The young Canadian talent builds on last year’s successes with her experienced mount, Colombo.
Far from the snowy climes of her Canadian home, 26-year-old Selena O’Hanlon had more to enjoy than just the Florida sunshine at the Rocking Horse Advanced Horse Trials in Altoona, Feb. 19.
O’Hanlon topped advanced, division 3, with Colombo, a 13-year-old Swedish Warmblood owned by Michael and Elaine Davies and formerly ridden by Kyle Carter. A trainer at the Davies’ Hawkridge Farm in Elgin, Ont., O’Hanlon has been campaigning the 16.2-hand, bay gelding for two seasons and is hoping their partnership will peak in this Olympic year.
“We seem to do well under pressure,” O’Hanlon said. “I’m really aiming for Rolex [Kentucky CCI****]. I know if my horse stays sound we’ll be able to do that. And I’m ‘preparing’ for the Olympics, as [Canadian team coach] David O’Connor calls it.”
In mid-January O’Hanlon brought her eight horses, including her intermediate mount, Peanuts, several youngsters and two show jumpers, to Florida to train with Bruce Davidson and O’Connor. Two weeks prior to her advanced win, she and Colombo finished third in an intermediate division at the Rocking Horse Winter II Horse Trials.
O’Hanlon said that after a winter hiatus, they were definitely “back in the groove” in the advanced dressage, where they scored mostly 7s and logged an 8 for a shoulder-in. She still saw room for improvement, however.
“I was disappointed with my flying lead changes, as always,” she said. “He always lands front feet first. I
actually thought they were really good at first, but then I came out of the arena and David said he was late behind.”
A rail down in show jumping added 4 points to their dressage score of 32.9, maintaining their tie for sixth place. Given Colombo’s track record, O’Hanlon said the mistake took her by surprise.
“He’s an experienced horse, especially with crowds and stuff, but I guess the rails and bleachers kind of melded in together,” she explained. “That’ll teach me not to assume that just because he’s been around the block, I shouldn’t take the crowd into consideration!”
No such mistakes were made in the final phase, however. The pair made quick and easy work of John Williams’ cross-country course.
“I had trouble last year making the time,” O’Hanlon said. “I found the jump in speed from intermediate
to advanced really tough, but now I’m focusing on cutting the finest line I can see from fence to fence and field to field instead of just galloping him really hard.”
O’Hanlon’s strategic riding earned her the only double-clear cross-country round in all four divisions of advanced.
“Now I don’t have to push him,” she said. “I don’t have to use my whip or my spurs, and I can’t
say that I really looked at my watch at all around the course. I was really pleased that I was only a hair under the time, so it’s not like I was clocking around.
“He’s just a cross-country machine,” O’Hanlon continued. “It’s really nerve-wracking going out and doing that level, but it gets easier as long as you keep doing it. I know if I get there and get it wrong he’s going to stop—he’s not going to launch and hang a leg or flip or something. He’s my safest ride. I wouldn’t want to be riding any other horse at the moment.”
O’Hanlon and Colombo’s strong start in 2008 was preceded by impressive showings last year: seventh place at the Jersey Fresh CCI*** (N.J.), seventh at the Richland Park CIC*** (Mich.) and a sixth-placed finish, with another double-clear cross-country round, at the Fair Hill CCI*** (Md.). The pair will contest the CIC*** at Red Hills (Fla.) in March.
O’Hanlon has been looking at spring events as an opportunity to prep for the Olympics, honing not only her horse’s fitness but also more specific things like time management.
“For warm-up I usually do 30 or 40 minutes, then let him walk for 10 minutes, and then go in the ring,” she said. “But with the weather in Hong Kong, that’s not going to be an option. I have to learn to narrow it down a little. We’re going to try to go out for 30 minutes or so and put him away for a couple of hours and then bring him back for 15 or 20 minutes. I’ll be practicing that at Red Hills, The Fork [N.C.] and Rolex.”
A New Star For O’Connor
Going into the final phase on Tuesday afternoon, Karen O’Connor looked to have a win in all four of the advanced divisions within her reach. A few mistakes on cross-country prevented multi-mount victories, but she did come away with a first-time advanced win with Allstar in division 2.
Rides on Theodore O’Connor, Mandiba and Hugh Knows kept O’Connor’s schedule packed tight, but it was Allstar, a 12-year-old, plain bay Thoroughbred who raced in Alabama until the age of 6, who emerged as chief breadwinner for the stable.
“He’s a pretty tough individual,” said O’Connor, who took over the ride after Rebecca Broussard bought the horse from Colorado young rider Mikki Kapaun a year ago. “It took a while to get a partnership with him, but I did take him to Jersey Fresh last year, where he was sixth [in the CCI***], and he was short listed as a backup for Pan Am Games.”
The horse had a fluke stop early on the cross-country course at the Fair Hill CCI*** (Md.) in October and hit his stifle in the process, sustaining a puncture wound that put him out of commission for several months but ultimately healed successfully.
Having won his first two outings this spring, Allstar has continued to live up to the hype his name suggests. As a prequel to his advanced win at Rocking Horse, he topped an open intermediate division at the same venue in early February.
