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Saturday, August 4, 2012

Quick Change: From College Grad to Olympic Dressage Groom

Team USA 2012 Olympic dressage horse Calecto V and his groom, Lauren Donahoo. Photo courtesy of Lauren Donahoo.
Lauren Donahoo's life was falling into place.

A 2011 graduate of William Woods University in Fulton, MO, Donahoo had earned a bachelor's degree in equine science and had been accepted into WWU's graduate-assistant program, where she intended to pursue a master's degree in marketing. She was also engaged to be married, with a July 21, 2012 wedding planned.

So in October 2011, when she saw the Facebook post advertising the opening for a dressage groom, Donahoo ignored it.

A month later, the Facebook poster, Grand Prix-level rider and then-Olympic hopeful Tina Konyot, posted her ad again.

Donahoo, 23, of Dallas, TX, was a Facebook fan of Konyot's. She had hands-on horse experience, of course, but her equestrian resume was modest: She'd shown through Fourth Level and had never done  the FEI Juniors or Young Riders.

"I'd done regular shows, groomed multiple horses, ridden and shown multiple horses at shows, but I'd never done a CDI" (an FEI-recognized dressage competition), Donahoo says.

She answered the ad.

Something about it drew Donahoo--probably the part about "education, adventure, and a shot at making the Olympic team" and going to the London 2012 Games as the groom of a Team USA horse. And something about the young woman's dedication, work ethic, and willingness to take a chance obviously spoke to Konyot.

"Tina called in late November 2011," Donahoo says. "I came out for two and a half days" to interview for the position, "and two weeks later I started as her groom. I left the university, moved to Florida [Konyot's winter base], and started working December 31, 2011."

Donahoo and her fiancé, Jonathan Keeton, who lives in Missouri, had several heart-to-hearts before she decided to embark on the adventure. They agreed to postpone the wedding until November 23, although she's been a little too busy lately to give things like flowers and invitations much thought.

As Konyot's groom, Donahoo is responsible for the care, grooming, tack, feeding, and everything else pertaining to the Danish stallion Calecto V. Konyot wasted no time indoctrinating her new groom into the world of high-performance dressage: A short time after Donahoo started, they were off to a CDI. And another, and another--the entire chain of qualifying events leading up to the US Olympic dressage selection trials at Gladstone, NJ, in June. A few weeks after that, Donahoo and her charge were headed to London.

Being the groom for an international-level dressage horse and rider is hard work: Donahoo says she regularly puts in ten- to fifteen-hour days.

"My last full day off, away from the horses entirely, was in March," she says.

And the "education" part Konyot promised in her ad? Donahoo has learned that grooming at this level is show grooming, but "super-fine-tuned. It's the specifics of making one person and one horse going into the show ring absolutely perfect. The horsemanship is off the charts."

All the details, from the scheduling of Calecto's farrier and other caretaker appointments to the execution of every braid on his handsomely crested neck, fall to Donahoo. She fretted when she was not permitted to fly with him to London (not enough room) and is overjoyed that she will be able to escort her charge back to his summer home near Toronto when the Olympics are over.

As much as Donahoo has benefited from the experience--"I was at the training camp [in England] with the top six dressage horses in the US. You can't get that kind of opportunity anywhere else"--she admits to missing home, fiancé, and riding. (She hasn't ridden since she started working for Konyot, and she hasn't seen Keeton since March.) Although Konyot has "offered me a job for as long as I want," Donahoo hasn't made up her mind.

"It's hard to be out of the saddle," she admits, adding that she hopes one day to be in Konyot's place at an Olympic Games.

Still, it's been an adventure like no other, and Donahoo is thoroughly in love with the big bay stallion, who snuggles with her in his stall at home as well as in London. She still can't quite believe she's in London with an Olympic horse at the Olympic Games: a bit star-struck, she recounts her first time "walking out the main arena [at Greenwich Park], and there are Mistral and Valegro."

But at the same time, Donahoo recognizes that she seized the opportunity and has made the most of it.

"Don't be afraid to step outside the comfort zone," Donahoo advises other aspiring dressage professionals.

Oh, and before that wedding finally rolls around, Donahoo will have one more task to attend to: dress alterations.

"I've dropped, like, five dress sizes," she says.


  1. SO proud of Lauren. I have never met someone so dedicated and hard-working.

  2. I think what you've done is awesome and I give you huge Kudos for it. I only wish that when I was your age I had the guts to drop everything and go. I've loved horses all my life and even had my own for a number of years but the chance to go and do what you have........Once In A Lifetime opportunity and you grabbed on with both hands!!!! Take Tina up on the job offer. If you don't, someone else will. Life is too short and if you can do something you love for a living, that's the best job in the world!!!! Oh and Congratulations to you and your fiancé!!!

  3. SO very proud of my amazing cousin! This makes all those summers of riding stick ponies around the backyard seem worth it :) Hands down the most appreciative, dedicated, and deserving. Enjoy every secnd of it, more great things will come your way!

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