts were enough to put Great Britain in Olympic gold medal-winning position at Tokyo 2020 – but how much do you know of Laura Collett’s early career?
After a successful early ridden career that saw eventer Laura Collett win one of the country’s most coveted showing championships, followed by gold and bronze medals at the European Pony Championships, not to mention an equally impressive record, if not more so on horses, if you’re only just hearing of her name after her record-breaking Badminton performance, you’ve got a lot to catch up on! H&R dives into the history books to learn more of Laura’s early riding memories.
Making it happen
Laura’s name first started making headlines when she was the first rider to take the supreme pony championship at Horse of the Year Show in 2003 – riding a Welsh section A called Penwayn Ryan. However, though childhood successes at the upper echelons of the showing circuit could have set her up for a lucrative career under the lights, Laura decided early on that this wasn’t what she was going to focus on in the long term.
“I got bored, basically,” she laughs. “I wanted to do something more exciting, but I wasn’t sure what.”
Pony Club showjumping and eventing beckoned – but first, she had to get the right mount. For Laura and her mother, Tracey, the system was set in stone – without significant money behind them, any competing had to be funded by training and selling on ponies.
“I always had one pony that was mine, though,” she explains. “We’d get them unbroken off the Welsh mountains and I’d have to sell them on as soon as they were good enough, but there’d always be one that I’d get to keep.”
That meant that when it was time to find a pony to take her beyond the show ring, she had her own money to use – and that proved crucial. The first pony she went to see was a five-year-old called Noble Springbok, who’d flunked out of his intended job as a 14hh working hunter pony because he was overheight. Laura loved him from the moment she sat on him – but her mother wanted to take a more reasonable approach.
Brat moments and broncing
“Mum told me I couldn’t buy the first one I tried because we didn’t know what we were looking for, and I had a massive brat moment, basically, and insisted that it was my money and I had to buy him,” she remembers. Her gut feeling was right: within just a couple of years, the pair had gone from never having evented to winning gold and bronze at the Pony European Championships. When Laura aged out of pony classes in 2005, the amount of money she sold him for was, as then-Team GB chef d’equipe Yogi Breisner put it, “enough to buy some horses that’ll set you up for life.”
It would go on to fund, among others, the purchase of first horse Rayef.
“He was advertised in Horse Deals, which I’d never bought but someone had left it on the yard. I saw his photo and thought he was so pretty – but he was seven and had only jumped a couple of 1m showjumping classes.”
But, says Laura, “I fell in love with his face.” Once again, her mother wasn’t keen. Rayef was at least two inches bigger than advertised and at 16.3hh, he dwarfed his diminutive rider. What’s more, he had a penchant for broncing on the landing side of fences – and while this made Laura laugh, Tracey didn’t find it so funny. The solution?
“Another brat moment,” laughs Laura. They’d go on to win four gold medals at Junior and Young Rider Europeans, finish in the top 10 at their first Badminton and make a Senior European team debut, too.
A hitch in the plan
A combination of gumption, raw talent and a serious amount of hard work put Laura on the map at an impressively young age – but it also nearly ended her entire career.
Without limitless funding, Laura’s business of producing and selling continued as she tackled Senior competition – and now it was paired with riding for owners, all of whom believed their horse might be the next big thing. Certain that being a good rider – and almost more importantly, being a solvent businesswoman – meant never saying no, Laura competed whatever she was asked to and did so without fear.
But in 2013, this mindset would change. A seemingly innocuous outing to Tweseldown Horse Trials ended in an induced coma, a punctured lung, broken shoulder and ribs, and damage to her liver and kidneys after her horse flipped over a fence and landed on top of her.
“Earlier on in the course he’d jumped into a ditch and headbutted a hedge, and then we had another hairy moment before the fall,” says Laura, who doesn’t remember any part of the day but has rewatched the video hundreds of times. “My mum said afterwards, ‘at what point did you think you maybe should have pulled up?!’”
The incident prompted a shift in priorities: “Before the accident I’d ride anything. Money was money, and you just got on with it,” she says. “But after, I had a big clear-out. I felt really stupid – what if I’d ended my career riding a horse who I knew wasn’t a great jumper? I had to stop trying to be a hero.”
She also needed to reckon with the aftereffects of her injuries – the extent of which weren’t known until she woke up to find her vision almost totally gone in her right eye.
“I’d say it’s about 90% black. Yogi was really strict with me – he only let me jump experienced horses for the rest of the year, because I had to relearn how to see a distance and they already knew how to do that for themselves. There were some quite scary moments at home while I figured it out, but Yogi would say to me, ‘well, you couldn’t see a stride with two eyes, so I don’t see what difference having one makes!’”
A life online
Growing up in the spotlight is tough, and Laura’s experienced the worst aspects of it – most notably in 2015, when she made headlines with one of the country’s best-loved racehorses.
Kauto Star retired in 2012 from an illustrious National Hunt career that saw him win £2.4m over 41 runs. But rather than retire him outright, owner Clive Smith decided to send Kauto to Laura to turn his hoof to dressage.
“I’d followed him when he was racing, so it was an amazing opportunity,” reflects Laura. “He was a pleasure to have and had certain traits where you could see why he’d been such an amazing racehorse – anyone who walked onto the yard was immediately drawn to him, and I think the really great horses do have that special twinkle in their eye that he had.”
But other fans of the horse weren’t quite so positive about the situation and after a public demo ride, Laura started to receive abusive messages accusing her of treating Kauto Star ‘like a circus animal’. Among those messages were threats of bodily harm to the rider.
“The thing that kept me going was knowing that he was being treated like a king at my yard,” she says. “It was almost a joke, really, because he had the sort of character where you could never make him do anything he didn’t want to do, and we wouldn’t have tried to – he was fully in charge and the happiest horse.”
Looking to the future
Though Laura’s career has already been filled with a lifetime’s worth of crushing lows and extraordinary highs, she’s only just getting started. At just 32 years old, she’s achieved things that most riders only dream of – but she’s got plenty of unfinished business.
If a dramatic rollercoaster of a 2019 wrote Laura off most people’s lists for the postponed Tokyo Olympics, her domination of the shortened 2020 season put her back in serious contention with both of her top horses – a position the determined rider wasn’t wholly unfamiliar with after being longlisted for the 2016 Rio Games. She proved wrong any of the naysayers who’d had doubts in her abilities, and she came home from the prestigious occasion as part of the Olympic gold medal-winning Great British eventing team. Laura was also appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2022 New Year’s Honours List for her services to eventing, after she’d helped Britain to its first team gold for almost 50 years. And now, with a Badminton victory in the bag, she’s ticked off another goal from the list.
But come what may, these enormous victories Laura’s been able to celebrate in recent years mean something to her that can never be taken away. For Laura, it’s an affirmation that through those ups and downs, the dogged belief in her horses and the uphill battle to make it all work, she’s been on the right path all along.
“It’s proved to me that I can do it, and on a personal note, that’s a big milestone,” she says. “It’s something we’ve always dreamed of, but I never really believed it would happen.