Lauren Kieffer has never accepted “no” for an answer. Not when her parents told her she couldn’t have a horse, not when she fell off on the way to the start box at her first horse trials and not even when the upper echelons of eventing seemed unreachable for a horse-crazy kid growing up in the Midwest.
She paved her own path to the podium anyway, winning a team gold medal in eventing at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto and stamping herself as a rising star in U.S. eventing and an Olympic hopeful for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Lauren’s unlikely rise to the top is defined by a persistent refusal to give up, the unconditional support of her parents and generosity of people who helped her along the way and a common denominator that’s defined her from the very beginning: hard work.
Born with the Horse Bug
Growing up in a nonriding family in the oil town of Mt. Carmel, Illinois, Lauren doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t addicted to horses, though she knows her parents can’t be blamed for her catching the horse bug.
Her dad, Kevin, ran an oil-trucking company while her mom, Jo, worked as an accountant. Kevin raced motorcycles and dirt bikes, but his daughter’s interests always leaned in a more four-legged direction. Jo remembers it was love at first sight when 6-year-old Lauren touched a horse for the first time.
“On a whim we decided to get her a riding lesson for her sixth birthday,” Jo says. “Kevin and I both grew up rural, and the way you learned about horses was by climbing a fence and getting on one until you fell off. We thought getting her a riding lesson would be a good thing for her, and it was a slippery slope from there.”
It took one year of enduring Lauren’s constant begging before Kevin reluctantly agreed to trade his BMW F650 motorcycle for Fred, an old Appaloosa gelding who gently taught her the ropes.
“After that, it’s a miracle I survived because my next three horses were all green off-track Thoroughbreds,” Lauren says. But she stuck with it, competing regularly in local hunter/jumper and 4-H shows. Her parents, admitting defeat, eventually built a small barn at their home for her growing menagerie of misfits.
When Lauren turned 12, she started taking lessons with Susannah Lansdale at Signal Knob, an eventing training facility in Evansville, Indiana, about 40 miles away from the Kieffers’ home. Lauren admits that “wildly unsuccessful” describes her track record in those early days.
“I did my first horse trials when I was 12 on an off-track Thoroughbred named Cardinal,” Lauren says. “I fell off twice before I got to the start box, and then we had multiple runouts on cross country.”
Jo also remembers that Cardinal went through the timing poles backward in show jumping at that first event because Lauren couldn’t get him to go forward. “But she persevered and jumped a clear round after that,” Jo says.
Lauren spent the summer competing at the Beginner Novice level and racking up a burgeoning number of refusals on cross-country courses. “I didn’t give my parents much hope of me having any talent back then,” Lauren says. “It took me two years to get my first ribbon for finishing eighth.”
Finding her Stride
More dedicated than ever to hone her riding skills, Lauren spent every spare moment she could at Signal Knob living the barn rat life, riding as many horses as she possibly could and working at the farm to fund the cost of competing.
“Before I had my driver’s license, I would live at the farm all summer and work there,” Lauren says. “During the school year my mom would drop me off on Friday, and I would stay the weekend to work and come back Sunday night for school. It was about learning to work hard.”
As for where Lauren developed that level of intensity in her work ethic, that’s simply the way generations of Kieffers have been raised. “For the Kieffers, that’s what you do—work hard,” Kevin says. Jo adds: “We always told Lauren that no one gives you anything in life.”
Lauren found her stride when she progressed to Training level and her trainer offered one of her own horses, named Cinco de Mayo, to compete. “She was a lovely horse who was very well schooled, and we started winning every time we competed,” she says.
It wasn’t long after that that Lauren, then 15 years old, met Snooze Alarm, a 4-year-old, 15.2-hand Anglo-Arabian gelding that was quirky and difficult to ride on the flat. “We got eliminated at his first event, but I asked my dad if we could buy him anyway. He said ‘no’ at first, and I was so upset that I started to cry, which made him change his mind.” Lauren campaigned the little chestnut gelding from Beginner Novice all the way through to the Intermediate level.
“He was an amazing jumper, but he had a four-beat canter. He also had some conformation flaws that made dressage at the upper levels a struggle for him. Despite that, I always believed that he could make it to [the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event]. That was me being a dreamer.”
But their partnership was far from a fairytale at times. Lauren and Snooze Alarm hit a roadblock in their training when it came to jumping up and down banks, a common element found on cross-country courses. Lauren fell from Snooze multiple times while trying to solve the bank conundrum, with the most serious accident occurring when she was 16. A compression fracture of the L1 vertebra in her lumbar spine left her sidelined for three months.
An Internet search for training programs to help Lauren and Snooze work through the problem popped up a result for a week-long eventing summer camp taught by Olympians David and Karen O’Connor in Virginia. Lauren’s parents agreed to send her to the camp as her high-school graduation present.
