By Doris Degner-Foster
One of Laura Kraut’s best horses came into her life as a result of boredom. She was at a show in Belgium in 2005 and didn’t speak the language, so her attention wandered while watching a Grand Prix class with more than 100 entries. Laura said, “I happened to glance into the arena where they were showing young horses over low fences, and this horse caught my eye.”
He was a small 7-year-old gray gelding who jumped very gracefully and athletically, but was extremely green. Laura arranged to ride him and, after jumping him over a few jumps, she was sold. “He was so light you couldn’t feel him take off or land. He had no technique, though, but I just had a feeling about him.”
Laura’s feeling paid off. That gray horse standing only 15.2 hands was Cedric, her mount for the 2008 Olympic Games where she won team gold.
A Busy Schedule
Competing throughout the U.S. and Europe with several horses, Laura’s schedule is hectic. She usually starts the year showing in Florida at the Winter Equestrian Festival then, while based out of England, she shows in Europe for the summer and fall. The Global Champions Tour takes high priority in the scheduling.
“I’m very fortunate in that I’m a little bit of a laid-back person so it’s probably easier for me, but I’ve always been relatively calm about everything and I don’t overreact to things,” Laura said. “Even in competition, I’m never one who gets high-strung or nervous. I just kind of keep everything grounded and that’s worked best for me.”
Perhaps what also helps Laura to stay calm and focused is an organized staff. Between Laura and her partner, British rider Nick Skelton, they travel with approximately 40 horses including theirs and their students’. Obviously, that requires careful planning. Laura’s horses are under the care and management of her sister Mary Elizabeth. “There’s a whole lot of planning going on and, fortunately for me, that’s something that she enjoys doing and I don’t,” Laura said. “It’s great that she handles all the details and leaves all the showing and competing to me, which is perfect.” Mary Elizabeth manages the grooms and horses. A bookkeeper and personal secretary complete her staff to leave Laura free to share coaching and riding duties with Nick.
For almost two decades, Laura has represented the United States in the Olympic Games, World Cup Finals and on Nations Cup teams. But when asked which accomplishment is the most memorable for her, Laura quickly answered, “One of my proudest accomplishments is my son Bobby. [Becoming a mom] helped me put everything in perspective. He’s the grounding device for me so that I focus on him and the family.” Bobby is now 15 and attends school in the U.S. and divides his time between his father, Robert Kraut, and his family, and Laura’s mom, Carol Kent, when Laura is traveling. She maintains close contact when she’s on the road and talks with Bobby on a daily basis.
Although she has a busy schedule filled with traveling and showing horses, spending time with her family is a priority for Laura. Bobby spends his summers with Laura in Europe and they enjoy riding together out in the countryside. He comes to the shows with Laura and has said that sometimes watching her competing makes him nervous, but he happily cheers and applauds for his mom following a clear round.
“A tradition that we’ve established is being in England over Christmas,” Laura said. “We go to London and see some shows, which is fun, and Nick’s sons are into steeplechasing so we like to go racing. My mother comes as well, and she likes to antique shop so we divide our time between riding in the Cotswold countryside and antiquing. [Bobby likes to ride], so it’s really fun for us just to be riding together.”
The Early Years
Laura grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and her mom, Carol Kent, could be credited with starting her career with horses. She taught Laura exercises on the lunge line to learn balance in the saddle at the age of 4. Carol had ridden gaited horses before making the transition to hunters, and had always taken care of her horses without a groom, so she instilled that same independence in her daughters. Carol has spoken fondly of the times when she and her late husband would take Laura and Mary Elizabeth to horse shows out of town by themselves.
Later, during Laura and Mary Elizabeth’s teen years, they were students of Kathy Paxson and Ann Keenan in Atlanta, where they had the opportunity to successfully show several different horses and ponies. Carol has said that the horse show environment was different then. While competing in North Carolina, girls who had top ponies would have fun taking them swimming in the creek behind the barns at Harmon Field in Tryon after the show. That attitude of enjoying the ride seems to have stayed with Laura throughout her career.
Although her enjoyment has remained constant, Laura’s goals have changed dramatically during the course of her career. As recently as 15 years ago when she was in her mid 30s, Laura rode as many hunters as she did jumpers. She realized that she’d need to decide where to focus her time and talents in order to do her best. “It had a lot to with the way our sport has evolved in that it’s almost impossible to do both to the best of your ability,” she said. “When given the opportunity to ride on teams and compete in Europe, I chose jumpers.”
