Marion Dresel O’Connor loves a horse with “bling.” And a lot of it. Defying an unlikely background, modest means, remote location and some unconventional approaches, O’Connor has turned her love into consecutive national honors from the U.S. Dressage Federation as Dressage Sport Horse Breeder of the Year in 2009 and 2010, while her colorful horses make an impression on the dressage world.
O’Connor was born horse-crazy in a town in Germany where riding was only for the privileged few. Watching “Bonanza” on TV as a youngster, she was mesmerized by Little Joe’s black-and-white pony.
As a resourceful teenager, she found a way to earn some lessons and learned to ride in jumping and classical dressage. The demands of a burgeoning non-equestrian career took her away from the
show ring while she trail rode and dabbled in other disciplines for 10 years, but she never lost her spark for dressage.
She met her husband, Patrick, through a mutual interest in Native American jewelry—he was an importer and distributor of Indian art throughout Europe. During buying trips to the southwestern United States, the exotic pinto and Appaloosa horses of the area drew O’Connor like a magnet. Before long, the couple owned
five flashy American Paint Horses, which were flown overseas to Ger-many. However, as board bills mounted, they began to think about a farm of their own. During a stateside buying trip, the O’Connors found themselves in northern Idaho and fell in love with the land, purchasing property in Careywood near the Canadian border, which they christened Cocolalla Creek Sport Horses.
Finding A Silver Lining In Tragedy
When O’Connor first moved to the United States she competed in reining. While at her reining trainer’s barn, she met other riders who took lessons from a local dressage trainer, Pat Kabasa.
“She was willing to give me dressage lessons on my Paint reining horses, and I really liked it and had so much fun!” said O’Connor.
Despite this newfound enjoyment, it was a horrific car accident that ultimately changed the course of O’Connor’s life. After spending 10 days in intensive care and receiving a settlement for damages and pain and suffering, she decided it was time to make some major changes.
“I was 29 years old and decided that life was too short to try to continue to pursue a business career which I wasn’t that passionate about anymore,” she explained. “I realized that I could be dead tomorrow! I wanted to give horses a go. And thankfully my dear husband supported my decision.
Her Very Own Black Stallion
Soon after, in 1995, O’Connor accompanied Kabasa on a buying trip to Germany, where she intended to act as translator. However, it was O’Connor who bought one instead—a big, black, flashy Hanoverian yearling by Neuquen out of a Wienerwald mare.
“I’m the first one to admit I got lucky,” she admitted with a laugh when asked why she took a chance on the youngster.
“This colt became our first stallion, Winnetou.”
O’Connor planned to cross her new charge with her Paint mares and Thoroughbreds off the track. But after additional trips to Europe to see stallion shows, she realized she’d have to step up her game even further.
“I saw Weltmeyer and had never seen anything like him. I wanted to have a horse like that, but with color!” she
said. “And since nobody had them, I wanted to breed them myself.”
O’Connor sought help from stallion owners in the United States who were skeptical of her unconventional approach. Finally, Ann Schmidt, a Hanoverian breeder and owner of Classic Sires in Portland, Ore., agreed to help.
“She taught me so much about breeding, and she had access to frozen semen from Europe, including from Weltmeyer,” said O’Connor.
In 1997, the first year of crossing Weltmeyer with one of her Paint mares resulted in a black and white filly named Weltskandal. “At first I was disappointed because she wasn’t a colt,” said O’Connor. But Weltskandal would become O’Connor’s foundation mare, producing several exceptional overo foals, including her current proven stallion Radikal (by Rotspon).
A year later she crossed Winnetou with another Paint mare and produced Wolkenzau-ber, a brightly colored and talented colt. Success-fully shown to second level in dressage, Wolken-zauber now competes in eventing at the training and preliminary levels.
His daughter, Wolkenkarat (out of Hoch-karat), won USDF Reserve Horse of the Year titles as a yearling and 2-year-old, then earned Horse of the Year in 2008 for materiale and 3-Year-Olds under saddle. In 2010, with owner/rider Sophie Pirie Clifton, she qualified for the 5-year-old division of the Markel/USEF National Young Horse Dressage Championships, earning qualifying scores as high as 8.42 from FEI O-level judge Anne Gribbons.
It’s About More Than Color O’Connor is breeding for eye-popping color, but she sticks to the overo pattern, particularly black and white. Overos have a solid dark color along their toplines from their ears to their tails with sharply defined and irregular white patches, which are horizontally oriented on the horse’s sides.
Because of this pattern preference, O’Connor never considered using the popular Art Deco line for her horses, since he was a tobiano, where large white areas are arranged in a vertical pattern across the horse’s body. But O’Connor stressed that her breeding philosophy is about much more than fancy markings.
“I would say that nine out of 10 times I have color in mind, but I will never sacrifice quality for color,” she said. “I have to be responsible and produce the best quality individuals that I can possibly get in order to give those horses the best possible chance to succeed. And instead of aiming to produce a one-in-a-million Olympic horse, I focus on producing a beautiful, quality horse with big gaits that is rideable.”