Laura Connaway: Lessons Learned from a Lifetime of Horses

This contribution brought to you courtesy of Jump Media, written by Emily Daily.

Horses have always played an important role in Laura Connaway’s life. The amateur grand prix rider learned early on what types of horses she enjoyed riding. Over the years, she’s carefully fine-tuned her small sport horse breeding program to help create ideal partners for the jumper ring that give her the most confidence to succeed. And as the owner of a top equine insurance agency, Connaway & Associates, she gets to share her love of horses with her clients.

Laura Connaway was delighted after a recent double-clear round in an FEI class at Tryon International Equestrian Center aboard her homebred Quite Funny. Photo by Mark Jump Photography

An Equestrian Heritage

Laura’s connection to horses spans generations. Her mother, Annette, is a lifelong rider and a Fulbright scholar who emigrated from Denmark to study at the University of Arkansas. After marrying Laura’s father, Jim, they decided to raise their family in Little Rock.

Laura’s mother rode dressage and jumping and her grandparents were dressage riders. “Even my great-grandfather was in the cavalry in Denmark,” she said. “Though there wasn’t much English riding in Arkansas at that point, we knew that when we rode, we rode English.”

The family rented a small private barn for their horses, and often competed them in several disciplines. “The horses would do some eventing, and some jumpers and hunters,” said Laura. “I had one super special horse, Cody Eastwood, and he would do the junior hunters and the junior jumpers at the same horse show.

Laura as a child competing at a local horse show on Reuben, a horse that she and her sister, Carolyne, trained. Photo courtesy Laura Connaway.

“We were lucky to have some nice horses that my mother found locally,” she continued. “They were not expensive horses, maybe $400 or so. My sister, Carolyne, and I would train everything we rode to jump and luckily the horses were nice types and happy to do all the things we asked!”

When she began riding, Laura trained with a forward-thinking instructor who was stationed at a nearby Air Force base. “She’d always set up gymnastics,” she recalled. “She would blindfold us and encourage us to do fun things, like jumping the gymnastics without hands on the reins.”

After gaining experience with several trainers in her youth, Laura focused on hunter/jumper competition and began competing in grand prix classes when she was in her 20s. “I needed to get out of college so I could start earning money. My parents certainly weren’t going to pay for grand prix horses.”

One of her early grand prix horses was an off-the-track Thoroughbred named Dansk, that she nicknamed “Buddy.”

“I thought, if nothing else, at least he could be somebody’s friend,” she joked. She’d reluctantly purchased him at a local auction with an eventer friend, Kari Barber, hoping he’d make a nice resale project as a hunter. “However, he hated the hunters and he’d always buck at the most inopportune times.”

Dansk (“Buddy”) was a Thoroughbred that Laura bought at an auction and turned out to be a fabulous jumper. Photo courtesy Laura Connaway.

Laura was training with Laura Kraut at the time who advised her, “Well, why don’t you at least show him in a division you like to ride in?” Laura agreed and soon the feisty Thoroughbred was steadily racking up wins in the jumper ring.

“He’d be so surprised when I wanted him to go faster,” said Laura. “Each time we’d ask a little more of him, and we’d think, ‘Oh, he can’t jump that,’ and he’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah I can!’ And every time, he’d be like, ‘Yeah, I got that!’ So, he ended up being a fabulous jumper.”

A Systematic Program

As Laura progressed in her riding, she took solace in the relationships she built with her horses, most of whom she’d trained from the very beginning of their careers. “I don’t always feel comfortable on a horse that I don’t know very well,” she admitted. “So, for me the trust factor is really big.

“When I’m cantering to a jump, I like to know what the horse is thinking,” Laura continued. “I don’t mind if a horse is wild or something, but I want it be a [kind of] wild I know. I’ve never really ridden a stopper or anything like that because I’ve always produced them myself and they’ve always wanted to do their job. It would bother me tremendously if I thought they didn’t want to do their job.”

Almost 20 years ago, Laura decided to start breeding her own sport horses. “Every time I’d try and buy a nice horse I really wanted to ride, it was too expensive,” she said. “Since I’d always trained my own horses, I thought that if I could start with the best model, then I would have the best chance to ride at the level I wanted to ride.”

To achieve this goal, Laura booked a trip to Europe to search for a foundation broodmare and imported Ceranova (by Calido I), which was the best 3-year-old filly she could afford. After they found success at the grand prix level, Laura decided to harvest two embryos from Ceranova to officially launch her breeding program.

