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April 4, 2008

Karen O'Connor Keeps Plenty Of Company On Her Road To The Olympics

In this series, the Chronicle follows six riders as they seek to fulfill their Olympic dreams in Hong Kong in 2008.

I have five horses in consideration for Olympic selection, and they are, of course, [Theodore O’Connor] and Hugh Knows, Mandiba, Allstar and [Ralph Hill’s former mount] Bad Boy Billy.

I think everybody’s on track. I’m really delighted. They’ve all placed in their competitions. All five of them will be going to The Fork (N.C.) for the U.S. Equestrian Federation training sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday and then the competition on the weekend, April 11-13. They’re all in either the World Cup-qualifier CIC*** or the regular three-star. I had to split them randomly because I can’t ride all five in the one division.
   
So they’re all going there and then will have a couple weeks back in Ocala before going to either Kentucky for the CCI**** or the three-star at Jersey Fresh (N.J.).

Building A Deep Bench

I had no idea I’d have five advanced horses like this in an Olympic year. I really do think a lot of it is just being in the right place at the right time and being very lucky with choices we’ve made.
   
Mandiba was the one we bought hoping that he would follow his breeding lines and be able to take it on at the three- and four-star level.

Hugh Knows was imported from Ireland by Courtney Cooper as a 4-year-old and then sold on to Katherine Breunig of Texas. She worked with [my husband] David and I as a young rider and moved to Virginia for a few years. When she went back to school she started to feel like Hugh was big and strong, and she was struggling with having to be strong enough for him. I asked her to hold on to see if we could get something together, and Jacqueline Mars came forward [to purchase him] just before Fair Hill. She hasn’t had a four-star horse since Prince Panache and Giltedge, so she’s very excited about it.

Allstar was a horse that I had worked with in a clinic out in Colorado. I approached his previous owner, Mikki Kapaun, and asked if she ever had any interest in selling him, and she didn’t at the time. But later I went up there and tried him, and Becky Broussard bought him and brought him here to Ocala last spring.
Then a month later, Ralph Hill got hurt, so Becky, who also owns Billy, asked if she could bring the horse to us since we were all in Ocala. And of course everyone knows Teddy’s story! It really just all happened at the same time.

The Veterans

To be really honest, I’d be honored to ride any of these five horses at the Games. Ideally you’d like to have horses with quite a lot of experience, which would be Teddy and Hugh with me. Billy has more experience than Hugh, but not necessarily with me, since he was Ralph’s horse.

[At Rocking Horse Advanced (Fla.) in late February], Teddy hadn’t run since Rio, so he was on fire, the little monkey. He kept trying to run off with me between the jumps, and I almost got bucked off just going down to cross-country. He bucked so hard that the reins got jerked out of my hands and almost flew over his head, luckily only to be caught on his ear.
About Karen O'Connor

Hometown: The Plains, Va., and Ocala, Fla.

Age: 50

Horses: ALLSTAR, 12-year-old, bay Thoroughbred gelding (Double Leader–Southern Secret) owned by Rebecca Broussard

BAD BOY BILLY, 16-year-old, Thoroughbred bay gelding (Fiesta Star–Leem) owned by Rebecca Broussard

HUGH KNOWS, 11-year-old, bay Irish Sport Horse gelding (Able Albert–Lupez) owned by Jacqueline Mars

MANDIBA, 9-year-old, bay Irish-bred Thoroughbred gelding (Master Imp–High Dolly) owned by Joan Goswell

THEODORE O’CONNOR, 13-year-old, chestnut Thoroughbred-Arabian-
Shetland Pony gelding (Witty Boy–Chelsea’s Melody) owned by The Theodore O’Connor Syndicate

At the water, you jumped this rolltop thing and then had a tight turn to a bounce into the lake. He spooked at the water, and it completely caught me off guard and I flew up in front of him, which made it impossible for him to jump. My thighs, my seat, my whole body was up on his neck. There were a lot of people there at the water, and I was laughing out loud like, “Oh my God, I’m going to fall off!”

Peter Green, who’s chief of our selectors, was there, and he yelled, “Where is my camera?” I said, “Peter you try it on a horse with a neck this short!” and everybody laughed, and we turned around and jumped through the whole thing.

