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February 17, 2012

Road To The Olympics: Karen O'Connor, Part 1

Karen O'Connor's new mount, Mr. Medicott, could be her partner for the Olympic Games in London this summer. Photo by Xpress Foto.

In this series, the Chronicle follows seven riders as they seek to fulfill their Olympic dreams in London in 2012.

If I were going to stand for anything, I would want to be known as a rider who always keeps an open mind and is always trying to improve. I hope to learn something new every day about how to do a better job with my horses. So as a rider, I’m as committed and passionate as ever about doing the best I can this year, with my sights on London.

Since my husband David will be taking over as the U.S. coach next year, this may be my last Olympic Games. Before he takes the reins, we’ll have riders, selectors and U.S. Equestrian Federation committee members all get together and decide what it is Karen O’Connor can do with David O’Connor as coach. If we all decide that me continuing to represent the country would be a conflict of interest, then I’ll yield to that for David. We’ll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, I’m excited for this year. I’m fitter than I’ve been in many years, and for the past two seasons I’ve been working hard on the dressage, and my marks have reflected that. I’ve been riding with Olympic dressage judge Linda Zang quite a bit, which has been incredibly helpful.

I’ve also been working hard on my show jumping since last summer; I’ve changed my position a lot and kind of recreated myself a little bit in that phase. Former grand prix show jumper turned eventer Marilyn Little-Meredith has really proved to be a huge help in honing my show jumping skills.

Since switching disciplines a little more than a year ago, she’s gained a real appreciation for the three-day event horse, and she recognizes the differences between how our horses perform on the third day versus how a jumper performs on a day-to-day basis. With her help, I’ve made some changes to my program and my warm-up to maximize my horses’ strength and efforts on show jumping day.

I got to focus even more on my dressage and show jumping in Wellington, Fla., for two weeks in January. I took six horses down, and we started things off with the PRO DerbyCross, then continued on training for the next 10 days. During that time we also showed in some jumper classes at the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival and took some of the young horses to get some mileage at a dressage show during the World Dressage Masters weekend. And we plan to make another trip to Wellington later in the winter to continue our education.

But of course we can’t forget the phase that makes eventing what it is. In addition to all that, I’m also focusing more on being quicker on cross-country in the lead up to the big events this year. And I’m very excited about the quality of horses I have.

New Kid On The Stable Block

As many people know by now, I have a new horse in my string of Olympic hopeful mounts, Mr. Medicott. He’s 13 and has represented Germany in Olympic and World Equestrian Games competition, which is a tribute to what a marvelous job his previous rider, Frank Ostholt, did in training him.

Mr. M was purchased as a 5-year-old for Frank to ride, and coincidentally he came from Ann Taylor’s yard in England. Ann and I are great pals from way back—we were working students at Jimmy Wofford’s together at the start of our careers.

Plus, Mr. M is Irish bred, by Cruising. So he and his stable mate Harbour Pilot, who my assistant Hannah Sue Burnett rides, are by the same sire. So there’s a few odd but interesting ties to this horse for me.

Obviously this purchase was a big deal for Germany and for Frank personally, so unfortunately we didn’t get to have a lot of conversation. The deal was finalized just before Thanksgiving, but because of the holiday, the sale didn’t technically finish until the beginning of December. Although I was able to secure the purchase at that time, we’re now in the process of syndicating Mr. M to individuals interested in being a part of this journey.

He arrived on the farm on the Wednesday of the U.S. Eventing Association Annual Meeting [Dec. 7], so I missed him by about four hours. He was released from quarantine in Miami just as I was heading to the airport to fly to Tennessee.

He settled in pretty quickly, though. He’s a very cool horse—highly intelligent and quite a character. He’s a funny horse to be around, and he exudes personality. When you go into the stables, he’s the horse you’re drawn to first because he has this magnetic look in his eye that says, “You are coming over here to see me first!” He’s an affectionate horse as well, and I feel like for such a short period of time of having been around him, we’re forging a good bond and partnership.

The biggest difference between Frank and me is obviously our size and strength. So one of the biggest changes in this horse’s life has been getting used to responding to the degree of aid that I’m able to give him, and he’s really taken it on great.

We’ve had two training sessions with U.S. chef d’equipe Mark Phillips within the last few weeks. Mark didn’t know the horse well, but he was delighted with our progress and seems excited about the year for us.

Mr. M is very correct in his lateral work—he has beautiful half-passes and shoulder-ins, and his flying changes and turn on the haunches and rein-back are all correct. He has a nice, big extended trot and lovely working paces, and he has a super canter. He’s steady in his topline and just understands how to use himself.

We had a fantastic first outing together last weekend in an open intermediate division at the Ocala Horse Properties Horse Trials (Fla.). Mr. M had a workmanlike dressage test, judged by Marilyn Payne, who’d also judged him before under Frank. Marilyn was delighted with our test and rewarded Mr. M with the top spot on the leaderboard. He then jumped a beautiful clear show jumping round, and I was just over the moon with his cross-country. I had a 5.2-point lead going into cross-country, and we came home with 5.2 time faults, so we actually tied for first place but ended up second. I was thrilled.

