After this story was completed, the Chronicle received news that Laurel recently died from complications following emergency colic surgery. The Chronicle is grateful to share Laurel’s story in his memory, and we extend our condolences to all his human connections.
In the heart of the Kentucky bluegrass on a bright spring day in 2007, a chestnut son of Woodman first unfolded his long, spindly legs. With a pedigree tracing to racing royalty like Mr. Prospector, Swaps, Native Dancer and Nashua, breeder Frank Mitchell of LeJardin, LLC, had great hopes for the youngster. Mitchell registered the colt, affectionately as Rufous, with The Jockey Club as Grasp The Laurel.
As Rufous matured, Mitchell was impressed with his attitude and personality, and he planned to sell the attractive colt as a yearling at the Keeneland sale. But the youngster fell ill and returned to the farm, where his ground-covering canter soon caught the eye of top racing trainer Jose Garoffalo. Garoffalo was so impressed he immediately purchased Laurel and his younger full brother on behalf of a client. But the buyer, whom Mitchell never met, took the colts away from Garoffalo before they started formal training, and soon both men lost track of Rufous. For years, Mitchell searched for his special homebred, but it was as if the youngster had simply disappeared.
The complete story of what happened next was known perhaps only to the horse himself. Though tattooed, Grasp The Laurel had no recorded starts, at some point was gelded, and he eventually ended up at Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company in Florida, where he was used as an outrider horse. But due to a tendency to bolt, he wasn’t very good at the job. That perhaps was how he ended up with a group of owners reportedly known at OBS for their rough and abusive handling practices. When they couldn’t make any headway with the now 7-year-old Rufous, they made plans to sell him to a dealer shipping horses to a Mexican slaughterhouse.
Fortunately for Rufous, during his time at OBS, he had also caught the attention of an outrider known as Duke. Duke noticed the quality of Rufous’ movement, his elegance and his kind temperament in the barn. Duke knew where Rufous was living and what had likely happened to the sensitive young horse in the hands of these particular owners. When he heard they intended to ship Rufous to slaughter, he offered to take the animal off their hands. Then he called his friend Molly Kenney, a grand prix show jumper now based in Ocala.
“He told her, ‘You should really come see this horse, because he’s the kind of horse you girls like,’ ” said Katherine Cooper, Kenney’s longtime friend and student. “Molly went to see him, and she called me. She says, ‘I can’t take on another horse right now, but Katherine, we can’t let this horse go.’ ”
At the time, Cooper, a USEF “r” eventing technical delegate and professional trainer, was between horses. She trusted Kenney’s judgement and had plenty of previous experience working with Thoroughbreds. She agreed to take him on, and in May 2014, Rufous traveled north to his new home at Cooper’s Beniah Lane Farm in Epping, New Hampshire.
When he arrived, Cooper knew little about her new horse beyond what Duke had shared with them. It was through his tattoo that Cooper learned the chestnut gelding’s true identity. She began calling him Laurel and worked on tracking down his breeder to see if she could gain insight into his early years. In the meantime, after her veterinarian addressed some “significant” dental issues, Cooper began working her new horse under saddle. It wasn’t long before she realized that sorting through Laurel’s baggage was going to challenge her horsemanship skills in unexpected ways.
“He was really tough,” Cooper recalled. “I would be trotting a 20-meter circle, and suddenly he would run straight sideways with his head in the air. He could go completely vertical.
“It took a while just to get him to be basically cooperative,” she continued. “He was distrustful; he was scared. He really had a lot of fear. But he was such a quality horse. His athleticism was obvious, and he was just so sweet in the barn. I didn’t think he wanted to be like that, so we kept plugging away.”
Three months after Laurel’s arrival, Cooper succeeded in connecting with his breeder via email. In his message, Mitchell shared his relief to learn of Laurel’s whereabouts.
“You have made my day,” he wrote to Cooper. “We are so glad to hear that he has come into good and wise hands and that his future is bright. … To the best we could discover, his owner was negligent in all matters. … We have feared the worst for some time, and even though he was on our Jockey Club list of horses that we would sponsor or offer a home, we had not heard a word until your email came. … We are truly thrilled for the horse and for you.”
Bolstered by this encouragement and Laurel’s clear potential, Cooper became even more determined to figure out how to ride the sensitive gelding effectively. That fall, she sent him to Florida to spend the season with Kenney while she commuted back and forth to train. Through Kenney, Cooper and Laurel had the opportunity to work with Silvio Mazzoni, an international eventer and show jumper who at the time was also the show jumping coach for the U.S. eventing team. Mazzoni was instrumental in providing new insight into Laurel’s needs.
“[Mazzoni] is just an absolutely unbelievable horseman,” Cooper said. “He would ride Laurel, and he could get him cantering slow, going over jumps quietly. Laurel would react to something, and he could catch it before it would spiral, whereas I had a lot harder time with that.”
Mazzoni taught Cooper that the best way to communicate with Laurel was to stay softer with her aids than she had ever ridden before. Laurel responded best to an extremely tactful ride, with a light seat and steady, still upper body.