I thought Teddy [who had two runouts] had a great cross-country ride at the CIC***-W at Red Hills (Fla.), but it was one of those courses where unlucky things happen, even to horses that went well. He was one of the many horses for which the distance didn’t go well at the wedge of cheese fence early in the course. Then he tripped coming out of the water, which was my fault, and he couldn’t get the narrow done. Those things happen.

I said a year ago that the only time I run into trouble with Teddy is when I don’t ride him like a big horse. I jumped in and took a tug because I thought it was too hard of a distance for him, and I just should have gone forward. It would have been fine. Then he was one of only four clear rounds the next day, so I was very proud of him.

The horse for this Games has to be a very good dressage horse and a very careful show jumper. And then the cross-country’s very twisty, so there again you want something that’s sure-footed and nimble and can get around those turns quickly.

Funnily enough, Hugh Knows is my biggest horse but light on his feet and quick on the turns, so I’m not worried about his abilities there, even though he’s the biggest.

When Ralph got injured last spring, Billy was not in work because he’d had a shot of antibiotic that he reacted to in his larynx, so he had to have wind surgery and was resting for quite awhile. So he spent most of the summer turned out in Virginia, and we started hacking and gradually conditioning him all through the fall season. I only did my first advanced with Billy this past weekend at Southern Pines (N.C), [where he finished fourth], and he impressed me so much.

The Up-And-Comers

Allstar and Mandiba are the two that haven’t done a four-star, and yet they’re more than ready to take on an Olympic track.

Mandiba I’ve had since he was an unbroken 4-year-old, and he has come up through the levels so well. He won the training level and preliminary level American Eventing Championships, and he should have gone to the intermediate AEC last year, but then I broke my collarbone right before that.

People remember him as having a great cross-country ride at the Fair Hill CCI*** (Md.) last fall and being in second place, only to whack himself in the final trot-up and not pass the jog. So he’s not qualified for Kentucky, because of that incident, so he’ll do a three-star at Jersey Fresh (N.J) in May.
   
I would say I had to do a little bit of damage control with Mandiba after the Red Hills CIC***-W [where he was eliminated on cross-country]. He jumped the wedge of cheese jump early in the course perfectly but hung up in the air, and it was two fences later that he got really scared at the mushrooms. It wasn’t the mushrooms, it was that wedge of cheese that had spooked him. I had three rides on it, and I didn’t have one good ride at that fence, even though two of them jumped it perfectly clear.

I dropped Mandiba back to intermediate at Southern Pines (N.C.) to give him a good, confident run, and he was fantastic. I know several riders did the same, just to give their horses a nice, quiet run before The Fork.

Allstar will also do the three-star at Jersey. He’s had three starts this spring, and won two of them and been second in the first World Cup CIC***. He’s come on a much stronger horse this year and is just a lot healthier feeling. He has a lot more power and knowledge, so he’s been a fun horse to campaign this winter.

A Fourth Olympics?

The biggest thing that I’m doing different this year than in past Olympic years is that I’m working continuously with Betsey Steiner in the dressage and with Laura Kraut in the jumping. That’s really come on really well, and I’ve been so happy with the results. They’ve been so generous with their time.

The other thing that I’ve been doing is that I have a personal trainer that I’m working with three times a week for my own fitness and conditioning. A lot of the riders down here in Ocala have joined up with him. He’s a past Mr. Florida and Mr. Louisiana for bodybuilding, so he knows his stuff!
A Big Year

I turned 50 a month ago, so that was kind of fun. We had a big party and had a good time. It’s kind of a cool year for me. I’m trying out for my fourth Olympics, I turned 50 and I’m riding a pony!

There’s so many components to this particular Games. I didn’t go to Hong Kong last summer, but I know there’s the aspect of the heat and humidity, so you have to have a horse that can really handle that kind of weather. I’m told that the heavier horses are more inclined to find it difficult than the smaller, niftier types.

Mentally for the riders, I think you have to be able to control your frustrations, certainly outwardly, but also inwardly. You have to compartmentalize things and just put stuff in a bubble and blow it away. There are going to be things that aren’t going to be in your control, and what is in your control is what you do on your horse, and how you do it, and that’s what you have to stay focused on.

Karen O'Connor, as told to Kat Netzler

Click here to read Karen's second installment from our May 23 issue.
 
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