Eventers clinic with Olympian Karen O’Connor

Published 12:21 pm Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The show jumping session took place in TIEC’s George H. Morris International Ring.

The show jumping session took place in TIEC’s George H. Morris International Ring.

By Judy Heinrich
Life in Our Foothills, January 2015

An early cold snap wasn’t enough to put a damper on Tryon Riding & Hunt Club’s November 1-2 clinic with equestrian superstar Karen O’Connor. According to participants, the event was challenging, rewarding, fun and – most important – worthwhile.

O’Connor is a five-time Olympic equestrian athlete. In the sport of eventing, she won Team Silver at the 1996 Atlanta Games and Team Bronze at the 2000 Sydney Games. She was also Individual and Team Gold medalist at the 2007 Pan American Games on the pony Theodore O’Connor (Teddy). She has ridden in five World Equestrian Games and Championships; won the coveted Kentucky Rolex Three-Day Event three times; and has been the top U.S. Female Equestrian of the Year 10 times.

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At the 2012 London Olympics, O’Connor participated as the oldest athlete representing Team USA and the oldest worldwide female athlete in the entire games. She finished eighth and was the highest placed American in a very close competition for the podium.

Just a few months after her London Olympic experience, O’Connor fell from her horse during a local competition in Virginia and broke her back; extensive surgery involving bone fusions and rod implants forced her retirement from high-level competition. She is now focused on educating riders – not a new direction, but something she’s been dedicated to throughout her career.

She and her husband, fellow Olympian and current USET Eventing Coach David O’Connor, developed a training system they’ve delivered through their popular week-long “Camp O’Connor” clinics since 1995. They were also leaders in the development of the US Eventing Association’s Instructor Certification Program, introduced in 2002. O’Connor has been the national co-chair of that program since its inception.

Clinic Organization
Considering the demand on O’Connor’s time, having her come to Tryon was quite a coup. No doubt it helped that the clinic was organized by TRHC board member Ann Troppmann, a long-time eventer who has known O’Connor since 1989.

“Karen had just been named ‘Lady Rider of the Year’ for the first time and I suggested to my trainer that we have her do a clinic,” said Troppmann, who lived in Cincinnati at the time.

“Over time we put on three clinics, so I got to know Karen. My family went to Karen and David’s wedding, then she was my coach for the Radnor Hunt Three-Day Event, and I went to Badminton Horse Trials in 1992 as part of her crew. My husband and I went to Sydney for the 2000 Olympics and I see her at Rolex every year.”

Troppmann arranged great venues for the local clinic. Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC) hosted show jumping on Saturday, and its RV Park Lodge was used for the morning lecture and that evening’s dinner. Day two (cross-country) was held at Amy Barrington’s new training base at Long Shadows Farm in Campobello, owned by Michael Atkins.

Riders and auditors attended Saturday’s dinner, which started with a trivia quiz about O’Connor’s career – “A fun way to share all these amazing facts with the group,” Troppmann said. Smartphone research was allowed and the person with the most correct answers won a free spot in the next O’Connor clinic here.

Both days of the clinic started with a 40-minute unmounted lecture. “Karen starts with the principles of eventing and rider responsibilities – direction, speed, balance and rhythm – and emphasizes making everything as clear as possible for the horse,” said Troppmann. “Being unmounted and inside lets participants focus, take notes and ask questions without being out in the cold or worrying about their horses moving around.”

After the morning lectures, the first of three groups – beginner novice/novice, novice/training and training/prelim – took to the George H. Morris International Ring on Saturday, or Long Shadow’s XC Schooling Course on Sunday, for feedback and instruction.

Intimidating? Not for long, thanks to O’Connor’s approachable style and obvious desire to help everyone, regardless of level. The riders ranged in experience from beginner novice to Beth Perkins, who has been on the US Equestrian Team and competed at the World Championships, Pan American Games, Rolex and other four-star events.

All riders reported noticeable improvements for themselves and their horses during the clinic and left with a clear understanding of things to work on for continued improvement. Check out our sidebar, where five of the riders shared thoughts on their experiences.

And stay tuned: TRHC is talking with O’Connor about coming back to Tryon, perhaps as early as next spring, to do another clinic and possibly offer private or semi-private lessons.