Watch Karen and Mr. Medicott at the Ocala Horse Trials:

At 13, Mr. M’s been there, done that, but he still physically feels like a young horse, just with a tremendous amount of experience. It’s a great blend in today’s world. With the technology and veterinary medicine we have now, the horses that are managed well are going to 16 or 17 years old, so I’m excited about that. Again, it’s a tribute to Frank and all the people who’ve had an opportunity to weigh in on this horse’s education over the years.

 Veterans On The Mend

 In terms of Olympic hopefuls, I also have Veronica, who finished 12th last year at the Dansko Fair Hill CCI*** (Md.). Both she and Mr. M are being targeted to the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** in April.

Veronica, owned by Team Rebecca, has been going really, really well this spring. Her dressage has come up a notch, which I’m excited about, and she jumped well for me at WEF. She also had a great start to her season with a good solid dressage, clean show jumping and a great cross-country round, placing fourth at intermediate at Ocala.

So those are my two potential four-star horses for the spring. They’ll both make an application for the Olympic Games, and that’s due by March 1, so we’re working on those as we speak!

Unfortunately my previous two four-star mounts won’t be in consideration for London. It’s a great disappointment, but my hope is that both horses will be competing at some point this year.

Quintus 54 had a leg injury at Rolex last spring, after which we gave him quite a bit of time off. We started him back in late summer and had him fit to run at Morven Park (Va.) in the fall, but the leg came active again. So he had another break over the fall and winter, and now the leg is healing well, so we’re pleased. He’s hacking under tack, but he won’t be competing anytime soon. He’ll be legged up through the spring and into the summer, and we’re hopeful for a fall season for him.

Mandiba is also back into work after our fall at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton CCI**** (England) in April, when he broke six ribs. In September, after he’d had several months off to let those painful injuries heal, we sent him to Kesmarc Florida, a rehabilitation center in Ocala. He spent two months doing the Aquatred there, getting stronger without the weight of a saddle or a person, and that really helped him get his back and hind end straight and strong. He’s rebuilt a lot of his topline, and we’re happy with his progress.

He’s in full flatwork now, and we just did his first jump school—just little jumps—about a week ago. And he was quite excited about finally getting to jump again. I had initially entered him at Rocking Horse II (Fla.) in late February, intending to just do the dressage, but I decided to scratch him a few weeks before the event because I felt he just wouldn’t be quite fit enough yet.

We’ve followed veterinarian Christiana Ober’s advice every step of the way throughout Mandiba’s rehab, and pushing him too hard, too fast is the last thing we want to do. But his progress is continuing on strong, so we’re happy.

As far as Mandiba’s future goes, I honestly don’t know what he’s going to do. He’ll tell us when he’s ready to do more, and what that “more” entails. He doesn’t owe me anything. He’s 13 this year and has done a lot.

So from here, we’re just taking it one day at a time, as you always have to do in eventing. I know the plan for the Olympic short list includes the new CIC*** at Bromont (Quebec) in June, and then we’ll just see where we are at that point. Right now, pretty much everything is just speculation.

But I have to say, my 2012 team is more supportive than ever before, especially with David looking to lead the U.S. charge soon. He’s excited for me to realize my goals, as are Max [Corcoran] and all the staff at the farm. All the people in the office, the staff at home in Virginia, my family, the veterinarians and blacksmiths—everyone’s really working so hard. And my horses are getting tremendous support through the training sessions with Mark Phillips and from the USEF High Performance team.

We’ve all made a plan that positions us for the future, and we’ll see if it turns out!

Mourning The Tragedy At Kesmarc Florida

David and I and everyone at O’Connor Equestrian are deeply saddened and affected by the recent tragedy at KESMARC Florida, Ocala’s prominent equine rehabilitation center. [On Feb. 10, the facility’s hyperbaric chamber exploded, killing KESMARC staff member Erica Marshall and the horse inside, Landmark’s Legendary Affaire].

The loss of human life was horrific, and our thoughts and prayers go out to Erica’s family. We also lost a lovely young horse, which Mrs. Jacqueline Mars bred and who we’d all known since the day he was born.

We hope that one day KESMARC will re-open. It’s a fantastic facility dedicated to the treatment and wellness of the equine athlete. The day it does, we’ll have horses there, and we’ll be ready to embrace KESMARC once again.

About Karen O’Connor

Hometown: The Plains, Va., and Ocala, Fla.
Age: 54

Olympic Contenders: Mr. Medicott, a 13-year-old chestnut Irish Sport Horse gelding (Cruising—Slieveluachra, Edmund Burke) competed through the four-star level, including at the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong and the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, with German rider Frank Ostholt, owned by the Mr. Medicott Syndicate; Veronica, a 10-year-old dark bay Dutch Warmblood mare of unknown breeding who’s competed through the three-star level with O’Connor, owned by Team Rebecca.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. The original verstion of "Road To The Olympics: Karen O'Connor" ran in the Feb. 27, 2012, Dressage Breeding issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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