April 2016 - Horse People: Lauren Billys

Olympic-bound eventer prepares for next phase of a long-held dream.

by Kim F. Miller

“All you can do is what is in front of you, one day at a time. Before you know it, you’ll be where you were meant to be.”

Lauren Billys & Castle Larchfield Purdy securing their chance to represent Puerto Rico in this summer's Olympics by winning the CIC3* at Twin Rivers Ranch in early March. Photo: Kristin Lee Photography

This excerpt from eventer Lauren Billys’ December 2014 blog had sad origins in a close friend’s passing, but acting on the message has had a very happy outcome. Lauren’s dream to earn an Olympic spot has come true, and she’s now readying for Rio, where eventing goes Aug. 6-9.

As of her win in the March 6 CIC3* at Twin Rivers Ranch in Paso Robles, Lauren earned the final FEI points needed to be one of three eventers representing Latin American countries in individual competition in the Olympics. A California native, Lauren has Puerto Rican heritage that enables her to represent the U.S. territory in international competition.

It’s a huge milestone in a plan begun in 2011, when she represented Puerto Rico in the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. The Olympic dream grew from there. It entailed the difficult decision to sell her two top horses early last year:  her 2011 Pan Am Games partner Ballingowan Ginger and Jitter Bug.

After selling the two mares, she purchased Marseille in England with Emma and Mike Winter.  That gave her a second international contender to back up Castle Larchfield Purdy, whom she had purchased in June of 2014 with the help of an ownership syndicate. Purdy, a 14 year old Irish Sporthorse, was her partner in last summer’s Pan Am Games, where they finished 15th, and is now her Olympic-bound teammate.

The qualifying period for individual riders from Latin America began March 9, 2015, and Lauren and Purdy have been carefully racking up the needed points since then. It came down to the wire, though, with Lauren getting an e-mail on the day of her Twin Rivers run confirming that she’s in.

The other two Latin American individuals to qualify for the Games are Carlos Lobos of Chile (fifth in the 2015 Pan Am Games) and Nicolas Wettstein, who rides for Ecuador.

Lauren explains that the qualifying process for the FEI’s geographically-based “Group E” stems from the governing body’s desire to get more Latin American representation in Olympic eventing. Puerto Rico has never qualified an eventing team for the Olympics and the last individual rider to go was Mark Watring in 1984. (Mark also represented the territory in show jumping at the 2004 Olympics and now runs a hunter/jumper training barn in Southern California.)

Appropriate Sacrifice

Asked if she’s had a chance to sit down and absorb her accomplishment, Lauren laughs and sighs. “It’s so crazy! It’s all worked out and it’s a great example of how big dreams can come true with appropriate sacrifice. I am enjoying it all, but I am also kind of a ball of anxiety about everything there is to do.”

She’s had a lot of help getting to where she is and, given the generous and enthusiastic spirit of the Area VI eventing community, she is likely to get more. One example is the herculean effort made by Twin Rivers owners, the Baxter family, to make sure the CIC3* could be run. Heavy rains forecast for the March 4-6 weekend upped the difficulty level. Andrea and Connie Baxter re-arranged the schedule to complete all phases on Friday, before the deluge hit. Meanwhile, supporters contributed auction items and cash to help offset the expense of hosting it.

Along with selling her previous horses and creating the Purdy syndicate to pursue the Olympic trail, Lauren relocated her business to Carmel Valley to be closer to longtime coaches Bea and Derek DiGrazia. She had built up a nice clientele in Fresno since graduating Cal State Fresno in 2013 and was sad to leave them behind. Some make the trip to work with her in Carmel regularly, and she visits Fresno frequently, too.

In Carmel Valley, Lauren operates her training program at Holman Ranch and keeps her own horses at a small private ranch that she manages for friends.. Many students haul in to work with her and she’s especially enjoyed taking on some hunter/jumper riders to supplement their regular training. “I’ve been riding a lot of equitation horses and working with equitation students. I never realized how much dressage is called for in equitation. Counter canter, shoulder-ins, sitting trot, transitions, etc. It’s been fun to work with them and see how their scores have improved.”

In addition to the DiGrazias, Lauren’s village includes working student Seraphina Dellavalle, a strong horsewoman and rider with organizational skills that will be key in the coming months. Shannon Lilley is on tap to give students lessons while Lauren is away, as Lauren has done in the past when Shannon’s been away.

The Puerto Rico equestrian federation and Olympic committee have been very helpful with paperwork and logistics, but the preparation strategy is totally up to Lauren and her coaches Bea and Derek. In addition to their expertise, Lauren expects to work with Richard Pitkin on the show jumping side and Lois Henry for extra dressage pointers.

Purdy will lay low on the eventing circuit until late May or early June, Lauren says.  Woodside and the Colorado Horse Park are possible prep events, leading up to the Great Meadow CIC3* in July 8-10 in the Plains, VA. That will put them on the East Coast as the July 30 Olympic departure date nears. Equally important, Great Meadow is the first eventing Nations Cup held outside of Europe and the final test outing for U.S. and Canadian riders. “That will enable us to play with the big kids!”

Over the next few months, Lauren will continue campaigning her #2 horse, Marseille. They have completed two CIC2*s and a CCI2* together and she considers him a good candidate for the 2018 World Equestrian Games.

As has been the case since she launched “my Hail Mary pass” for the Olympics, fund raising is critical. Puerto Rico helps with the direct costs of competing in the Games, but not the preparation, like getting to Great Meadow, or keeping her business going when she’s away for long stretches. At presstime, a May 14 fundraiser in Fresno was in the works. Details will be available soon on Lauren’s www.laurenbillys.com, along with opportunities to support her quest in various ways. These range from joining the Purdy ownership syndicate to making a much-appreciated donation of any size.

The whirlwind that’s been underway for some time will likely intensify as the Games approach. Every step of the way, she is grateful to friends and supporters, some of whom she doesn’t know personally, who’ve helped make it possible. She’s especially grateful to close friends who remind her of her blog entry: “All you can do is what’s in front of you, one day at a time.” Indeed, that has gotten Lauren where she was meant to be.