Since she first burst onto the international eventing radar, Olympic aspirations firmly in her sights, Lauren Billys Shady has been an incredible ambassador for her Puerto Rican heritage. She’s a competitor representing Latin America on her saddle pad each time she goes down centerline, yes, but she’s also been an advocate, raising funds and physical donations to help Puerto Ricans displaced by hurricanes in 2017. She formally changed nationalities in 2009, flying the Puerto Rican flag ever since.
She’s carried that flag mostly solo, being one of just ten FEI athletes riding for Puerto Rico (she’s one of two eventers, and has until 2023 been the sole representative dating back to at least 2019) this year.
Despite the fact that equestrian sports are considered to primarily be individual sports, it’s hard to argue against the idea that a team’s camaraderie is among the most powerful ingredients to athletic success (looking at you, AFC Richmond). So it can be, in some ways, an isolating experience to compete at a championship frequently heralded for its intense team competition as an individual.
Lauren prefers to view this from a more positive perspective, noting that the experience she’s gathered from two trips to the Olympics (2016, 2021) and two Pan American Games (2011, 2015) has given her resilience and mental fortitude. These blend together to create that mental focus required to do something like win an individual gold medal – the first of your country’s eventing history – which is exactly what she did at the Central American and Caribbean Games (CAG) in June.
“The experience helps – I know more what to expect,” she described. “I knew I would be nervous, but I also knew we were qualified, and it was a nice feeling to really be able to lean into experience. That gave me a lot of confidence.”
This latest achievement comes in partnership with the 11-year-old German Sporthorse gelding, Can Be Sweet (Candyman – Tres Belle, by Landadel) – a much different ride her Olympic partner, Castle Larchfield Purdy.
“He’s quite small, he’s 15.3, so he’s a little pocket rocket,” Lauren described. “Charlie” was purchased as a coming five-year-old in 2017 with the Can Be Sweet Syndicate. With the big change in type and style, Lauren says it’s taken time to properly develop him. “He’s just very different from what I’ve ridden in the past. He’s careful, he’s got a lot more Thoroughbred – just a very different type.”
Fun fact: Lauren here shared that the name Can Be Sweet was given to him in Germany because while he could be sweet-natured, he was also “super quirky – quite difficult to handle”. She describes him now as nothing but sweet: “a total joy to work with because his character is so sweet and he is very compassionate and kind.”
This spring, Lauren traveled east from her home base in Carmel Valley, CA with Tamie Smith to compete in a different environment. She expressed thanks that she’d made that decision – she and Charlie finished a confident second in the 2*-L as a preparation event for the CAG – to not only show the horse a new venue but to understand how he handled extensive travel and varying environments. He passed the test with flying colors, and all systems were go for a big trip south.
The Central American and Caribbean Games were held in El Salvador, but since the country didn’t have a suitable venue to host equestrian sports, that portion of the Games were held in the Dominican Republic. The venue featured an atmospheric stadium and a newly-installed cross country course, designed by Jay Hambly (CAN), assisted by José Antonio Marroquin (GUA).
Lauren’s goal was clear from the outset: she wanted the gold medal.
“My expectation when I went – and I was very clear in my mind – was to win,” she said. “But that clarity was super important because when I got there, I didn’t think about a gold medal. I thought about what I needed to do right now, in each moment, to perform at my best and help my horse perform his best. What do I have to do right now, in this exact moment, to be ready for the next part?”
More than individual glory, Lauren knew how impactful a medal would be for the federation that had shown her so much support throughout her career. And watching every moment, and perhaps the largest source of inspiration for Lauren’s career – certainly the one who inspired her to officially become a Puerto Rican athlete – was Lauren’s grandmother, Maria.
It was also as if Charlie knew the occasion was the biggest he’d seen yet. Lauren describes the gelding as not the type to get “up” at competitions, yet she noticed a marked difference as she traveled down the ramp into the dressage arena.
“He grew a hand taller,” she recalled. “I’ve never felt him do that – it was such a cool feeling, and I walked up to that ring and I was like, ‘hell yeah. We’re going to deliver today.’ And it was absolutely the best test he’s ever had.”
Lauren and Charlie would go on to add some time in the jumping phases to their final score, but would wind up at the top of the podium in a historic first eventing medal for Puerto Rico. It was also the first individual equestrian medal Puerto Rico has received since Mark Watring won individual show jumping silver at the 2006 CAGs and the first equestrian medal earned in championship competition since 2010. And so Lauren’s achievement carries not only much personal significance to her — it’s also her first international championship medal – it also represents the growth and potential for future development of equestrian sport in Latin America.
“I have to say, my first Pan Ams was twelve years ago and the standard of riding and horses has continued to rise up,” Lauren observed. “When I first went to the Pan Ams, there were so many cavalry horses – literal war horses. And many of the countries were riding those types. And it’s really cool now, you’re seeing more genuine sport horses coming to these riders and giving them a shot at being really competitive. You have to think about how much it costs to go to one of these – everyone is investing so much money and time in this. This isn’t a flippant one-off that they get there – it’s really that everyone trains for it. Everyone wants it.”
That growth is evident in the camaraderie shown by the competitors throughout the week – Lauren described it as the most communal-feeling championship she’s been to. Several other U.S.-based personnel were also in San Salvador to contribute their skills, including 5* rider Sara Kozumplik, who coached the Barbados squad, and sporthorse vet Dr. Ashley Taylor-Zion, DVM. Andrew Temkin was the Technical Delegate, and Robert Stevenson was a member of the Ground Jury.
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With this in her pocket, Lauren could now set her sights on qualifying for a spot at the Paris Olympics next summer. She would need to achieve a top ranking in the FEI group Puerto Rico is in (Group E for Olympic Rankings) in order to earn an individual berth, and she would need to rather quickly think about stepping up and obtaining her 4* MER with Can Be Sweet.
While it’s an option, and it’s admittedly one she did think about, Lauren says she feels it best to instead focus on improving as a rider and coming in to the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles with a shot to be really competitive.
“I’ve really taken these last two years as a sort of reset of the deck,” she described. She and her husband, Jeff, purchased a farm and spent most of their time making it their new home and competition base. “Now I think I’m refocusing on becoming a better rider. I think I’ve had a lot of opportunities to be on the Championship stage, but I want to be really good. I did think about [qualifying for Paris], but it wouldn’t be the ‘all-star show’ and I need to do right by my horse.”
So Lauren will instead focus on getting qualified for the Pan American Games this October in Chile, leaning on guidance from Tamie Smith and Erik Duvander as well as all she learned from the years spent with longtime mentors Bea and Derek di Grazia to improve her craft with every chance she gets.
In terms of accomplishments, I’m not sure you’ll ever meet a version of Lauren who doesn’t have some sort of goal on her horizon, but I also think she would agree with me when I say that perhaps the biggest reward she earned in San Salvador was the privilege of making history in front of her grandmother, who is 92 this year.
“She was the one who encouraged me to ride for Puerto Rico back in 2009,” Lauren said with affection. “And she was the whole reason I did it. She was just so happy – it was incredible for her, and it was probably one of my biggest moments of pride.”