Laura’s foundation broodmare, Ceranova, also became a successful grand prix jumper. Photo by Windcrest Photography

Ceranova had three foals, with the youngest being Laura’s yearling Desiderata, who was sired by Diamant de Semilly. She now has a third-generation homebred under saddle, too, as the mare’s daughter, Ceralena, produced a colt by Balou du Rouet, who is now 3 years old. “I nicknamed Ceranova ‘SuperNova’ and if you met her you would, too! She is now retired on our farm and lives with her best friend, a donkey named Margaretto.”

“I grew up riding Thoroughbreds, so I like a fresher horse, and of course, plenty of scope,” Laura said. “I try and breed a Holsteiner/Selle Français cross, and they seem to have enough blood and enough scope and are very trainable.”

Since Laura does all the training herself, she and her husband, John Naill, developed their own 16-acre farm to give her horses all the tools they need to succeed at any age or level.

“The horses are trained in a very methodical way,” Laura said. “When they’re young, I really adhere to the Clinton Anderson program and I train everything from the very beginning.” A few personal touches around the farm, like a treadmill, a galloping field, and a ring with all-weather footing also help ensure that her competition horses are able to stay on track with their training and fitness.

Laura sharing a quiet moment with one of her homebreds, Desiderata. Photo courtesy Laura Connaway.

In addition to working with a dressage trainer, Alex du Celliee Muller, on flatwork, Laura also gets help from a dear friend, Joyce Metzler, who runs a local hunter barn. “She comes over to my barn whenever I need, and she videos the horses while I’m working with them,” said Laura. “She’s very meticulous about the ground poles and she helps me jump school all of them. She’s very detail-oriented and notices everything about them.”

Even though Laura does much of the training on her own these days, she’s quick to admit that she’s always had tremendous help at key times. “When I was in my 20s, I was able to ride with Laura Kraut and Ragan Roberts and that was fabulous. I do a lot of journaling and take notes on what worked with one horse and different gymnastics or exercises.”

The past few years Laura has had the opportunity to train with Kim Land and Matt Cyphert. “I am able to meet the coaches I trust who know my riding style and my horses at different shows,” she said. “The coaches key in on different issues I have and are a great complement to each other.”

A Career that Suits Her Lifestyle

Luckily for Laura, through her equine insurance firm, she’s been able to create a way to share her passion for horses with other equestrians. Founded in 1992, the agency focuses almost exclusively on sport horses.

Interacting with her customers, many of whom she considers lifelong friends, is Laura’s favorite part of the business. “We’ve had riders that we’ve followed since they were in the short stirrup ring. We’ve insured their short stirrup pony, their large pony, their first jumper, and now the horse they are taking to Youth Championships. And when a horse gets sold to a really good place, you’re just like, ‘Oh, that’s one of my favorites! I always watched that one!’”

Laura is able to easily connect with her insurance customers, because many times she has dealt with a similar equine injury or health issue with one of her own horses. Photo by Sandra Gregory

Thanks to her active role in the sport, Laura can chat candidly with her clients about their horses’ health problems or injuries because she’s also had to overcome similar situations. “So many times, it’s so emotional when a horse is injured,” she remarked. “It’s not just a flippant thing for us, because we know a lot goes into that. A lot of times, one of our horses will have had one of those injuries and we can discuss what the process was and the rehabbing and the emotions behind the ordeal. We know the excitement when that horse starts trotting again. And when they go back to showing, how fabulous it feels.”

Though she typically travels to Florida to compete during the winter season, she’ll often make special trips to shows all across the country to watch and support her clients. This year, she’s headed to Ocala with her two homebreds, Quite Funny and Ceralena, aiming for some top grand prix classes.

Finding balance and time away from horses and business is also important to Laura, and she and her husband love hiking with their two Dobermans, Daisy and Flo. “Sometimes during a show in Ocala, we’ll sneak off and do a bit of catch-and-release fly fishing if we get time,” said Laura. She’s also a runner and has completed the Boston Marathon twice. “I like to challenge myself,” she added.

Challenging herself in her business and riding has been a fundamental principle for Laura. Whether she’s training a young homebred for its first jumper class or creating a customized insurance plan for a customer, Laura’s experience as a lifelong equestrian has helped her every step of the way. She also knows what it takes to make a good horse, and that their worth goes far beyond their price tag.

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