At age 6, Lauren Kieffer received riding lessons for her birthday, and her love of horses began. Knowing Kieffer’s passion, her father, Kevin, traded his motorcycle for his daughter’s first horse, an older Appaloosa gelding named Fred.
In the 23 years since, Kieffer has ridden her love of horses all the way to the Rio Olympics.
Kieffer left southern Illinois for Middleburg 11 years ago to work for — and learn from — top eventing competitors David and Karen O’Connor . What was supposed to be a gap year turned into more than a decade honing her skills. The commitment paid off with a spot on the four-person U.S. Olympic eventing team and a No. 11 world ranking.
“I stayed with [David O’Connor] this long and he’s certainly gave me most of my opportunities in my career, along with his wife, Karen,” Kieffer said. “It’s certainly a great relationship for sure. He knows exactly how I go and I know exactly how he goes. It works out very well.”
David O’Connor won an Olympic silver in team eventing at the 1996 Games and took gold in the individual event at the Sydney Games in 2000, as well as a team bronze. Karen was on both those medal-winning teams as well.
In eventing, riders compete in the different equestrian disciplines of dressage, show jumping and cross-country. O’Connor posted a score of 29.0 penalty points in dressage when he won the gold in 2000, a mark that is still an Olympic record. His final score of 34 penalty points is also still an Olympic record. He and his horse, Custom Made, were inducted into the U.S. Equestrian Federation Hall of Fame in 2009.
Both O’Connors are retired from competition, but David will serve as the coach for the U.S. team in Rio, where he can keep an eye on Kieffer.
“It’s fun to watch a kid grow up, go to her first international competitions, even national competitions,” O’Connor said. “Now, here she’s representing the country at the Olympic Games.”
O’Connor said that although he and Kieffer are both quiet by nature, they communicate really well with each other.
“A lot gets said through hand signals that we have down pat so she can concentrate on riding,” O’Connor said. “It’s kind of my style of coaching anyway. Because of that, you automatically kind of know what the other person is thinking.”
Her coach isn’t the only one Kieffer must communicate with. It’s important to have a bond with her horse. In Rio, Kieffer will ride Veronica, a 12-year-old Dutch-bred warmblood bay mare nicknamed “The Troll.”
“We respect each other,” Kieffer said. “We obviously have a bond. That many hours with anything, you create a relationship. We actually agree a lot.”
Kieffer and Veronica have competed in events sanctioned by the sport’s world governing body, the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), since April 2013. Veronica has competed with just one other rider aboard — Karen O’Connor, who rode her from March 2011 to September 2012.
“She’s very marish,” Kieffer said. “She pins her ears if you walk by. Don’t get in her space. But she’s very, very competitive. It’s just her nature. She’s going to win walking out to the field. That’s the same way she is to ride.”
Kieffer and Veronica have won two Pinnacle Cup trophies as the top U.S. rider at the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event CCI in 2014 and 2016.
Most recently the two competed in the Great Meadow Invitational in The Plains, finishing 17th. In third place after the dressage and show jumping events, they dropped after Veronica’s hooves landed on the 12th jump, adding an 11-point penalty, and took 2.8 additional penalty points for exceeding the optimal time.
They’ll head their separate ways soon before reuniting in Rio. Veronica will be shipped to Florida in a trailer before flying to Brazil.
“The horses love flying,” Kieffer said. “It’s easier on them. They really like it because it’s obviously a lot steadier than a trailer, so they can kind of relax on a plane. Generally, horses fly really, really well.”
Kieffer rode in the Nations Cup in Aachen, Germany, finishing 25th with a different mount, Landmark’s Monte Carlo, before she heads to Ocala, Fla., to prepare for Rio. The United States was shut out of eventing medals in London four years ago.
“I’ll be excited when it’s over,” Kieffer said of the Olympics. “We’re not going into this lightly. We have a job to do. We want to make the country proud and we want to deliver. Right now, that’s all we’re thinking about. When it’s over we can, hopefully, be excited.”