Last summer, 17-year-old Olivia Woodson found herself sitting on one of the most talented jumpers of all time: Nick Skelton’s 2016 Olympic individual gold-medal-winning mount, Big Star. “It was the coolest thing,” remembers the young rider, who has served as a working student for the Brit’s partner and fellow Olympian, Laura Kraut, for the past year.
Years earlier, Olivia had demonstrated such a serious commitment to the sport that her parents moved the family, including three younger brothers, from Chicago to Florida to be closer to top equitation trainers. Her dedication and impressive work ethic convinced trainers Charlie Moorcroft and Geoff Teall to find rides for her on quality mounts and help her land working-student positions at top barns Ashland Farms and North Run. With their support, she won the 2013 U.S. Pony Medal
Final, was third in the 2014 THIS National Children’s Medal Finals and finished second in the 2014 and 2016 Southeast Maclay Regionals.
Last year financial priorities required Olivia to choose between equitation and jumpers. She chose the latter, and Geoff asked Laura to take her on as a working student. “Geoff doesn’t hand out compliments very easily,” says Laura, who saw in Olivia a combination of talent, determination and desire. “So it was a no-brainer.”
Olivia’s position with Laura is primarily as a groom. “I’m there every morning, feeding and doing morning chores, and I’m there until everybody leaves in the afternoon. Then I come back and do night check.” At Laura and Nick’s summer base in England, Olivia even lived in the barn. “They cleaned out an old feed room and put a bed in it,” she says.
Laura and her team taught Olivia an invaluable lesson: “It’s really important to know your horses inside and out. Laura’s very involved with her horses’ care. Her grooms know every inch of each horse. They know as soon as it steps out of the stall how it’s going to go that day. Spending so much time with the horses has helped my riding as well.”
Traveling with Laura to Europe reinforced this lesson. “It’s a much more mainstream, economical sport over there,” she says, noting that young European riders are very involved in every aspect of their horses’ care.
In exchange for her work, Olivia earned the opportunity to show two of Laura’s horses last year: a seasoned 1.30-meter jumper named Mira and a 7-year-old sales horse named Stairway to the Stars. On Mira, Olivia says, “I could focus on myself and learn how to be competitive.” Stairway to the Stars was more of a summer project. “I started her off in the meter-20s and finished the summer jumping in the meter-35s. It was really great for us to grow together.”
At home, Olivia jump-schools Laura’s clients’ horses. When Laura is away showing, she flats the horses who remain at home, including FEI superstars Confu and Zeremonie.
As much as she dreams of having top jumpers someday, Olivia has learned that patience is key. “That’s the biggest thing Laura has taught me. So much goes into being a winner in this sport. It’s not just being able to ride well, but it’s being able to connect with the horse and manage it.”
“She’s learning a lot of the ingredients,” says Laura. “Talent alone doesn’t do it. You’ve got to be able to manage your horses, your staff, your clients. She may not be in the ring on 20 different mounts, but she’s learning the back end of the business, which is as important. You don’t necessarily have to have the mileage over the big fences. You have to have mileage around horses.”
Olivia’s courage counts, too, Laura adds. “She’ll sit on any horse you tell her to. It doesn’t matter if it’s wild or it’s bucking. She’s brave. That’s important.”
Olivia enters Southern Methodist University this fall, where she plans to compete on the NCAA team. She’ll continue working for Laura during vacations, hopefully following her path to the top of the sport, and perhaps becoming a role model for other young riders working to earn opportunities like hers. “They’re not always winning in the ring right now,” Laura says. “But they’re there behind the scenes, working really hard and learning all the aspects of the sport.”
This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of Practical Horseman.