Nicholson and Vermiculus Celebrate Fifth-Place Finish at 2024 Kentucky Three-Day CCI5*

Veteran partners Lauren Nicholson and Anglo-Arabian Vermiculus prove they’re still at the top of their game after success in Lexington.

By Alana Harrison

Lauren Nicholson and Vermiculus tackled their first five-star event since taking last year off and finished in fifth after Sunday’s show-jumping phase. @ Amy K. Dragoo

Upper-level eventers value the speed and stamina of hot-blooded breeds like Thoroughbreds to contend with the taxing demands of the sport. Arabians, however, aren’t exactly common in high-level eventing echelons despite their hot nature.

At 17, Anglo-Arab gelding Vermiculus demonstrated his athletic prowess and longevity after clinching a fifth-place finish with Lauren Nicholson at the 2024 Defender Kentucky Three-Day Event last weekend. Nicholson and “Bug”—as he’s known to his many fans—ended up as the top-ranking U.S. competitors. For that finish, they claimed the Defender/USEF CCI5*-L Eventing National Championship.

“I was so relieved that I gave him the opportunity to do his best. It’s always like that with older horses, especially ones you’ve had since they were 2,” the 36-year-old horsewoman said following their dressage performance in which the pair tied for third. “For all the people behind Bug, you feel like you owe them something. It’s a relief when you don’t screw up. You just don’t want to waste any moments toward the end of their careers when they’re in their twilight years.”

Comeback King

Nicholson said she’d always planned to return to the five-star at Kentucky with Vermiculus this year. After getting cast in his run-in shed, Bug suffered an injury that necessitated the pair taking last year off. Due to that hiatus and with the 2024 Paris Olympic Games just around the corner, she acknowledged the importance of ensuring Bug peaks at the right time.

Despite his long career, Bug needed a long-format competition since they didn’t compete last year. Even if he didn’t it, Nicholson said she would have chosen to do the long to better prepare and improve their sharpness.

“He’s run two or three big three-day events a year for almost a decade now, and last season was the first time he’d had time off,” she noted. “I also didn’t want to take any chances on him with the coming year. Every run on him is just a blessing at this point.”

Nicholson and Vermiculus: The Making of a Champion

Nicholson seems to have a knack for producing highly competitive Arabian-crosses for eventing. In 2010, as her first Anglo-Arab Snooze Alarm neared the end of his career, she found a new prospect in his almost 3-year-old brother. Vermiculus’ eventing career was born.

Her mentor, renowned eventer David O’Connor, suspected the young horse had five-star potential from the beginning. But it was a long road getting there. Nicholson said Bug—who’s currently owned by Jacqueline Mars—was one of the more challenging horses she’s broken and trained.

With time, consistency and perseverance, she and Bug achieved their five-star status and went on to compete at many top events around the world. They were members of the silver-medal winning U.S. team at the 2022 FEI Eventing World Championship at Pratoni del Vivaro in Rome, Italy. They also finished in ninth place at the 2019 Burghley Horse Trials CCI5* in the U.K. after being one of only 10 teams to go clear during show jumping

Banking on Longevity

Nicholson and Vermiculus sailed through the challenging cross-country course on Saturday with a seventh-place finish going into show jumping on Sunday. @ Amy K. Dragoo

Nicholson attributes Bug’s longevity—and that of her other aged super-star eventing mounts—to David and Karen O’Connor’s training program that she came to adopt as her own. After graduating from high school, the budding horsewoman moved from Illinois to Virginia to become a working student for the legendary eventers. Nicholson said she was fortunate to learn from the best.

“David and Karen had a number of horses who were still running at top levels as 17-, 18- and even 19-year-olds,” Nicholson said. “I think the O’Connor’s program really lends itself to horses having long and consistent careers. They’ve always produced horses who last a long time. I think that’s very important.”

Patience, strategic planning and training according to the individual horse’s needs are fundamental to the O’Connor’s success. And Nicholson strives to emulate their winning recipe.

“You occasionally have one-hit wonders in this sport, but the horses really need so much experience before they’re super competitive—and consistently competitive,” she noted. “When you want to deliver medals for teams, that’s exactly what you need—horses who are very dependable.”

Especially going into cross country, Nicholson felt a keen sense of responsibility to help Bug deliver his best effort.

