Love of Horses Leads Laura Carlson to a Rare Opportunity
When she was a child, "My Little Pony" toys made quite an impression on Laura Carson.
So it was almost as though her favorite toy came to life when her brother Josh was given horseback riding lessons as a gift. Six-year-old Carson finished her brother's lessons when he decided he didn't like them. And she's continued riding ever since.
"I fell in love with the first lesson," the self-assured 21-year-old Carson says. "I don't even remember what I first liked about it. I liked the kisses I got, grooming and taking care of them, just making them happy."
Carson soon began showing and competing in major events.
"I always liked putting together the horse with the competition," she says, "working with the horses, seeing them grow, seeing me grow. It's such a feeling of accomplishment when you go into a competition and win."
When she was 7, Carson's parents paid $500 for her first pony, a little paint she called Pegasus because of its white winglike markings along its flanks. They've never had to buy another horse for Carson, because she has parlayed that initial investment into other horses more suited to competition and show.
Her first saddle-bred show was the Blue Grey, a highly regarded show in Bluefield, W. Va. On the spur of the moment, Carson's mother, Julianna Johnston, let her compete. By all appearances, Carson was out of her league as the other competitors were dressed in full regalia, riding highly bred, expensive horses.
"She went into the ring, and we didn't think she'd have a shot," recalls Johnston. "But she ended up third in her class. She had a smile from ear to ear, and it wasn't from the ribbon. It was about being out there in front of all those people."
Carson qualified for the nationals three times. By the time she was 9, she placed seventh in her class at the world championships, having won 600 ribbons -- most of them blue.
To Carson, it isn't about winning out over her competitors, or the thousands of ribbons she's amassed over the years.
"Most of my happiest memories are of hanging out backstage with my horses, sleeping in tack stalls. I loved hanging out with other horse-crazy kids," says Carson. "I loved riding bareback around the ring after the show."
Over the years, Carson was able to maintain excellent grades in school. She did her homework in the stalls with her horses or in the car on the way to events. She feels the discipline involved in training and competing has carried over into everything she does now.
"It's who I am," she says. "I want to do a good job at whatever I'm doing."
Her love of horses has just led her into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: riding with the 37th anniversary tour of the "world-famous" Lipizzaner Stallions show throughout the North American continent and meeting other riders from all over the world.
Carson has always traded labor for trainers; she's groomed countless horses and mucked out more stalls than she'd care to recall. While at St. Andrews College in Laurinburg, Carson was a working student for Mary Beth McLean, the coach of the IDA Team at the college.
So when she completed another year of school this summer and Johnston told Carson to start looking for a summer job, she didn't shy away. Instead, she went online to look for another student job.
"I came across an ad for a Lipizzaner rider and figured, sure, why not?" says Carson. "I sent them my resume and got a call the next morning to go to California to ride."
Carson arrived in California to ride the next day. Although she was given a 30-day trial, she was thrown right into the program. A week and half after her arrival in July, she performed in her first show.
"I practiced the grand quadrilles twice and wound up leading the show," she says. "But the horses will help."
While her experience riding stallions is limited to the Spanish Andalusian breed, she rides Conversano Basili with the show.
"He can get studdish sometimes," she comments. "You have eight or more males in the ring at once and things can get a little heated. You really have to pay attention to the other horses and trust that the other riders are doing the same."
Carson has been riding patterns since she was 6, so the transition into riding Lipizzaner stallions wasn't as difficult for her.
"We'll talk to the other riders when need be and if you have any problems, they'll help you out," she says.
All of the competitions and shows she has participated in have prepared Carson well. Today she travels the country performing in front of small audiences of a few hundred at fairgrounds as well as 7,000 to 8,000 people in specially prepared arenas.
"I wasn't really nervous," she says. "I just didn't want the head rider to be disappointed."
'Opened a Lot of Doors'
She recalls performing in what should have been a darkened arena with spotlights trained on the horses and riders.
"I couldn't figure out why it was so light," she says, "but then I realized it was the camera flashes going off. And the horses were dealing with it. They're probably some of the best horses in the world. They're so good-natured, they're just unflappable."
Carson has performed in every show since her first in July, doing between five and seven shows a week, with just one break in December and a quick visit to her mother in Southern Pines in February. While she hadn't planned on taking a year off from school, she couldn't pass up this opportunity.
"I have wonderful memories of the show itself, like getting to perform the pas de deux for the first time," she says. "But many of my favorite moments come from the relationships I've formed with the horses and people on the tour. We have riders from all over the world, so we to experience many different cultures as we get to know each other. It has been interesting to see so many different views about horses from different countries."
Carson has rejoined the tour in Chicago and will continue through Easter. However, she plans to return to Southern Pines to work for the Carolina Horse Farm in Raeford. And she plans to continue her education.
"I never really wanted to take time off from school," she says. "I haven't really changed direction. This has opened a lot of doors; I've never done this kind of exhibitive show but I miss competitive riding."
While Carson plans to continue work toward her degree in psychology, perhaps even a master's degree and a doctorate, she plans on using her future profession as a means to finance her passion.
Since she was 9, Carson has set the 2016 Olympics as a distant goal. As the date approaches, she knows she needs an appropriate horse and trainer.
"I just have to find the right horse and keep working hard till it happens," she says.
Watch the 2016 Olympics' Dressage event closely for Carson; her confidence and passion may very well get her there.
"Laura has accomplished everything she said she'd do," says Johnston. "What impresses me most is she competes within herself. She loves to be friends with everyone else, but she competes with herself by trying to beat only what she did previously. She's firmly convinced that she could do whatever she wanted to accomplish, and every time she placed it was like she was winning the lottery."
Mary Griffin may be reached at email@example.com or by calling 693-2482.
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