Like many other three-day eventers, Lauren Nicholson’s love for eventing began with cross country. But after spending almost two-thirds of her life pursuing the sport, including traveling the world, riding in multiple five-star events and competing at the 2015 Pan American Games and the 2016 Olympics, Lauren has learned to appreciate the challenges and rewards of all three phases.
“We all love cross country, and that was the original hook to it for me, but over time, I’ve liked how much you have to be a master of all trades and not just master of one,” Lauren said. “In eventing, you end up having such a partnership with the horses because there’s no other way around it.”
Born and raised in Mount Carmel, Ill., Lauren grew up in a non-horsey household, but that didn’t stop her passion for horses from developing. Her parents, recognizing the beginning of a lifelong obsession, gave her riding lessons for her sixth birthday.
“After that, I never stopped being horse crazy,” Lauren said.
Although her father wasn’t a horseman, he was an avid dirt biker and enjoyed sharing his hobby with his daughter. But when Lauren was around eight, she decided to trade her motorcycle for her first horse. With her parents’ blessing, Lauren became the proud owner of an Appaloosa gelding named Fred.
“I mostly rode English and did some of the local hunter-jumper shows, but I also did a lot of 4-H fairs, barrel racing and gaming and things like that. [My approach to showing as a kid] was pretty much anything that horses were doing, I wanted to do,” Lauren said.
As her skills and abilities in the saddle continued to develop, Lauren and her parents started looking for new riding opportunities for her – and that’s how she discovered the sport of eventing.
“We found a larger barn that was just across the state line in Indiana, and it’s still run by [eventer] Susannah Lansdale today,” Lauren recalled. “When I started riding with her, that’s how I found out about eventing and got into the sport. I was only about eleven or twelve.”
Once Lauren discovered eventing, she never looked back. After graduating high school, she moved east to start riding with Olympian riders David and Karen O’Connor, who quickly became her mentors.
“They became a second family for me, and I’m still based with them after fifteen years, going on sixteen,” Lauren said. “They’ve been the biggest drivers of my career and pretty much all my opportunities have come from them. They were retiring as my career was taking off, so I’ve had a lot of opportunities to ride horses and meet owners that way – but they’ve certainly been the driving force behind my career.”
Today, Lauren is a force to be reckoned with on the field of eventing. As a young adult, she competed in the 2005 North American Junior Championships and the 2006 and 2007 North American Young Rider Championships. In 2014, as the leading USA rider in the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event CCI, she won the Pinnacle Cup Trophy; she won the same trophy again in 2016. In 2015, she competed in the Pan American Games, earning a gold medal along with her team and taking 7th place as an individual. In 2016, she traveled to Rio to compete in the Olympics, where her team placed 12th. Some of Lauren’s most notable mounts include Snooze Alarm, Veronica, Vermiculus and Meadowbrook’s Scarlett.
These days, she spends six months every year in Middleburg, Va., and the other six months in Ocala, Fla., where she rides, trains and shows top-quality eventing horses for Jacqueline Mars of the Mars family.
Lauren is also the host of the brand new Fit Equine course, “The Performance Horse: Conditioning and Aftercare,” where she shares her top tips for caring for high-caliber performance horses. To celebrate the upcoming launch of the new course, Lauren sat down with us for a special Q&A session. Read on to find out more about eventing star Lauren Nicholson!
ALLISON: What do you enjoy most about training horses for eventing?
LAUREN: I’ve always really enjoyed producing eventing horses from when they’re younger and all the way up. That’s certainly my favorite thing to do. I also like that even if a horse isn’t going to be competitive at the top of the sport, they can almost always be successful at some level. They don’t have to be top Grand Prix horses to have a life in eventing.
ALLISON: Can we talk about the breeds of horses that are used most often for eventing? What’s your favorite breed or type of horse?
LAUREN: There is a wide range of breeds used for eventing. At the top of the sport, they obviously have to have a lot of stamina and endurance. People talk a lot about “blood” in eventers, but it also has a lot to do with their personality. Vermiculus is an Anglo-Arabian, which isn’t a super common breed for eventing, but he has excelled. I’ve always loved the Arabians and having some Arab blood in my eventers. Arabians get kind of a bad rap and many people picture the dished faces and the little curved ears, but Vermiculus’s lines are more Polish rather than Egyptian. The Polish Arabians are very Thoroughbred-like. I prefer horses who are a little on the smaller side, and Bug – that’s Vermiculus’s nickname – is only about 15.3 hands.
One of my other top horses, Veronica, has very little blood in her breeding. She is a KWPN Warmblood. Her lines are pure show jumping and dressage, so she’s got less than 40% blood. But she can run all day long. So it depends on the horse. Breeding is a factor, but you always have outliers. I’ve ridden everything from Thoroughbreds to Warmbloods, and I’ve found that success depends on the horse’s personality more than their breeding.
ALLISON: What’s one of your most memorable competition experiences?
LAUREN: I would say that would have to be with Veronica at my first Kentucky five-star event [in 2014] where we finished second. That was a pretty standout moment. It really jumpstarted my career, because up to that point I hadn’t really done anything that impressive. No one knew who I was. Then we leapt onto the scene with that, and she took me all over the world, including to the Olympics in Rio.
Another big moment involved one of Ms. Mars’ home-breds, Landmark’s Monte Carlo. I started him from his three-year-old year on, and the first time he competed at Kentucky, it was such an emotional experience for everyone on the team and the whole farm because we had raised him from a baby.
ALLISON: What’s an average day look like for you?
LAUREN: The barn starts at seven. All of our horses sleep outside at night because we have lots of big fields. At seven, we start bringing all the horses in to be fed and checked. I usually get on the first one around eight, and then I’m getting on and off all day. I usually ride eight to ten horses a day, sometimes twelve horses a day. We try to stick to a routine because I think it really helps the horses. We’re usually done riding by around 3 pm and make sure the horses are out in their fields and fed by 4 pm. Obviously, with horse shows, that sometimes changes. But on a typical day when we don't have anything going on, that's what it looks like.
ALLISON: What are the top qualities you look for in an eventing prospect?
LAUREN: Trainability and willingness to do the job and learn new things. I've had a lot of horses that were phenomenally talented, but they were completely useless as eventing horses because they didn't have any work ethic. And then I've had some horses that were not talented at the slightest and made it to the top of the sport because they had an incredible work ethic. Especially in eventing, they just have to be willing to show up and go to work every day. Work ethic would be my most important quality because it’s just not always easy in cross country, for example. Sometimes they have to fight for it. Some of them really love that and dig in, and others just don’t want to play when it gets too difficult.
ALLISON: What’s your best advice for the little girl who wants to start eventing?
LAUREN: For the little girl that wants to learn eventing and probably doesn't have a bunch of money behind her, I’d say if you show up at a barn and work every day and are willing to do all the jobs that other people won’t do, people will give you opportunities to ride. You have to be willing to ride wherever you can and on whatever you can, and then you’ll gradually be able to get nicer horses. If you show up and work, people will take notice.
ALLISON: What do you hope the audience takes away from your course on Fit Equine?
LAUREN: I hope that someone who doesn't know a lot about eventing can watch it and feel like they have a better grasp of how to do it in a way that is manageable and not overwhelming. I also hope that I’ve made it simple enough so that people who are on their own or can’t afford to hire an everyday trainer or go take a ton of lessons can feel like they can do this at home with their own horses and progress.