Among eventing's sometimes larger-than-life personalities, Leslie Law is about order and understatement. His performance at the 2003 Rolex Kentucky CCI**** with two horses, for instance, happened more or less under the publicity radar while three of his countrymen waged a high-profile tussle for the top placing. Yet, to use a favorite phrase of his, at the end of the day he'd …
- compensated for a sticky start in the dressage phase with immaculate cross-country (two of only 16 double-clear trips among 55 entries) and careful show-jumping, finishing fifth—up from 15th after dressage—on worry-prone Shear L'Eau and 14th (up from 47th!) on volatile Diamond Hall Red.
- highlighted his cross-country coup by being the first and one of the few to take the direct route over the intimidating new double corners atop the Lexington Bank.
Whatever the riding level, there's always more to learn about every horse, and Shear L'Eau's foot-perfect trip in particular left Leslie "terribly excited" about the Irish-bred gray's future. Against this background, an opportunity to spend time watching and talking with Leslie during the Rolex weekend became a look inside the thinking, as well as the riding talent, that go into his producing a consistently world-class performance.
'Riding in a Ring Comes Later'
Leslie's career—among whose highlights are team gold in the 2001 European Championships, team bronze in the 2002 World Equestrian Games, team silver at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and a Badminton second (2000) and third (2002)—got his start when he joined Britain's Pony Club after learning to ride at age 10. He was "bitten by the bug" of eventing as a result of Pony Club activities, helped along by hunting-field mileage: a background he says many top British eventers share. "There's probably no better grounding for riding cross-country than going out on a cold, wet, dark winter day, slopping around in mud, and learning to tackle whatever comes your way. Riding in a ring comes later."
His parents provided plenty of support, though not the financial kind. "My father had a small transport business; my mother did the secretarial and book work. They couldn't afford to buy me good horses, but they've been very good at encouraging me in what I wanted to do. It was up to me to find a solution to the problem of getting access to horses."
To build a foundation in the sport, Leslie also needed access to quality training. "I think it's very important in the early days to base yourself with a good professional rider and learn the trade—not only the riding aspects but the business side, how to work with owners—before you try to set out on your own." An opportunity to do just that arose in 1983, when, near his parents' home in Hay-on-Wye, 18-year-old Leslie happened to meet Virginia-based jumper rider Ian Silitch. Their conversation, comparing US and British systems, resulted in an invitation to come to Ian's as a working student.
Thanks to Ian, Leslie spent "a very beneficial two years" in the States. "I learned to ride in a soft, forward seat with the horse's rhythm, using very little hand. On the US hunter/jumper circuit, I wateched great riders like Rodney Jenkins, Leslie Burr [now Howard], Conrad Homfeld and Joe Fargis. I did very little competing, but I rode Ian's horses—mostly American Thoroughbreds then—at home. Watching at ringside what he was doing so well helped me visualize what he was trying to educate me in. The more you can see how different people do different things, the more goes into your own riding 'encyclopedia.'"
Other top British horsemen Leslie cites as influences include Christopher Bartle and jumper rider and trainer Rowland Fernyhough, from whom Leslie's sponsor Jeremy Lawton of Shearwater Insurance brought Irish-bred Shear H2O—full older brother to his Rolex mount Shear L'Eau—as a 5-year-old in 1995. And, he says, "You can pick up an awful lot just by watching—for instance, watching what the good riders are doing as they work their horses in for dressage. Use your eyes; that's for free."
More than 15 years of hard work and watching have brought Leslie to his "very fortunate" situation, with five horses capable of competing at CCI**** level, others coming along at Advanced, and a group of 5 year olds just getting started.
A key part of Leslie's role in the business is working with his horse's owners. "I think you have to give owners fun. That means you have to give them time. They want to talk about their horses, which is why I make phone calls at the end of the day when I've been riding since 7 a.m. I want to ride' I live for it, it's what makes me tick—and they make it possible."
Leslie also makes time to help eventing's next generation. Riders who train with him include Kylie Roddy, who rode on the gold-medal British team for the 2001 European Young Rider Championships. In 2002, Leslie accepted an invitation to coach California's North American Young Riders eventing team for the NAYRC, held in Illinois; he enjoyed the experience so much that he signed on to coach the same team for the 2003 Championship, in Bromont, Québec.