I went to groom for Carol Lavell when I was 22. I had done Young Riders, I had done the U25 Championships, and I thought I was quite the fancy thing. She offered me cash, which I took, of course, but I also asked for two lessons a week to be included in my salary. In my first lesson, I brought my Grand Prix horse. Carol and I worked on steering, mostly at the walk, because she said I didn’t know how, and how could I move on to the big things until I could turn at the walk?
Humbling, to say the least. Carol had that tough, no-nonsense New England way about her, too. While she was never mean, she certainly did not give a whole lot of a damn about my feelings. We got along swimmingly because, little egotistical thing that I was, I was still a good soldier, and I think Carol appreciated that about me, because soon not only did I get to ride my own horses in my own lessons, but I got to ride some of her young horses as well.
Her lessons were intense. Carol was a true genius, which meant that her brain operated at a rate of speed that even my fairly bright one could hardly keep up with. She was extremely thorough in all things, including the precise order and manner in which she wanted her horses groomed and tacked, and that she wanted her day to flow. That precision, that thoughtfulness behind everything she did, were really my first lessons in care at the international level, and I’ve held to some of those ideas in the barn still today.
And that precision applied to the riding. The nuance to how teeny tiny Carol rode horses was so insightful, particularly to a big battle axe like myself, who could use herself for leverage; Carol spoke so often about how, because of her size, she’d learned to be incredibly effective with so much less pressure. It was how she achieved great things with a behemoth like Gifted, her career-making horse, one that she had to earn her place with, as most Europeans said things to her like, “What is a little girl like you doing with a big horse like that?”
I waffled on whether to work for her longer, or whether to pursue an opportunity I had in New Hampshire before setting out on my own. The New Hampshire opportunity proved life-changing as well, and while perhaps I could have waited longer to stretch my wings solo, I’m still here 15 years later, so I must be doing something right. But I often—especially in those first few years—thought about The Road Not Travelled. Should I have spent more time, particularly as such a big, tall, strong person, studying from someone so petite and refined in her riding?
We’ll never know. But Carol and I were not strangers after my time working for her. We stayed in touch, and while I never brought her in for clinics—her frank teaching style might not have been appreciated by the average amateur—I rode with her often in Florida, which I called my “Resilience Training” lessons, because if I could still hold my head up high after a lesson with Carol, I could handle whatever life threw at me. And it was quite incredible to watch, as Alzheimer’s began to take her memories, how much teaching riding brought her back to the present.
While she may have been brisk in her teaching, her love for her students, both two-legged and four, was beyond measure. And Carol cherished off-horse education, valuing greatly the power of the written and read word. When Ellegria and Victorious were Grand Prix horses, and again when Danny Ocean was 8 but touching upon all the Grand Prix work, I applied for the Dressage Foundation’s $25,000 high performance rider prize, founded by Carol, her husband Tom, and her wonderful father, all in her name. I was passed over, year after year.
The January Danny turned 9, Carol drove down my driveway (interrupting a lesson I was teaching) to tell me that she and Tom were tired of seeing my articulate applications, complete with an excellent plan, passed over. So they’d decided to sponsor me themselves, doing so for years, with no expectations other than my hard work, and my regular reports on how it was going. They were gracious when Danny got sick, even more gracious when he died, and while they were never members of The Elvis Syndicate, Carol watched videos of him with me, and encouraged me to take the plunge.
Early on in her time with Gifted, someone of importance told her that that big wagon-puller would be a Grand Prix horse when pigs flew. And so flying pigs became a symbol for her. A pair of socks with flying pigs on them remains in my coat bag to this day, for when I travel to shows. I keep the rejection letter from my first application for the Lavell Prize in my desk, because she wrote, by hand, that high performance “means never giving up, and never giving in.” And she often told the tale of another famous face asking her why a little lady like her had to ride such a big horse, to which she’d reply, “I’m just lucky, I guess.”
Carol made her mark in international dressage sport in so many ways, not only by being a member of that rare club of people who’ve been near an individual Olympic medal, but also by giving back to so many. All of us who had the pleasure to know her were just so damn lucky, I guess.
Carol Lavell died March 27 at the age of 79.
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist with distinction making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing her and Mary Ewing’s Gretzky RV, as well as her own string of young horses with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.