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April 23, 2012

Road To The Olympics: Karen O'Connor, Part 2

Karen O’Connor’s Olympic hopeful mounts, including Mr. Medicott (pictured), will head next to the Rolex Kentucky CCI****. Photo by Megan Brincks.

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

Rolex Kentucky will be the culmination of a tremendous amount of work throughout the spring by every rider there, and I’m excited to have two lovely horses entered: my Olympic nominees, Mr. Medicott and Veronica. I’m thrilled with how they’ve come through the spring season, and I’m really looking forward to this three-day.

After my last “Road to the Olympics” installment, I took both horses in the CIC*** at Red Hills [in Tallahassee, Fla., March 8-11], and they both gave me a great weekend. [Mr. Medicott finished fifth and Veronica 10th.]
I’m learning more about “Mr. M” all the time, and a really strange thing happened to me during our dressage test at Red Hills. Just before we went in the ring, something really spooked him, and I lost his concentration right before we entered. Then, midway through the test, as I started to do my left half-pass, the rider in the arena next to ours finished her test, and the crowd clapped and cheered. That spooked Mr. M again, and he jumped up in the air and bucked.

I got him back and was carrying on in my left half-pass for another couple steps when Jo Young [the judge at C] stood up and put her hand up and said, “Stop, I’d like you to do that movement over again. That wasn’t your fault.”

In all the years that I’ve competed, I’ve never been asked to repeat a movement. In the moment, I didn’t know exactly what the rule on that was, but I did know that the ground jury can stop a rider’s performance at any time they choose. Brian Ross, the other judge, concurred, and he asked me to start with the right half-pass, so I did that and went into the left half-pass and then carried on.

The experience was definitely something new for me. Several people were confused, and a lot of people asked me, “Did you ask to do that movement over?” But it certainly didn’t come from my side; I was simply doing as the judges asked.

After that, both horses gave me a terrific ride across country. [Course designer] Hugh Lochore’s done a great job and had a much more flowing, galloping track than what we’ve become accustomed to in years past. The Red Hills crew also really stepped up in the last couple days to make the footing great, treating the ground with an aerator. It rode really well.

I jumped clear rounds on both horses in show jumping, and I couldn’t have been happier with Veronica. She had a great round.

But Mr. M again got very excited and enthusiastic before he went into the show jumping arena, and it again caught me by surprise. He was really strong and against my hand, so although he jumped clear, it wasn’t a pretty round, and I wasn’t exactly happy with it.

Connection Trumps Atmosphere

When we came back from Red Hills [to our winter base in Ocala, Fla.], I really buckled down with Mr. M and focused even more on relaxation and establishing a softer and more consistent way of going for the show jumping. Marilyn Little-Meredith continues to help me in the jumping. She’s based here with us in Ocala, and her help has proven invaluable.

Here at the farm, I can’t recreate what’s going to happen with the atmosphere at any big competition—whether it be Red Hills, where you’re in front of a few hundred people, or the Olympic Games where the stands are packed, or Rolex, which also has a lot of atmosphere.

But what I can do is confirm the connection from my leg to my hand through my seat. When you have the horse connected, everything around you in terms of atmosphere becomes minimal. The horses don’t hear or see the crowd because there’s such a connection from the rider to the horse.

That’s what I needed to work on most with Mr. M, because it was very obvious that I didn’t have that connection going into either the dressage or the show jumping with him at Red Hills.

That said, both horses had run so well on cross-country that although I had entered them at Southern Pines [II Horse Trials, in the advanced division, March 23-25], I chose not to take them. It was in the best interest of both horses, as they’d already had three runs at that point. They didn’t need the extra cross-country, nor did they need the long drive up to Southern Pines from Ocala and back, especially at a time when we’re really trying to keep condition on the horses.

This spring has been especially warm, making for some unusually hot trailer rides, and at that time on the competition calendar, they can lose quite a lot of weight and condition if they’re traveling up and down the road too much.

So I stayed at home and worked on a lot of different homework exercises. That set me up to feel very confident with both horses heading into The Fork [CIC***, in Norwood, N.C., April 5-8].

Down To The Details

It’s always especially important to have a good run at The Fork, because it’s everyone’s final outing before Rolex.
We came up to North Carolina early, on Tuesday morning, because [U.S. team chef d’equipe] Mark Phillips was available to help everyone on Wednesday. I’ve also been getting wonderful help from [“O” dressage judge] Linda Zang, and she arrived on Wednesday as well.

So I had a lesson on Mr. M on Wednesday with Linda, and Mark observed and also gave some invaluable input throughout. The trio of us together is really working out beautifully for me, and I’m really looking forward to working with the two of them again in Kentucky in the lead-up to the event.

Both horses went really well on the flat at The Fork. Veronica’s improved so much over the winter—she’s stepped up her paces and her quality of gaits exponentially, and she’s just moving beautifully now.

