Lauren Billys’ bid to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics and represent Puerto Rico came down to the wire in March at the CIC*** at Twin Rivers in Paso Robles, California. Galloping for a score good enough to claim one of three individual Olympic eventing berths allotted to riders representing South American countries, Lauren knew that a strong finish at the end of the year-long qualifying period could secure her Olympic dream.
Not only was she fault-free at Twin Rivers, she won the event riding the 14-year-old Irish Sporthorse Castle Larchfield Purdy.
The effort was not only a crucial victory for the 28-year-old California-born rider, but it reflected the West Coast eventing community’s embrace of its international prospects. Twin Rivers’ organizers, the Baxter family, had run the three-star division specifically so Lauren could earn her final Olympic qualification (with the understanding that she would raise funds to cover extra costs of staging the three-star division). They also moved up the timetable to outrun a big rainstorm forecast for the originally scheduled dates.
Lauren’s win of the Woodside International Horse Trials CIC*** last fall offered another example of a proud community coming together to help the eventer. In a speech during the evening awards ceremony, event organizer Robert Kellerhouse celebrated Lauren as “one of our own making a huge international push.”
“In that moment, surrounded by my West Coast eventing family, everyone stood to their feet and applauded,” Lauren recalls. “I have never felt more honored or humbled as many of the people surrounding me were family, peers and people I have aspired to be more like in my riding career.
“Moments like this remind me of the number of people who have helped me get to this place. Their encouragement and investment in my future has brought me here.”
As to why the West Coast eventing community has rallied around Lauren, her coach Bea di Grazia offers the rider’s approach to fund-raising as an example. “It’s a hard thing to ask for money for something that you are doing and believing in yourself, and especially when you have the daunting task of pursuing something with such slim odds [like qualifying for the Olympics]. Lauren is so good at communicating and at keeping everybody a part of the process, and she’s realized that with her enthusiastic supporters, she is giving something rather than taking. That comes from her just being a really good person.”
A ‘Hail-Mary Pass’
Lauren is eligible to represent Puerto Rico thanks to family lineage in the U.S. Territory, and this summer she will be the only woman representing South America in Olympic eventing. She first represented Puerto Rico at the 2011 Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, riding Ballingowan Ginger. Soon after, she began honing her lifelong dream of riding at the Olympics. In mid-2014, she purchased Castle Larchfield Purdy, an Irish Sporthorse, with the help of an ownership syndicate. In early 2015, she shuttered her training business in central California’s Fresno to move three hours west to Carmel Valley to be near Bea and fellow coach and husband, Derek. She also sold Ginger and another top mount, Jitter Bug, early last year to help buy another horse with international potential, the 12-year-old Belgian Warmblood, Marseille, with the help of Mike and Emma Winter.
The move and selling the two horses were difficult decisions, but critical to what Lauren calls her “Hail-Mary pass” to achieving a spot at the Olympics.
Purdy and Marseille contributed to a successful 2015. She and Purdy finished 18th individually at the Pan Am Games last summer in Toronto before she turned her sights on the Olympics. To qualify as an individual representing a non-team country, Lauren had to be among the top three ranked riders in the Western Hemisphere at the end of the qualification period, not including those from the United States, Canada and Brazil.
Riding both Purdy and Marseille, Lauren’s efforts encompassed 10 FEI events, including two-stars and the five CCI or CIC three- or four-stars that could be counted toward Olympic qualification. Throughout that time, they were fault-free on cross country and racked up eight top-10 finishes, including at California CIC*** events in Woodside, Galway Downs in Temecula and Copper Meadows in San Diego. Testing the waters against the “big kids” back East in their sole East Coast outing during the qualifying period, Purdy ran the Jersey Fresh International CCI*** track with no jumping faults to finish 16th.
Lauren’s fellow South American riders are Carlos Lobos of Chile, who was fifth in the 2015 Pan Am Games, and Nicolas Wettstein, who rides for Ecuador. Puerto Rico has never had an eventing team in the Olympics and its last individual rider was fellow Californian show jumper Mark Watring in 1984.
Representing Puerto Rico as an individual requires self-sufficiency of which Lauren has plenty, Bea says. “She’s a powerhouse when it comes to organizational skills” as evidenced in logistics that include getting Olympic accreditation for veterinarians, family and others who are crucial to her team. Advantages like top coaches and sport psychologists are built into the U.S. Equestrian Team program for its riders, and Lauren has to find those counterparts on her own.
Barrel Racing & River Swims
Lauren grew up in a non-horsey family in Visalia, California. She started riding when she was 8 years old at a small riding school called Mountain View Corrals in Woodlake under trainer Laurel George. Bareback barrel racing, swimming the horses in local rivers and lifelong friendships built at the barn were the substance of her equestrian upbringing.
As Lauren’s abilities grew, she began taking lessons with Molly Rosin (now Kinnamon), whom Laurel brought into her facility to teach. Molly was then a student at Cal State Fresno and a member of its NCAA equestrian team and went to the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships as a two-star rider in 1998. “She became like my big sister growing up in eventing,” Lauren says. Molly helped Lauren with everything from suggesting that she get some tall leather boots to introducing her to the FEI levels of the sport.
Lauren herself later attended Cal State Fresno, where her passion for horses stayed strong. She spent the summers in 2008 and 2009 as a working student for Molly, who was establishing herself back east. Lauren also galloped racehorses and learned from a natural horsemanship trainer Roddy Strang, with whom Molly also worked.
As Lauren worked on her double major in chemistry and enology (winemaking), she kept up with her own riding and building her business as a trainer and coach. Then just beginning to compete at the FEI level, Lauren remembers long drives home from shows, late-night arrivals and wee hours prepping for chemistry tests in the morning.“That’s when I knew I could do this horse thing for the rest of my life,” reflects Lauren, who graduated in 2013.
“She is unique as a rider in that she didn’t come from a riding family, yet found her way to the sport, making good friends and really keeping the camaraderie and fun and love of the horses along the way,” says Bea, with whom Lauren began training six years ago.
Since moving to Carmel Valley, Lauren keeps her horses at a private ranch she manages for friends and maintains a small training program at a nearby stable. She also travels to work with students when time allows. Fresno is a frequent stop for her to help former clients and visit family. Coaching visits to Wild Horse Ranch in Napa Valley are extra nice because much of the former USET training site has been converted to vineyards, enabling her to catch up with friends from her days as a winemaking student. She hasn’t had a chance to do much with that degree lately, but that’s one of many sacrifices she’s happy to have made for the journey she’s chosen.
Lauren gets some funding and logistical help from the Puerto Rican equestrian federation, but the preparatory game plan is up to her and the di Grazias. She also plans to work with British show jumper Richard Picken and with judge and coach Loris Henry for additional dressage work.
One or two California or Colorado prep events were likely in the run-up to the July 8–10 Great Meadow CIC*** in The Plains, Virginia. That puts Lauren and Purdy on the East Coast as the July 30 Olympic departure date nears. Equally important, says Lauren, is the fact that Great Meadow is the final test outing for U.S. and Canadian riders and the first eventing Nations Cup to be held outside of Europe.“That will enable us to play with the big kids!” she says.
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.