Rider’s Eye View

Mary Livesay, Tryon
Livesay grew up riding but didn’t event until moving to Tryon in her late 20s. After taking time off for her family, she’s been focusing on jumpers recently.
“Karen is pretty direct, she wants you to listen to directions and what she said really clicked with me. It was great for where I am today,” said Livesay.
“Some of the things I took away were: As riders we have to learn to do more but have it look like less; be proactive not reactive; understand not what we meant, but what the horses heard (felt). Riders often give too soon or too much once they get contact – to keep from ‘throwing it away’ we need to remain elastic in our contact, which comes from the elbows. And a half-halt is not pulling on the reins! It’s a rebalancing, done by the closing of your entire leg rhythmically, that brings the horse’s back up and engages the legs under him, pushing him into contact, into an ‘elastic, receiving hand,’” Livesay added.

Rachael Wood, Easley
Rachael moved from Western riding to hunter/jumper and onto Pony Club as she grew up, finding her passion in eventing. She’s now a college freshman. Rachael took two horses to the clinic and rode in both novice/training and training/prelim.
“I really enjoyed the clinic. It wasn’t all new to me, coming from Pony Club, but Karen said things in a different way that made a lot of sense,” said Wood. Wood added, “The most valuable advice for me was definitely the different cross-country positions. I hadn’t learned them before and whenever I came off XC courses, my calves and ankles would be so tired. Karen told me to ride XC with the stirrups behind the ball of my foot and it made a difference right away. I’ve ridden at Poplar Place and Jumping Branch since then so I’ve really been able to practice.”

Beth Perkins, Green Creek
Beth is an upper level eventer, trainer, and former member of the USET who placed sixth and fifth, respectively, at the 1974 World Championships and 1975 Pan American Games, while still a teenager; she has twice competed at Rolex in recent years.
“The clinic was illuminating for me because the O’Connors are pretty famous for developing a training system and it was my first time experiencing it firsthand,” said Perkins, adding, “I got a lot out of listening to her teach other people – the routine she put everyone through, the lectures, the exercises, galloping position.”
“The thing I got out of it as a rider was to have more awareness of keeping that communication line through the arms, hands, bit – keeping the contact and keeping it elastic. I’ve been riding hunters lately and they want you to give a quick aid and then loop and drop the reins. Now I’ve been thinking every day about keeping that elastic contact, and the horses seem to appreciate it,” said Perkins.“Karen is very articulate and direct, very straightforward. If I was riding again at the upper levels I’d definitely pick her out to help,” Perkins said.

Will Zuschlag, Greenville
Zuschlag just turned 17 and has been riding five years, starting with hunter/jumpers and then getting into eventing through Pony Club. “I thought the clinic was great – Karen is very direct and funny. I liked that she told us ‘Sometimes you just have to get it done’ – but never in a mean way. You may want it to look pretty but in cross country, there are times that the ‘unexpected’ demands you to stay in the moment and make it happen,” said Zuschlag.
He got to put that to the test when another rider was being given a hard time by her horse.  “She’s a smaller girl and he’s a big horse and he was misbehaving and just pushing her buttons. As Karen saw the rider getting tired, she suggested that maybe I could try. I know the girl and the horse but I didn’t know how he was to ride. He acted up for me, too, but I was eventually able to get him to do the jump and then his rider got back on and was able to get him to do it, too. So, that was fun and pretty exciting.”

Leslie Patton, Asheville
Patton is an eventer who trains with Amy Barrington and competes regionally; she rode in the clinic with the training/prelim group.
Patton said, “Karen’s lessons are tough but very good. On stadium day she challenged us to have control over every step, like halting after a fence and doing something different. Or thinking of your turn to the fence as a canter pirouette, which leaves you open to doing different things.” She continued, “For XC she made the point that you don’t make your speed by going fast through the combinations – you go through all those challenges at the appropriate speed for that portion of the test. Also, keeping the track you travel as conservative as possible based on the education of the horse and rider is one of the aspects of determining your competitiveness on the day. Then, once you’ve landed, finishing that exercise, you get back up to speed quickly and gallop on to the next thing.”
“Something that really helped me was putting my hands down before a fence and riding with my body. And I liked how she talked about the type of horse you have – timid or brave – and how you have to be a different type of leader for different horses,” Patton said.