The O’Connor Effect
David O’Connor remembers how quickly Lauren absorbed the camp’s instructional program. “She was having quite a lot of difficulty with Snooze Alarm, and any time we brought in a new idea you would see her practicing it on her own—everything from exercises on the ground to ideas over fences,” he says. “You could see her working through it and making a difference in her horse.”
Lauren knew she had only scratched the surface of what she could learn from the O’Connors during that week at camp. When she approached Karen and David about becoming a working student at their farm, they asked when she could start. Her answer: “Now.”
Lauren briefly returned home to Illinois to pack her bags before starting her tenure as a working student. When the summer ended and with her parents’ support, Lauren ultimately decided to forego college to continue working for the O’Connors.
“She had the quality of being able to learn by watching instead of having to be told,” David says. “The power of observation is an important trait to have and it’s something she does very well. She was a hard worker and still is a hard worker.”
When David retired from competing and started in his new role as president of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, he handed over more riding responsibilities to Lauren, including the opportunity to lease Tigger Too. An off-track Thoroughbred gelding still in his prime, Tigger Too’s record was peppered with notable finishes at events like Rolex, Burghley, Fair Hill and Foxhall.
Tigger gave Lauren the experience she needed at the Intermediate and two-star level, ultimately preparing her to make the big move up to the Advanced level. Though Tigger wasn’t the easiest to ride, David believes Lauren clicked with the horse in large part because of the quiet nature of her riding position, especially on cross country. “She’s very still and sympathetic in the way she rides, which allows the horses to really concentrate on the job,” David says. “Because of her balance and that quietness, she was able to work with Tigger. The position she has on cross country was and still is one of her biggest strengths.”
Tigger safely carried Lauren around her first Advanced event, her first CIC*** and then her first CCI*** at the 2007 Jersey Fresh International Three-Day Event, where she won the Markham Trophy as the highest-placed rider under 21.
Lauren and Tigger also competed at Jersey Fresh the following year in the CCI***, which was meant to be the final event of the 17-year-old gelding’s career before his retirement. Tragically, Tigger suffered an acute abdominal aortic rupture on cross country and fell at fence 28, passing away minutes later.
“Tigger was a horse who genuinely loved to compete and loved the game,” Lauren says. “I will always be incredibly grateful to him for everything he did for me and to David for letting me ride him.”
Achieving the Rolex Dream
After losing Tigger, Lauren returned to Jersey Fresh one year later with her longtime partner Snooze Alarm to compete in the CCI***. They finished in eighth place, giving Lauren her qualifying score to compete at Rolex in 2010 on a horse that no one but she ever believed would make it that far.
“Getting to Rolex for the first time feels like a huge accomplishment,” Lauren says. “Everyone kept asking me if I was nervous, but because it was Snooze I knew we would either jump around cross country clear or we would get eliminated at the third fence. No one was expecting much from us, so I didn’t feel a lot of pressure.”
Lauren and Snooze Alarm exceeded all expectations when they jumped around clear on cross-country day. Though they had a refusal in show jumping, they still crossed the finish flags to complete their first CCI**** in 29th place–the culmination of Lauren’s longtime dream.
“Max [Corcoran, the O’Connor’s longtime barn manager] always used to say that Snooze Alarm was a glorified one-star horse who did a four-star,” Lauren says. “We had grown up together, and he kept kicking along for me through the levels.”
Lauren retired Snooze at the end of the 2010 season, starting a lengthy dry spell when she didn’t have an Advanced horse to compete. “I had a great group of horses after Kentucky but they were young, and I didn’t compete above Training level for two years,” Lauren says.
“At the time it was frustrating, but David and Karen always told me, ‘In the end, this will be the best thing that happens to you.’ And they were right. I went back to the basics and learned how to ride better. Having a forced time at the lower levels allowed me to start focusing on how to win.”
After spending six years with the O’Connor Equestrian Team, Lauren made the transition to working as the resident rider at Stonehall Farm for Ms. Jacqueline Mars, a longtime owner of legendary horses like Giltedge and Prince Panache for David and Karen. With Ms. Mars’ breeding program producing top young eventing prospects, Lauren began competing a slew of talented up-and-coming horses.
“Ms. Mars has been the biggest supporter of my career and has given me unbelievable opportunities from the very beginning,” Lauren says. “Being able to utilize her knowledge, ride and train out of her facilities and compete the wonderful horses she breeds—I wouldn’t have a career without that.”
A Horse Called ‘Troll’
Lauren ultimately found a horse to take her back to the upper levels when she met Veronica, a Dutch Warmblood mare that Scott Keach and Sharn Wordley had imported to the U.S. Lauren was helping to sell Veronica when she broke her arm in a fall and she asked Karen O’Connor to compete the mare until her arm healed.
Karen liked Veronica so much that she pulled together a group of owners known as Team Rebecca to buy her, and they enjoyed dominant finishes at the Advanced and three-star level during the two seasons they competed together. Unfortunately, their partnership came to an abrupt end when a rotational fall at Morven Park in October 2012 left Karen with two fractured vertebrae in her back.