I did lose her a bit in the canter during our test. She got her quarters to the inside on both leads, which made her laterally hollow, and it was difficult to ride her forward and straight. So I lost marks in the canter work, but I had really nice trot work, and she still got a very good score [42.3].

Mr. M had a great warm-up with Linda and Mark and put in a very accurate, polished test [scoring 45.0 penalties]. My work with him since Red Hills really paid off; I had a better connection, and he was all business and was moving great.

Again, I left a little bit on the table; he got a bit against my hand and above it in our downward transitions, so I need to be stronger in my back and my seat. I’ll be practicing a lot of those details in the next couple of weeks.

The weather was fantastic for cross-country, and the ground was wonderful. I really felt like it was the right track for these horses in their lead-up to Kentucky. I had two CIC** runs in the morning to get me going, and I was thrilled with both of those horses—Mandiba and RF Amber Eyes [who finished first and second, respectively].

I was pretty emotional about Mandiba’s comeback [after breaking six ribs in a fall at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton CCI**** in England last spring]. I’m so excited about where he is in his life right now. He was so happy and proud of himself on Saturday after his [double-clear] cross-country. These horses do really know when they’ve done a good job, and they have a lot of self-pride in that, so I was thrilled for him.

Crunch Time

Then we moved on to the CIC***. Veronica has been strong on the cross-country all year, so I’d practiced in a different bit with her prior to The Fork—a hackamore and snaffle combination.

She was very good on the first loop, but after I came back through to the trakehner by the start box, she started to get very locked on the left rein, and I couldn’t turn her. I don’t know what happened. It’s possible there was some malfunction on the left side of the bit or bridle, or maybe I was just too strong with her and that made her stronger, but in any event, I was having a lot of trouble turning her left or indicating left.

So that proved to be especially tough when we got to the two big tables just before the first water. I had walked it on six strides, but when we got in the middle of that line, I just couldn’t get her wrapped around my left leg and get the six.

So she got to the fifth stride and left the ground and skidded across that table. I was in shock that I didn’t have the adjustability to do that exercise, because it wasn’t that complicated.

The water came next, and many horses jumped too big into it and landed really far out. Veronica did just the same, and the corner in the water became impossible to negotiate. So I pulled her out and went the long way, as did most of the competition.

A few fences later she was getting back into the rhythm, but then we came to the sunken road, and I didn’t come quiet enough. She bounced down into there, and I had to go the long way coming out, which is too bad.
So all in all, we had some really nice jumps, but I felt her round was unsettled and out of rhythm. I won’t be using that bit again on her, because I just didn’t have the communication I needed.

I withdrew her later on Saturday afternoon, because when she’d skidded across that second table she hit the front of her hock, and there was some blunt trauma and bruising. It was sore to the touch, so I scratched her right away, and we were able to treat her and make her comfortable.

She’s great now, and I’m really happy with how she’s healed. It was only a surface injury—nothing more serious. Thank goodness she’s OK.

Mr. M gave me a great ride on cross-country. He’s definitely got the biggest gallop I’ve ridden since Biko—their strides are very similar. Mr. M has that same fifth gear and such an economical yet strong and fast gallop.

I’m still working on smoothness and not overbalancing him before the fences. I had a long talk with Mark about that, in fact. He’s such a wise and experienced cross-country horse, so I’m going to be focusing on waiting until we’re much closer to the jump to rebalance him. That’ll help us keep the pace up so that the time faults [they garnered 8.4 at The Fork] aren’t an issue anymore.

Mr. M had a rub-free round on Sunday and had a great rhythm and jumped so round and scopey over everything. And I felt like my technique had smoothed out a lot too, so I was especially happy about our show jumping performance. [They finished fourth].

We drove back to Ocala yesterday [April 9], which was a really long day, and now we’re in the final stages of three-day preparation for both horses. We plan everything out to the day so we’re all set and ready to go. They’ll both get shod next week, and all of the equipment is getting its final checks to make sure the stitching is strong and every piece is fit really well to the horses.

This is a super busy time, as we not only get ready for Rolex Kentucky but also pack up the farm here in Ocala and get ready to move everything and all the horses back to the farm in Virginia. Hannah [Burnett, who rides Harbour Pilot for owner Jacqueline Mars] went home to Mrs. Mars’ Stonehall Farm on Sunday after The Fork with a load of horses, but most of our crew will be moving back north through the week of Rolex.

Everybody’s doing such a great job getting ready for Kentucky. The team you have around your horses is always critical to your success, and I have the best team ever, led most notably by [my husband] David, who has always been a positive influence on every aspect of my preparation.

So now we just look forward to Kentucky. I don’t even know how many Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Events I’ve ridden, but it’s got to be quite a fair few. And I’m as excited about this Rolex as any in the past!

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; Veronica, a 10-year-old dark bay Dutch Warmblood mare of unknown breeding who’s competed through the three-star level with O’Connor.

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 April 23, 2012, Rolex Kentucky Preview issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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