The late, great Carol Lavell reshaped American dressage in ways great and small. Here’s how I will remember her best.
By Jennifer O. Bryant
Like most US dressage enthusiasts, I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of the legendary Carol Lavell. The 1992 US Olympic team bronze medalist died March 27, 2023, of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 79.
Carol’s memory had been in decline for a long time. Four years ago, when The Chronicle of the Horse approached me about writing a profile of the dressage great for its “Living Legends” series, the editor wondered whether Carol would be sufficiently capable of conducting an interview. I desperately wanted to write the story, and so I said I wanted to try.
Congenial and happy to talk, Carol always seemed to know who I was when I phoned her about the Chronicle piece, although I’m not convinced she truly remembered agreeing to the date and time of our February 2019 interview. Her memories of the past were crystal-clear, although she was wont to repeat favorite anecdotes, such as how her father, Gordon Cadwgan Sr., learned to appreciate his teenage daughter’s equestrian involvement because “he always knew exactly where I was. He would never find me walking the street or riding around in cars with boys. I was in the barn.”
Everyone’s memory is fallible, and as a writer and editor I know the importance of fact-checking. Some of the details Carol supplied regarding the biographical basics turned out to be not entirely correct. It took a bit of old-fashioned sleuthing to get the facts straight.
But the one topic she talked about that needed no correction was Gifted.
Carol’s legacy is inextricably connected with that of her 1992 Barcelona Games partner, who in only its second year of existence was inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame, in 1997. The 1980 German-bred Hanoverian gelding (Garibaldi II – Lola, Lombard) was unmistakable, with a massive 17.3-hand frame, bold blaze, and four splashy white stockings against a bright bay coat.
Gifted’s tremendous power and arena-eating stride made for an unforgettable show-ring presence. I saw the pair only once in person, at USET Foundation headquarters in Gladstone, New Jersey, during their ultimately unsuccessful bid for a slot on the 1996 US Olympic dressage team. Gifted trotted into the stone-walled outdoor ring, and my jaw dropped. He looked like an equestrian statue come to life. He seemed practically a different species than the rest of the field.
Carol was fortunate to be able to own her dressage mounts. With her father’s help, she bought Gifted as a four-year-old prospect, and she refused to sell him even after his success reportedly drew large offers. She also trained Gifted herself, under the watchful eye of her mentor, 1992 Olympic Games teammate and Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame member Michael Poulin, whom she credited especially for helping to teach Gifted to piaffe.
Paving the Way, First and Always
Gifted, and that Olympic bronze medal, were unquestionably Carol’s pinnacle of competitive success. But her involvement in the sport extends well beyond Barcelona 1992 and leaves a nearly unmatched legacy.
For starters, Carol was a trailblazer for US dressage. In 1989, when she and Gifted traveled to Europe to train and compete, the dressage establishment was condescending, Carol told me in 2019. European riders purposely rattled Gifted in competition warm-up rings, and Carol learned that she needed to play a few mind games of her own in the sandbox in order to get the intimidation attempts to stop.
The quick-witted rider got off some zingers to counter the patronizing remarks, as well. As Carol recounted, when the Europeans would sneer, “What’s a nice little girl like you doing on a great big horse like that?”, she would smilingly reply, “Just lucky, I guess. Luckier than you!”
Carol was by no means the first US dressage rider to train and compete in Europe, but her success with Gifted forced the international dressage community to acknowledge that the Americans deserved a seat at the table. Along with the success of such contemporaries as Michael Poulin, Robert Dover, and Charlotte Bredahl, Carol and her great horse announced that the US was, and intended to remain, a contender.
Then, later in her career, Carol created what may be her greatest legacy: grant funds to support the dreams of dressage riders for generations to come.
Carol knew that she was fortunate to have the support of family and friends in helping to make her dressage dreams come true. She was quick to acknowledge that no rider reaches the top without sufficient finances, and after she achieved her own success, she dedicated considerable resources to “paying it forward” in the form of grant funds established at the philanthropic organization The Dressage Foundation (TDF).
In 2005, she funded the $25,000 Carol Lavell Advanced Dressage Prize, which provides grants to up-and-coming riders and horses with plans to excel at the high-performance level. She also recognized how much many adult amateurs struggle to find the money and time to pursue dressage—so it was fitting that donations to TDF in remembrance of Gifted seeded the Gifted Memorial Fund for Adult Amateurs, which provides funding to enable deserving AAs to pursue concentrated training time away from work and family obligations. Carol and her family also contributed to other TDF funds earmarked for various aspects of the sport: the Major Lindgren Instructor Grants, the Michael Poulin Dressage Fund, the Edgar Hotz Judges Education Fund, the Patsy Albers Award Fund, and the Captain John J. “Jack” Fritz Young Professionals Grants.
The Straight Shooter
Carol Lavell will be missed for so many reasons, but what I will miss most is her honesty.
In a sport in which many people seem to try to disguise their struggles, Carol was refreshingly candid. I still remember reading an interview with her when I was in my twenties and dealing with a horse that had suffered multiple health setbacks. I felt as if everybody else was out there happily riding and showing while I was sidelined (incredibly naïve, I know)—until I read Carol’s quote. It was something to the effect of how frustrating and difficult our sport can be, with horses prone to going lame, colicking, or worse at pivotal moments.
I was indescribably relieved to learn that even superstars like Carol dealt with the same kinds of equine frailties as the rest of us. She was frank about the financial, physical, and psychological challenges of dressage—and then she smoothed that rocky path for countless riders who seek to follow in her footsteps.
Thank you, Carol, for everything.
Jennifer Bryant is the editor of USDF Connection.