Whether cantering through competitions, or bonding in the stables, Laura Bennett and her horse Spiro are inseparable. The 10 year old rider has always loved animals, but found there weren’t many places she could interact with large animals in Hong Kong – until she discovered horse riding.
“I absolutely loved it,” she tells Young Post when asked about her very first lesson.
Laura looks to Olympian rider and fellow Australian, Edwina Tops-Alexander, for inspiration and says that she hopes to be as decorated as her one day. “She’s incredibly brave and focused, and she jumps amazing heights on her horse. I loved watching her in the last Olympic games,” she says. Both Laura and Tops-Alexander began riding when they were very young – Laura started having lessons when she was just four, and she now rides for French International School, and the Hong Kong and Clearwater Bay Equestrian Centre.
When Laura was six, she fell off a pony and broke her arm. She couldn’t get back on a horse for months. Rather than putting her lessons on hold, she spent her down time learning about how to run a stable, and how to care for and understand the animals.
It turned out to be a formative time for the young rider, as she learned a lot about what happens behind-the-scenes of a stable, and was inspired to become a horse vet when she’s older. A trip to the Hong Kong Jockey Club Equine Hospital in Sha Tin with the Hong Kong Pony Club last year confirmed her goal. “It was amazing to see the high tech equipment that the vets use,” she says. “I really like the idea of working outside with horses, but also combining that with my love of maths and technology.”
Once her arm healed, she tentatively began riding tiny Shetland ponies, but within months she had regained her confidence and was riding larger ponies.
Horse riding involves placing a lot of faith in an animal that, even when trained, can be unpredictable. Most athletes only have themselves to focus on in terms of fitness, but horse riders must make sure that their companion is well-rested and in peak health for each competition. “What makes my sport different to any other is knowing that horses can muck up whenever they feel like it, and you just have to deal with it,” Laura says.
Last December, Laura rode for her school at the Hong Kong Equestrian Federation (HKEF) Inter-school Equestrian Challenge “Mini” Competition. Beforehand, she researched information about the ponies she’d be riding so she wouldn’t just get on the horse with no clue about its personality. “Every pony is very different to ride and each one has its own little tricks and talents,” she explains. “It’s really difficult to compete on a pony you’ve never ridden before. A big part of this sport is [attaining that] trust between horse and rider.”
As one of the youngest riders competing against more experienced 14-year-olds, she found the day quite the learning curve. But some kind words from Tara Delaney, who runs the Hong Kong Pony Club, helped steady her nerves beforehand. “Tara said, ‘We do this for enjoyment, not to win and become too competitive’ and that stayed with me the whole time,” Laura remembers.
The jumping part of the competition didn’t quite go to plan – “The pony I was riding was practically galloping round the corners!” – and when it came to the dressage, Laura found it tricky getting her head around not being allowed to cluck to encourage her horse. Clucking is when a rider clicks their tongue at a horse. Nevertheless, she ended up placing third.
When she’s not having lessons or rising up the ranks in competitions, Laura can be found looking after Spiro. He was her ninth birthday gift, and that stable knowledge she gained as an injured six-year-old pays off when she grooms and tacks him up, showers him after lessons, and takes him for walks.
“I love riding fast or jumping high, but this sport is so much more than that,” she says “If you understand horses and how they think, you will be a better rider. If I could sleep in my pony’s stable – I would. Spiro’s stable is my favourite place in Hong Kong.”
What song/movie title best describes you when you’re playing your sport?
Hall Of Fame by The Script.
You can take the abilities of any animal during one competition. Which do you choose and why?
A horse, because they are high and fast.
What’s your favourite thing to eat before a big event?
A banana because they give me a burst of energy. When I get off the horse, I am always starving and that’s when I need a big meal. I don’t know what it is about riding, but it makes me really hungry!
Which fictional character would you choose as your team mate?
Probably Pegasus, because a great part of riding is team work with the horse.
10 years in the future, you are a famous athlete. What company are you spokesperson for, and what product do you promote?
Ariat, because they have amazing horse gear, and I would wear their boots.