Ellie Hughes talks to the bubbly leading American event rider about being the “barn rat”, her competition demons and earning her place in the spotlight
“AN interview for Horse & Hound; that means I’ve made it, right?” writes Lauren Nicholson (née Kieffer), signing off with a winking emoji at the end of our email exchange to arrange a time to talk.
Currently ranked seventh in the world, the bubbly, easy-going American is her country’s leading event rider at the moment. And if results at the highest level are a yardstick to go by – in the past four years, she has ridden three different horses at 10 CCI5*-Ls and finished in the top 10 five times and the top 20 a further two times – she has most certainly earned her spread in the spotlight.
As we chat online a week or so later, Lauren, clad in light-coloured breeches and a dark baseball cap, is busy polishing bridles in the tack room of the yard in Virginia where she is based with Olympians-turned-revered trainers, David and Karen O’Connor.
The eventing calendar in the United States is back in full swing (albeit with its pandemic permutations) and Lauren – now sporting a new name after marrying Irish course-builder Sam Nicholson last November – has recently returned from The Plains, where she put in good performances in the CCI4*-S with two of her top string, Vermiculus and Paramount Importance.
“Being in lockdown here hasn’t been so bad as we’ve been able to keep busy with training and barn competitions, but it’s been so good finally to get back out again,” acknowledges Lauren, who impressed at the end of last season with a ninth place at Burghley.
A great many things have gone right for the 33-year-old in the past decade. With an enviable stable of horsepower, the backing of one of America’s richest families and training with the most experienced eventing couple ever to grace the sport, you could mistakenly assume that she has had it made. But as we all know, it takes far more than “being in the right place at the right time” to succeed in any sport, especially eventing.
A non-horsey family
FROM persuading her unhorsey parents to buy her riding lessons for her sixth birthday, to her early attempts at four- and five-star level – which were “pretty disastrous” – and more recently self-doubts about her cross-country riding, Lauren has overcome hurdles and heartache to reach this point.
Her childhood was different to many riders’. She grew up in a small farming town in southern Illinois in the Midwest, her father worked as a mechanic in an oil field, while her mother was an accountant.
“I was one of those kids who obsessed about horses without any real reason,” smiles Lauren who, aged 12, started working at an eventing and jumping barn, competing her own horses as well as those sent in for training and breaking.
“I was the ‘barn rat’ – I’d ride anything and everything. I spent a lot of time falling off. But I got lucky one day when we were sent an Anglo Arab called Snooze Alarm. The barn owner, Susannah Lansdale, was pregnant at the time, so I had the job of breaking him in. He was super-smart and cheeky, but a talented jumper and I loved him.”
Lauren persuaded her father to buy Snooze Alarm and the pair progressed through the grades until they eventually reached the dizzy heights of Kentucky CCI5*-L (then CCI4*) in 2010.
Their progress was characterised by peaks and troughs, and ironically it was a low point – a fall when Lauren was 16 in which she broke her back – that paved the way for her next, crucial, move.
“My parents – who don’t believe in mollycoddling – asked me whether I was scared after such a bad fall. I told them no. They said that if I was too stupid to be scared, then I needed to go somewhere and get some proper training,” she recalls.
Lauren was despatched to a week-long summer camp run by the O’Connors, and from there took on a position as a working student.
Her ability to produce young horses was quickly noted and she began riding horses for one of the O’Connors’ longest-term supporters, Jacqueline Mars.
“I would never be where I am now without Mrs Mars,” acknowledges Lauren.
Jacqueline Mars is an heiress to the confectionery giant Mars’ fortune and also a huge benefactor to eventing in the United States, both supporting individual riders and events.
She has a breeding operation and owns three of Lauren’s current top string – her home-bred Landmark’s Monte Carlo, Vermiculus, who is a full-brother to Snooze Alarm, and Paramount Importance, who was produced to four-star level in Britain by Ludwig Svennerstål. Mrs Mars also owns the bases in Virginia and Florida from which the O’Connor team operates.