“He has such an amazing fan following, I know they would still love him even if I messed up,” she said. “But there is this pressure do right by him and to deliver what he deserves.”

The Consummate Professional

Nicholson and Vermiculus were thrilled to be back in the Rolex Stadium for the first time after taking last year off. The pair finished with a third-place tie. @ Amy K. Dragoo

After finishing their dressage test with a score of 30.6, Nicholson said Bug seemed thrilled to show off in front of a big crowd again after his hiatus last year. And despite his age, the gelding was quite fresh during their performance.

“I felt like I was on a wild Arabian stallion. You can always tell when he’s feeling excited because his ear starts to twitch. Usually, that’s followed by a huge leap in the air, so I’m glad that didn’t happen,” she laughed. “He had one little bobble, but he’s such a professional and has done this a million times. He knows his job on the day.”

Due to Bug’s super fresh perspective on the event, Nicholson said she had to adjust her strategy and significantly extend the length of their warm-up routine.

“He was so wild that we did a ton of work at the walk just to ensure that trust was there,” she said. “Then, at a certain point, you just have to trust the training.”

Upping His Game

Going into cross country on Saturday, Nicholson planned to take extra time where she needed it and then make up those precious seconds in between the more challenging combinations. But she also told David O’Connor and his mom Sally O’Connor that she just might live a little dangerously out there.

“It was a dare course and definitely rewarded accurate riding. Bug isn’t the fastest horse in the world, but I still wanted to do my best and not waste a second anywhere,” she said. “I certainly did live dangerously and left out a few [strides] in several places. It really came down to how much experience he had and what a fighter he is.”

Nicholson admitted it wasn’t the prettiest, smoothest round, and she would have loved to have made the time. But overall, she was thrilled with how hard Bug fought to get out of a number of tricky situations.

“We’re such longtime partners, he seemed really excited to get out there with me. He couldn’t have fought any harder,” she said. “I’m ecstatic with him, and tomorrow is another day. He’s sound and happy, and I think he was very pleased to be back out there.”

Since there had been a long gap since Bug had competed in a higher-level event, Nicholson worried that he might be somewhat fatigued by the show-jumping phase on Sunday. But even at 17, the hearty Vermiculus brought a new wave of energy into jumping day.

“He honestly felt pretty bloody fresh out there! Toward the end of our round, he got feisty on me, and I just told him, ‘Hey, you have to wait and pay attention little man,’” she laughed. “The triple was kind of a bummer, but he felt super out there and made the time. So, I was thrilled.”

Wicked Ham

Nicholson and Vermiculus strut their stuff during the jog at the first horse inspection. @ Amy K. Dragoo

In the Rolex Stadium, Nicholson joked that most horse-and-rider teams avoid going down the line while the massive crowds are cheering for the previous rider. For both veterans and horses new to the fanfare of the Kentucky Three-Day, the roaring ovations echoing in the arena can be overwhelming. Not so for Bug.

“He loves to show off for the crowd. He really likes and thrives in that atmosphere,” Nicholson said. “Usually, it also makes him realize it’s an important occasion, so he’ll buckle down a bit.”

Following their dressage test, Bug treated the crowd to a precious moment when in response to their cheers, he looked back toward his fans as if to say, “Who, me?” Nicholson laughed and said he genuinely doesn’t understand why the crowd would bother to watch any horse besides him.

“Bug is a wicked ham! He loves a big crowd and the fact that everyone is there to watch him. He loves getting all the attention,” she said. “One of his favorite things is taking these big trips to events with his ‘nanny’ Sally where it’s only him getting all the attention. That’s what he lives for.”

Nicholson and Vermiculus finished the event in fifth. Time will tell if the formidable team’s summer plans include a trip across the pond to Paris this summer.

For complete results of the 2024 Defender Kentucky Three-Day Event CCI5*:

  1. First Horse Inspection
  2. Dressage Day 1 Report
  3. Dressage Day 1 Photo Gallery
  4. Dressage Day 2 Report
  5. Dressage Day 2 Photo Gallery
  6. Sneek Peek: CCI5* Cross-Country Course
  7. Cross-Country Report
  8. Cross-Country Photo Gallery

Thanks to Mane ‘n Tail Equine for our coverage of the 2024 Defender Kentucky Three-Day Event.

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