After undergoing surgery to stabilize the injury and a lengthy rehabilitation period, Karen retired from competing in eventing. Her horses went to different riders, and Lauren seemed like a natural choice for Veronica since she had ridden her previously.
“We call her ‘Troll’ in the barn because she makes faces at you that let you know exactly what she is thinking,” Lauren says. “She is not a cuddly horse, but that personality is what makes her such a good cross-country horse. She’s tough, knows her job well and has a get-it-done type of attitude.”
With another Advanced horse in her barn and a steadily expanding string of stellar young horses to compete, Lauren’s career turned a corner in 2013. She and Veronica started on a winning streak that year, which landed Lauren on her first U.S. team representing her country at the Boekelo CCIO*** Nations Cup in the Netherlands.
Lauren fell from Veronica while tackling the muddy cross-country course at Boekelo, but that only intensified her desire to succeed when she finally returned to the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event the following spring in 2014.
Coming into the event as determined underdogs, Lauren and Veronica rose to the occasion to score 46.7 in dressage and then jumped double clear around the cross-country course the next day to sit in second place behind William Fox-Pitt and Bay My Hero.
Lauren and Veronica jumped double clear again the next day in show jumping to wild cheers from the crowd—with the loudest cheers of all coming from her parents—to put the pressure on William, who couldn’t afford a single rail to take the win. Though William did jump clear to win, Lauren’s second-place finish crowned her the new U.S. Equestrian Federation National CCI**** Champion as the highest-placed U.S. rider.
Watching their daughter nearly win Rolex is something Jo and Kevin say they will never forget. “Her show-jumping round was the longest 90 seconds,” Jo says. “You’re trying to enjoy the moment and your heart is in your throat and you can’t believe it’s going so perfectly wonderful.”
For Lauren, finishing in second place at such a prestigious competition made her all the more resolved to win. “I was fairly unknown at the time and that definitely helped get my name out there,” Lauren says. “It gave me a taste of what it feels like and it made me pretty desperate to get there again.”
A Golden Year
Veronica catapulted Lauren into the spotlight as a top up-and-coming United States event rider, but a different bay mare gave her the opportunity to represent her country for the first time at a major team championships.
With the Pan American Games being a CCI** competition, Team USA looked to younger horses with less experience than stalwarts like Veronica. The young horses Lauren had carefully produced from the beginning of their careers were starting to reach the highest levels of the sport during the selection period for the team, making her a favorite for Toronto.
Two horses in particular stood out: Vermiculus, an 8-year-old full brother to Snooze Alarm owned by Jacqueline Mars, and Meadowbrook’s Scarlett, an 8-year-old Thoroughbred/Holsteiner mare owned and bred in the U.S. by Marie le Menestrel. Both horses started the season as frontrunners for the Pan American team, with Scarlett delivering a strong second-place finish at Jersey Fresh CCI***.
“I tried not to constantly be thinking about making the team, but I also didn’t want to give them a reason to not put me on it,” Lauren says. “I focused on having consistent good results as much as I could.”
The selectors named Lauren and Meadowbrook’s Scarlett to the team alongside Phillip Dutton and Fernhill Fugitive, Marilyn Little and RF Scandalous and Boyd Martin and Pancho Villa. The pressure was on not only to win a medal but also to secure qualification for the 2016 Olympic Games, which had eluded the U.S. Eventing Team.
Lauren and Scarlett delivered the same consistent performance in Toronto that had earned them a spot on the team, finishing in seventh place individually to help the U.S. team win a gold medal and gain a valuable Olympic qualifying spot.
“Winning a gold medal is something we all work for so hard, and there are a lot of people who have worked for it twice, three times, even four times as long as I have,” Lauren says. “So much can go wrong with horses. To have it all go right at a major championships like the Pan American Games feels fantastic.”
For Jo and Kevin, watching their daughter win a gold medal was and still is a very emotional experience. “At times you’re in awe of your own child because she has accomplished so much,” Jo says.
A Bright Future
With her career peaking at just the right time, Lauren now looks ahead to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. The strategy to give herself the best shot at making the team is a simple one: produce consistent results with Veronica, Meadowbrook’s Scarlett, Landmark’s Monte Carlo and her other top horses, just as she has all along.
“You don’t want to start getting desperate and change up what has already been working well,” Lauren says. “The horses all performed really well last year with top results, and I’m going to keep preparing them along those same lines.”
And, as always, she’s going to keep working hard.
“I was brought up with the clear understanding that there is always someone who will work harder than you. I try to keep that in mind every day,” Lauren says. “There are certainly a lot of people who have been in this game for a lot longer and have done everything right and haven’t had it come off. At the end of the day you need a little luck in this sport, but hard work always has to come first.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.