Being in the right place at the right time
LAUREN’S move coincided with David’s retirement from competitive riding, so she was given his advanced horse at the time, Tigger Too, to compete – “another case of being in the right place at the right time”. Then in 2013, when Karen was forced to retire completely from the sport after breaking her neck, she was also handed the reins on her last five-star ride, Veronica.
“Taking on Veronica was a great honour, but also a huge learning curve,” says Lauren. “She and Karen had a reputation for being a fast partnership across country, but when I tried to go fast on her, I’d fall off. I lost confidence as a result and went completely the other way, racking up a bundle of time-penalties, which led to people labelling me as a slow rider.”
Murmurings that Lauren would likely squander any dressage advantage by racking up time-penalties across country is a demon that has weighed heavily on her mind until relatively recently.
“About 18 months ago, I went through a stage of being very down about it,” she admits. “Then our national federation hired [statistical analysis company] EquiRatings to talk us through our stats. They asked me whether what I read on paper was better or worse than I had expected and it was actually much better.
“I’m never going to be as fast as [her good friend] Jonelle Price, but the stats reassured me that I was also not the slowest in the world,” she says. “With David’s help, I sorted out a lot of the speed stuff and figured out a way to go more quickly without crashing out. So much of it hinges on getting the basics right and building up a partnership. In the last few years, I even had some of the fastest rides of the day.”
Competing in Britain
LAUREN’S first foray into eventing in the UK was in 2015, when she spent the summer based at Aston-le-Walls and finished sixth at Blenheim with Veronica.
“It was a good move as it forced me out of my comfort zone,” she says. “There’s a misconception over here that everything about eventing is bigger and better in Britain, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. The courses are rougher and less manicured than ours, which is probably why people get confused. You need to learn how to ride them.”
In 2017, Lauren and Veronica finished 17th at Badminton and 12th at Burghley. Then the following year, they were ninth at Badminton, while Vermiculus showed his potential by coming fifth on his CCI5*-L debut in Kentucky.
Last year signalled Lauren’s most successful to date when she followed up an eighth and a ninth at Kentucky with Paramount Importance and Vermiculus with a ninth place at Burghley, also with the latter. By now she was turning in quick cross-country rounds to complement flashy dressage scores.
“Competing at Badminton and Burghley is the stuff you dream about as a kid,” she says. “I love the big events in the UK as they have a different atmosphere, a special buzz, and you get to make different connections and friendships. Everyone supports each other. When you fall off at a British event, you get a slap on the arse and are told to get on with it, whereas over here it all gets a bit more emotional. It’s harder to pick yourself up and move on.”
WHILE good results have been plentiful at the major five-stars in recent years, delivering in a team scenario at a major championship is still something that has eluded Lauren.
At the Rio Olympics, she and Veronica suffered a very public fall while attempting a direct route that barely anyone else took and it knocked her and the American team out of contention.
“Rio was very much a case of looking back with the benefit of hindsight,” she says, the memory of it clearly still raw. “We were down on the clock and Veronica was brave, so I took a risk jumping a wide corner to an upright gate that didn’t pay off. Of course afterwards I looked like a complete idiot.”
Hopes of putting that performance behind her two years later at the World Equestrian Games in Tryon were dashed when she tipped off Vermiculus at a downhill fence.
“That was more of an unlucky fall – it was just s*** luck,” she says candidly.
With another Olympics on the horizon (pandemic permitting) and Vermiculus and Paramount Importance bang in contention for team selection, the stage is set for Lauren to banish her championship demons once and for all.
“Vermiculus will only be 14, so theoretically he should be in his prime,” she says.
One thing’s for certain, should she return from Tokyo with a medal around her neck, Lauren will never again have to ask the question, “Does that mean I’ve made it?” Because the answer, of course, will be a resounding, “Yes.”
This interview was published in full in H&H magazine, issue date 29 October 2020
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