Even after his last student safely crossed the cross-country finish line on April 30 at Rolex Kentucky, David O’Connor still had some work to do. That night, he and three other top eventers—his wife Karen O’Connor, Gina Miles and Hamish Cargill—hit the Alltech Arena in western saddles for the $25,000 Tarter Farm & Ranch Equipment Freestyle World Championship competition. It was held at the Kentucky Horse Park in conjunction with the $50,000 Ariat Kentucky Reining Cup and Rolex Kentucky CCI.
Competing against a field of real reiners as well as the eventers, David picked up a check by finishing sixth out
of 12 (Shane Brown and Houston Shine were the winners). With the help of friend and trainer Pete Kyle, David rode Tim Roper’s Paid By Corona to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock And Roll.” But he really brought the house down when he reached up to pull off the horse’s bridle, then went into
“Karen came up with the idea,” said David. “Pete said we could try it in the warm-up ring, so we did. I was totally comfortable with it, and the horse didn’t care.”
O’Connor, who expected the event to be a demonstration, “just a fun thing for everyone to laugh at us,” not a real competition, said he was perfectly at home in the western saddle, having done some cutting and reining before and having worked on ranches out west when he was young. He and Karen were familiar with high performance reining from a demonstration tour they did with the American Quarter Horse Association after earning their 1996 Olympic silver medals. That’s also where they met Kyle.
“I watch it all the time, especially high end reining, so Pete said do this and do that, and the horse was fantastic. All his horses are so well-trained. It was a blast, a lot of fun. The sensitivity of those horses is fantastic. They understand their jobs. That’s what you get out of it: the sensitivity and how they put their heads down and do their jobs,” he said.
O’Connor knew the Quarter Horses would need some different aids than his event horses.
“In the flying changes, we use our seat quite differently than the way they teach theirs,” he said.
“Years ago [Pete and Karen and I] sat up one night talking training, horses, the sports, so I expected it. Pete told me the way he does it.”
The event drew more than 4,200 people on Friday night, an enthusiastic crowd who cheered on the riders.
“The crowd went crazy to have us do [the reining], and there are things we can learn in our sport about crowd participation,” said O’Connor.
“It’s horse sport and entertainment, and any time you put those things together is fantastic. The more we can put them together the better, especially between the English and western worlds. Our clothes and saddles may be different, but get on, and you can fit into it if you’re a horseman. That interdisciplinary stuff is always fantastic.”
Does O’Connor plan on any more reining competitions?
“I don’t know about competing in it again, although if I keep riding Pete Kyle’s horses I think I’ll be OK,” he said with a laugh.