Every discipline has its go-to breed of choice. For show jumping and dressage, European warmbloods dominant, while eventing is populated by Irish Sport Horses and Thoroughbreds, both raced and unraced. In fact, at this weekend’s Rolex Kentucky Three-Day event, a quarter of the competition are Thoroughbred and Thoroughbred, Thoroughbred-Cross, and Irish Sport Horses make up nearly three-quarters of the field.
One horse who fits into Rolex’s “other breed” category is the entree of the USA’s third highest-ranked athlete, Rio Olympic competitor Lauren Kieffer. Owned by Jacqueline Mars, the 10-year-old gelding Vermiculus is making his CCI4* level debut this weekend, and so far, he’s off to a great start. Currently sitting 5th in the standings after the first half of dressage competition on Thursday, all eyes are on the up-and-coming bay gelding, who’s special in more ways than one.
Vermiculus (aka “Bug”) is a relative rarity in the eventing world. As an Anglo-Arabian, he has both Arabian and Thoroughbred in his breeding, with a minimum of 12.5 percent Arabian blood required to carry the title. The resulting animal is a horse with plenty of blood, stamina, and athleticism.
“I think people forget about [Anglo-Arabs],” Kieffer says. “The Selle Français [breed], has a lot of Arabian behind it, and you know, a lot of these European breeds actually do have the Arab added in there, they just give them a fancier name. It’s not completely uncommon to see [part-Anglo-Arabs in eventing], but to have a flat-out Anglo is pretty uncommon.”
The breed’s roots can be traced back to two common ancestors, an Arabian, Massoud, and the Turkish-bred Aslam, who may have been one of the now-extinct Turkmene horses. French breeding is responsible for shaping the Anglo-Arabian that most of us recognize today, and much of this can be traced to one place: the famous Pompadour National Stud Farm in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, founded in 1761. In more recent centuries, the breed’s athletic potential began to be recognized in various sport horse circles, and indeed, for Lauren Kieffer, the Anglo-Arab’s eventing attributes are manifold.
“They’re full blood, so they have the endurance side of it,” Kieffer says. “They’re careful, they’re built well, and they’re hearty little horses. When they behave, they’re actually good movers and everything else.”
Kieffer should know. She originally purchased Vermiculus as a three-year-old because he was a full-brother to her first CCI4* horse, Snooze Alarm. Yet while both horses share the same lineage and went on to compete at the four-star level, that’s where many of their similarities end. “It’s funny, they’re actually not a ton alike,” Kieffer says. “It’s hard to say how different ‘Snooze’ would be if he hadn’t lived through my teenage years—the poor horse had to grow up with me! Snooze is actually very grumpy in the barn and “Bug” is actually very sweet and lovable.
“They were both equally feral as young horses. When I bought Bug, I brought him home as a three-year-old and turned him out, and I couldn’t catch him for three months! I was like, ‘I’m never going to be able to ride this horse.’ He didn’t get broke until he was four, so he’s a bit of a late bloomer.”
Tomorrow, Lauren and Bug will tackle Derek di Grazia’s Rolex cross-country course, which will put Bug’s four-star level inexperience to the test. Kieffer expects the course to be challenging, but for the right reasons. “There’s plenty to do, there’s lots of places to make mistakes. With a green horse, there’s lots of places to second-guess something. But at the same time, it’s a Derek course, so you know they’ll get more confident as they go. If they make a mistake and you haven’t done all your homework, you’re going to be able to walk home and try another day.”
When it comes to Bug, Lauren is used to doing her homework. Although the two have progressed up the ranks with relative speed, the road has been long—and not always straightforward. “He can be a bit of a cheeky stinker,” Kieffer jokes. “He was actually terrible when he came out this spring. We tried some new warm-ups—we tried not warming up, and that didn’t work at all.”
Lauren concedes that in her experience, creative thinking is often required when training Anglo-Arabs, who are typically an active, thinking participant in the process. “I think they’re more difficult [to bring along]. You have to be very conscientious producing them, because they’re very, very smart. So if you kind of make a mistake, they’re not just going to be like, ‘Oh, no worries.’ They’re going to [make you] apologize for that one,” she explains.
“Because they’re so smart, you have to think a little bit outside the box. But that’s every horse. You have to play around with what works for them.”
-Photos by Shannon Brinkman for NF Style.
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Written by Nina Fedrizzi
Nina Fedrizzi spends her days writing about horse sport, food, and travel. She began her career at Travel + Leisure and is a former editor at NF Style. When she's not tapping away on her MacBook, Nina can usually be found on a horse, sleuthing out the local pho, or refusing to unpack her carry-on. Watch her do all three on Instagram @ninafedrizzi.