It was a simple question-“Do you have water buckets?”-from one of the barn staff for Leslie Howard’s Fairfield Hunt Club, on the final day of the 1999 Florida circuit’s Tampa show. But it really brought home the realization that I was leaving. After eight years, I wouldn’t be heading back to Connecticut with Leslie. This was my last day with Fairfield; I was about to take my own small string of jumpers to temporary quarters in Palm Beach until my new base at Sandra O’Donnell’s’ Winchell Mountain Farm in Ancramdale, New York, was ready. So did I have water buckets? No. In fact, I realized, I had little of the mountain of equipment that running a show stable requires. So as my horses were loading on the truck for Palm Beach, I drove ahead to buy the buckets. And the U-nails to hook them to. And the hammer to drive the nails. Like a number of other moments I lived through in the process of deciding to start my own business, this one was scary.
Riding and showing jumpers had always been my dream, and Leslie was the one who helped me make it reality. When I went to work for her in 1991, as her assistant, I’d shown hunters professionally for a couple of years but had almost no education or background in the jumper ring. She recognized my desire-and made the effort to teach me. As well as benefiting from hours of lessons, which gave me most of the jumper skills I have today, I learned to appreciate Leslie’s way of dealing with everyday situations: how to maintain perspective and not let the problem absorb you; how to think things out calmly and make them work without getting excited. More than my employer, she was my big sister, my best friend, my mentor-all of which made the decision to strike off on my own one of the hardest of my life. For my first five years at Fairfield, I didn’t have a horse of my own to bring along. But being part of such a quality barn eventually brought me in contact with people who took an interest in supporting my career by putting good horses under me. For instance, Sandra O’Donnell (for whom I was already riding Hasta La Vista) bought Kroon Gravin for me to ride after I fell in love with this five-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare while on a European trip to try horses for Leslie. A year later, Leslie helped me find Resolute in Europe for my customer Rosewood Glen. As these talented horses moved up, though, I had more difficulty serving their best interests while also doing my job at Fairfield. When they were ready to compete at the same level as some of Leslie’s horses, I still needed to stay home and keep things going when a Spruce Meadows or a World Cup Final came along, freeing her to go. Or if I was aiming to show at Harrisburg or Washington but the Fairfield operation needed me to be at several different shows in the weeks beforehand, I might not be able to spend the time with my horses that they needed. I knew something needed to change, but the thought of leaving Fairfield made me feel physically ill.
In a conversation that went on for months, Leslie and I talked about ways to modify my job so I could stay on while doing what I needed to do. Her supportiveness never wavered, and she clearly thought that the decision was mine. Other people might have felt hurt that I was thinking of going; the fact that she didn’t just validated my admiration for her. On the day in late 1998 when I finally said, “Here’s what I’ve decided,” her first response was, “The most important thing is that we don’t lose our friendship.” And how has it all turned out? The years since I bought those water buckets in Palm Beach have been amazing. With the time to focus more on my own riding and my horses, I was soon putting in consistently good open-jumper rounds at major shows. Kroon Gravin was 1999 open speed champion at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show; introduced to a grand prix on the 2000 Florida circuit, she got a good ribbon in every class. She qualified for the grand prix at the World Cup Final in Las Vegas, where we had the fastest four-fault round. And I was thrilled at the $50,000 Budweiser Grandprix of Devon when both she and Resolute made it into the jumpoff with clear first rounds over a very technical course, then finished fourth and fifth in the class. With Leslie’s encouragement-“It’s great experience for you and the horses”-I rode Kroon and Resolute in the first set of trials for the 2000 Olympic jumper squad. Although I decided not to continue (Kroon wasn’t ready for such an extended test and Resolute had a small injury), it was great experience. And my ranking on the USET computer list had qualified me for a Developing Rider grant to compete in Europe.
Here was a chance to ride against the world’s best, and to watch them when I wasn’t riding. (I learned a lot about saving time in the jumpoff by counting the strides in the top Europeans’ impossibly quick and smooth turns.) It was a thrill when my new speed horse, Sarah Williamson’s La Malushi, won the first leg of the World Breeding Championships for seven-year-olds and ended up fifth in the Final; that competition is a big deal in Europe. Another unexpected thrill was riding in the Samsung Nations’ Cup Final in Rome with Leslie; Kroon and I jumped two clear rounds (one of only two double clears in the class!) and the US finished second, behind Germany. Although Leslie and S’Blieft had an off day, it was an emotional high for both of us. In Berlin, a few weeks later, Kroon and I won the Eternit Grand Prix of Germany, beating a field including three-time World Cup champion Rodrigo Pessoa and European stars Ludger and Markus Beerbaum, Franke Sloothak, and Willi Melliger. Then we went on to top the same tough competition and win the Audi Grand Prix of Holland in Maastricht!
While my horses have amazed me, I’ve also been surprised by a change in myself. I used to get so nervous at important competitions-“Oh, God! It’s the grand prix!”-that I’d practically shoot myself in the foot. But now I find I have time to get myself mentally where I need to be, and I look forward to the grand prix. Sure, it’s harder-bigger jumps on a more technical track-but I deal with it by focusing and concentrating more, and by watching other riders’ rounds. Another big plus: Leslie and I continue to work together. She helps me with my horses; when I can, I still help with her students if she’s away. I believe very much in my own system of developing horses and riders, but having someone with Leslie’s experience to give advice when it’s needed is always a bonus. And I know that, when I have a big success, if there’s anybody as happy for me as I am, it’s Leslie.
Molly and Kroon Gravin have continued their winning partnership since this story first appeared in the February 2001 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. Among other achievements, they won the American Invitational Grand Prix (Tampa, Florida) in both 2001 and 2002. They were short-listed for the USET’s 2002 WEG show-jumping squad after finishing the selection trials with the leading score, but Molly withdrew the mare in early September due to an injury.