“I’m kind of excited about him,” O’Connor said. “He’s just a really nice horse. He’s quite quick on the cross-country because he doesn’t pull at all, and his dressage is really getting solid. He’s not the most extravagant mover out there, but he sure doesn’t lose too many points. And he’s just the sweetest horse to be around.”
The trailblazer amongst O’Connor’s four mounts, Allstar skipped around the course with no problems, clocking the fastest round in the division to add just 7.2 time penalties to his dressage score of 34.6. Owners Rebecca and Jerome Broussard were on hand to share in the victory, having flown in from Whitefish, Mont., for O’Connor’s 50th birthday celebration the weekend before.
Hugh Knows also carried O’Connor to a clean round with a smattering of time penalties to finish fourth in division 1, but stops with Mandiba and “Teddy” in divisions 3 and 4, respectively, were a bit of a letdown.
“I only made two errors out of the 80 jumping efforts that I did that day, and they both cost me dearly,” she said, laughing.
Mandiba failed to lock in on a narrow element of the combination at fence 4, forcing O’Connor to circle, and the pair finished 10th. And in his first advanced cross-country outing since the Pan Am Games in July, “The Pony,” feeling quite feisty, declined the drop into the water for the second year in a row, nearly depositing his rider in the lake. The 20 penalties they added to their dressage score of 29.6 dropped them from first to 10th.
“I don’t know why he doesn’t like that water, but I’m taking him back there in two weeks, and I’ll ride it quite differently then!” she said. “He’s in great shape, and he’s ready to roll.”
With four broken ribs, Buck Davidson couldn’t have physically borne the 12 rides O’Connor managed on Tuesday, but he made the most of his three phases with Ballynoecastle RM in division 1.
“I tried to ride a few horses here and there to try to get ready, but honestly it didn’t work,” admitted Davidson, who cracked his ribcage in a fall from a young horse three weeks prior. “I nearly pulled up halfway around because the pain was unbelievable.”
The injury forced Davidson to withdraw Triomphe, his second advanced mount at Rocking Horse, before cross-country, but he stuck it out with “Reggie,” an 8-year-old Irish Thoroughbred owned by Cassandra Segal. He refers to the gelding as “the best horse by far that I’ve ever had.”
“He’s usually dead quiet, but he had a little tiny cut in his mouth from a gallop. Every time he hit the left side of the bit in the walk, he sort of jigged, which is not like him at all,” Davidson said of the dressage. “That hurt us a little bit, but the trot and canter work was fantastic. I couldn’t have been happier.”
Tied for seventh after the dressage on a score of 35.8, the pair moved up to fourth with a double-clear show jumping round. Despite 10 time penalties in the final phase, Reggie emerged the winner in his first advanced event.
“The biggest problem was that I couldn’t really do much on cross-country,” Davidson said. “He was really good, but he’s still quite green at water, and there was a bounce there. He kind of just jumped in and stopped to look, but we got a bit lucky.
“The best part of it all is that he had wind surgery just before Christmas, and he didn’t make a noise at all,” Davidson added.
At only 8 years old, Reggie will certainly be a horse for the future and is already well on his way to becoming a top international competitor. After excellent placings at intermediate throughout the spring and summer, the pair represented the United States at the two-star Olympic Test Event in Hong Kong last August, where they placed eighth. Davidson is aiming the horse for the CIC*** at Red Hills (Fla.) and a CCI*** later in the spring.
A New Blue
New Jersey young rider Emilee Libby has an abundance of Rocking Horse blue ribbons from years past, but her performance in division 4 earned her her first advanced-level win at the event.
Entering her fourth year at advanced with Cahir, a 12-year-old Irish Sport Horse-Draft, Libby
said their performance at the level has just recently started to really click. Though they finished 21st at Rolex Kentucky last spring, she didn’t feel ready for a fall four-star, so she gave “Corey” several months off to relax.
“Conditioning for Kentucky last year and then just chilling has been great for him,” she said. “I think letting his body relax and have a break for several months was good. Our Rocking Horse round was one of the best rounds I’ve ever had on him, so I’m very excited for Rolex and hopefully Burghley this year. He feels so ready to go right now.”
The pair scored a 32.9 in the dressage and followed it with a double-clear show jumping round.
“He’s not usually lazy lazy but kind of dry in the dressage,” Libby remarked. “But he was quite attentive this time. He was pulling me and right in front of my leg. He’s not 100 percent in his changes yet, but he actually bucked with me in one. I was like, ‘Whoa! This horse never bucks!’ ”
Libby said Corey was still full of vim and vigor for the third phase of the event, where they added only 13.2 time penalties to their score, moving from a tie for third into the top spot.
“You would think being the third time getting on him he would be settled down a little bit, but he was actually giddy in the start box and gave a little squeal and a buck,” she said, laughing.
Libby schools dressage with David O’Connor and trains over fences with Buck Davidson. During the winter months she and her sister Jennifer run their own barn in Ocala with the help of their mother, Linda.