It was a turning point in Laura’s career in 2000 when she was given the chance to compete in Europe. She remembered, “I had an opportunity for the first time to go to Europe for about five weeks and to be a part of some teams. I worried at that point about my business, because I was still riding some hunters and I had a lot of students.” Laura didn’t think it was something that she could afford to do — financially or business wise. But with careful planning, she bit the bullet and went.
Influencing Laura’s decision was Katie Prudent, who recommended that she go because it was the year of the Olympics. Laura remembers Katie talking to her about Liberty, her Dutch Warmblood mare that she was competing. “I think you have a shot with your young mare, but you need to come to Europe and gain some experience,” Katie said. It turned out to be the right decision and, with that experience under her belt, Laura won the first Olympic Trial in Gladstone and went on to win the 2001 $100,000 USET Open Jumper Championship.
Making that initial trip to Europe was a gamble that paid off, resulting in an accomplishment that certainly helped Laura and her business in the long run. But if it hadn’t, it seems that she would’ve been able to handle the disappointment. “I think maybe the times that have been more challenging to somebody else might be catastrophic, but to me I don’t allow them to be,” Laura said. “I do feel very blessed and I’ve had a lot of great opportunities and a lot of great people around me and obviously great horses. I feel very lucky to have things go as smoothly as they have even when there are some things that don’t go the way you think they should. There’s no reason to let that take away from what I still have, and the horses that I still have, and you just keep going.”
That way of thinking helped Laura turn lemons into lemonade when she was awarded the Jack Kelly, Jr. Award in 2003. The award was established in 1985 to honor the late USOC President John B. (Jack) Kelly Jr. It’s presented to an athlete, coach or official for an outstanding act of fair play or sportsmanship during the past year.
While Laura was a member of the U.S. Equestrian Team in the Dominican Republic, her horse received a slight injury and, while it wasn’t severe enough for the horse to fail the veterinary inspection, Laura was concerned that it might affect the outcome of the competition for the team. It was important for the U.S. team to do well in the Dominican Republic in order to qualify for the 2004 Olympic Games, so Laura chose to withdraw her horse and the alternate rider competed. Laura didn’t go home; she stayed in the Dominican Republic and became the team assistant, supporting her teammates as they went on to win the gold medal and therefore qualify for the Olympics in Athens.
Laura has been a Riding Ambassador to raise funds and awareness for JustWorld International since its inception in late 2002 by former international grand prix rider Jessica Newman. JustWorld International is a not-for-profit humanitarian organization that funds life-changing education, nutrition, health and hygiene, and leadership and cultural development programs for impoverished children in Cambodia, Honduras, Guatemala and Colombia. JustWorld works through the international equestrian community and its extensive networks to fund and sustain programs that provide basic needs to children with little opportunity to receive support from other sources.
“I’ve been very lucky to be surrounded with a supportive family and wonderful friends as I pursue my love of equestrian sports,” Laura said. “By working with JustWorld International, I hope to be able to bring some joy to the lives of children who haven’t been as fortunate as myself.”
Fundraisers for JustWorld involve charity and costume Grand Prix classes. During the Longines Los Angeles Masters, Laura got in on the fun dressed as Catwoman. At the evening fundraising gala, Laura and her partner, Nick Skelton, added to the live auction by auctioning themselves off to teach a block of lessons.
Laura continues to be a popular trainer and coach, stressing the importance of having fun when riding and competing. She has been known to stay after a show to visit with fans and sign autographs.
Although Laura turned 49 in November, she’s still planning to continue her busy schedule of Grand Prix competition. Other riders approaching a certain maturity level sometimes transition back to riding hunters where they still jump, but at lower heights and without the fast pace. Others have made the transition to dressage, but not Laura.
“I feel like I’m lucky [to have been] around people that do the best at what they do,” Laura said. “If you pay attention, you can take a lot from them.”
With the confidence that comes from a wealth of experience and the ability to maintain control of her nerves and emotions under pressure, we can look forward to watching Laura compete for a long time.
About the writer: Doris Degner-Foster rides with Harvard Fox Hounds when she isn’t interviewing interesting individuals in the horse sport. She also writes fiction and is working on a middle-grade mystery series and a mainstream murder mystery where a horse strangely appears in different people’s lives to help them through a crisis. Look for her blog: Notes From the Field on the Sidelines website.