“I had to use one-third of the aids I would normally use when I thought I was being soft,” Cooper said with a laugh.
In 2015, Cooper finally felt ready to compete Laurel for the first time, entering him in the Groton House Horse Trials (Massachusetts) at novice. When he handled the jumping phases with confidence, she moved him up to training level later that summer. But with the increased speed required on cross-country at that level, Laurel’s nervous energy returned—as did his bolting. After a season of inconsistent results, Cooper again looked for expert help.
“I watched about 10 million videos of people and sent him to Hannah Sue Burnett,” she said. “She probably has the most quiet upper body—it is amazing how quiet she is. I figured if he’s going to accept this, that is the ride he needs.”
With Burnett’s help over the next several years—as well as continued tutelage from Kenney and, occasionally, Olympic gold medalist David O’Connor—Laurel and Cooper developed a stronger partnership, competing extensively at training level and eventually a few events at preliminary.
In between horse trials, Cooper and Laurel occasionally dabbled in jumper or dressage classes. In summer 2017, Cooper took Laurel to a local show hosted by the New Hampshire Hunter/Jumper Association to compete in a few jumper rounds. While there, he caught the eye of three-ring coach Gretchen Anderson of Apple Knoll Farm in New Boston, New Hampshire. She was impressed by Laurel’s natural balance and powerful canter rhythm.
“For an old school girl like me, a classic Thoroughbred and their intelligence just has a little something extra,” Anderson said. “He’s a little unsuspecting-looking, just a plain chestnut horse. But Laurel was incredibly forgiving and accommodating to his rider, and he had a pretty canter going across the ground.
“She comes out of the ring loving on him, and he’s got a big smile on his face, and he stood so quietly outside of the ring,” Anderson continued.
Anderson inquired whether Laurel was for sale. But Cooper felt she was in a good place with her horse, and she named a price that was well beyond what Anderson was willing to pay at the time.
“I’m always looking for a sales horse to flip or the right horse to invest in, and I didn’t have a client for him,” Anderson said. “I was just interested in him.”
But in November 2017, Cooper experienced a personal setback. Complications from knee replacement surgery and a prolonged and challenging rehabilitation left her worried that she would never ride again. Ultimately, she ended up out of the saddle for over six months, eventually getting back on Laurel the following summer. After testing out her new knee at novice, Cooper successfully moved back up to preliminary at the Essex Horse Trials (New Jersey).
“We got around that, and it was so meaningful because there were some dark days where I didn’t even think I would go novice again,” Cooper said. “That I took him there and did another preliminary was a big milestone for me. I was so grateful to him. But when he came off that [cross-country] course, he was a little freaked out.
“He is a very careful horse, and it was a big, bold course,” Cooper continued. “I think he was like, ‘Whoa…’ He did it for me, but I don’t think he necessarily enjoyed it that much.”
Cooper tried taking Laurel out at preliminary several more times that year, but it became clear to her that the horse wasn’t happy on cross-country at that level.
“It was a combination of the adrenaline, and making the effort and truly galloping again,” she said. “I think it was too emotional for him. He was show jumping great, and his dressage was lovely, but the cross-country almost deteriorated when he started to go preliminary. And the bolt thing was always in there still. He was saying, ‘This is not for me.’ ”
Cooper knew she was at a crossroads with Laurel. Then she remembered Anderson’s previous interest in the horse and, thinking that the jumper ring might be the perfect fit, contacted the trainer. This time, the sale came together, and Laurel moved to Anderson’s farm. Initially, Anderson competed him herself—the first time the trainer had a horse of her own in a long time. That fall, she took him to the Deerfield Fair (New Hampshire), a popular local show featuring jumper classes held under the lights at night in front of a large crowd.
“He went in there like a professional,” Anderson said. “He’d never been to anything like that before. He was just such a good boy.”
In 2020, Anderson began leasing Laurel to students who needed a confidence boost or wanted to try the jumper ring for the first time. In show jumping, Laurel’s sensitivity proved to be an asset, and his talent for carrying speed while turning efficiently allowed him to shine. Secure in his job, the once nervous Laurel became a go-to, reliable mount.
“Laurel is the same today, tomorrow and yesterday,” Anderson said. “The consistency and comfort that he gives, especially for those kids that have some nervous energy or self-confidence issues—he just is a star. It has been fun to watch those girls blossom into being competitive in the jumper ring because on him, they don’t mind turning faster or galloping a little.”
Cooper finds it ironic that the horse who challenged her own riding skills turned into such a confidence-booster for others. But she is grateful for everything that Laurel taught her.
“He really made me a much better rider,” she said. “He challenged my confidence. In trying to figure him out, it got me introduced to Silvio and Hannah Sue and David.
“To see these girls riding him around, and he’s whipping through turns in the jumper ring… He just corners like he’s on rails,” she continued. “He’s super brave, and of course he’ll jump anything. It’s cool to see. He’s in the right place now.”
Do you know a horse or pony who has been rescued from a dangerous situation to become a healthy, trusted competition partner today? If you think you have a good candidate for “From Rescue To Ribbons,” let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.