Like thousands of other eventing enthusiasts, Jeanne Shigo makes the pilgrimage every spring to watch the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event. She’s bound for the Bluegrass State again next week, but this time it’s going to be a very different experience.
“I’ve been going to Kentucky for a really long time as a spectator. To be on the flip side, going with a horse … it is so exciting,” said Shigo, 64, the owner of Ferrie’s Cello, an 11-year-old Dutch warmblood gelding known around the barn as “Eddy”. He and his rider Andrew McConnon will make their five-star debut at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, coming up April 27-30.
“Eddy has really matured dramatically in the last six months,” said Shigo, a longtime equestrian and former event rider who will travel to Kentucky with her partner, Bob Ferrier, from their new home in Pinehurst, North Carolina. They recently moved from Pennsylvania to be closer to McConnon’s farm. “I feel like this horse has an exceptional run and jump. His cross-country is amazing, and he has a huge stride. Eddy is really young, but I feel like he’s earned this.”
Indeed, McConnon and Eddy have been going from strength to strength over the past year.
Just this week, the U.S. Equestrian Federation named the duo to this summer’s U.S. Eventing European Development Tour, and they’re coming off a second-place finish in the advanced division at the Setters’ Run Farm Carolina International CCI and Horse Trial, held March 16-19 in Raeford, North Carolina. They won an intermediate division at the Pine Top Intermediate Horse Trials (Georgia) in February and participated in USEF Development Training Sessions in January in Ocala, Florida. Last August, McConnon and Eddy were members of the gold-medal-winning U.S. team, finishing with a double clear, at the FEI Eventing Nations Cup Canada CCIO4*-S at Bromont.
McConnon, 37, was on horses before he could even walk, riding in a pack on his mother’s back. He learned to ride through, and eventually became an instructor for, his mother’s lesson program in Acton, Massachusetts.
At 14, he began taking jumping lessons with Marc Donovan, who introduced him to eventing. He was hooked, and knew he’d found his path. When he graduated high school, he began working for Donovan, a former elite three-day eventer and now in-demand show-jumping course designer.
“I decided to treat that as my education,” McConnon said. “There was never a chance that I was going to go to college. I just wasn’t interested in it. It was always going to be the horses for me. I felt like I knew as a kid that was the direction I was going to go.”
McConnon worked for Donovan for several years before moving to Tanglewood Farm in Southern Pines, North Carolina, where he trained under Olympic eventer Bobby Costello. While working with Costello, McConnon began his own competition, training and sales business, McConnon Eventing. Today, he runs his own farm in nearby Vass, North Carolina, where he juggles his own training with teaching young children up to adults who are competing in the intermediate division.
“It’s something I really enjoy doing,” he said of teaching. “I have to keep a strong focus on my horses and what they need, but I really like to produce horses and produce people, too.”
While working for Costello, McConnon determined that he wanted to reach the elite echelon of international three-day eventing. To that end, he moved to Europe in 2016 to work for British Olympian William Fox-Pitt. It was there McConnon saw first-hand the work that Fox-Pitt put in to become the FEI’s world No. 1-ranked eventer, a distinction Fox-Pitt has achieved multiple times.
McConnon today applies the philosophies and practices he absorbed from Fox-Pitt, Donovan and Costello to forge his own path. More recently, he’s worked with another British Olympian, U.S.-based Leslie Law, who was the U.S. team’s chef d’equipe at the 2022 FEI Eventing Nations Cup and will be another of the 41 horse-and-rider combinations currently set to compete in the CCI5*-L at Kentucky.
“For me, this has been a goal my whole life,” McConnon said. “I’m very fortunate that I’ve got a great horse who’s on good form and in good health. A five-star is the ultimate test of preparation and the rider’s education, and how well they’ve produced the horse. Not having done a five-star before, you don’t know what you don’t know, and I don’t want to come across as overly confident, because I’m not. I’m just trying to focus on preparation.”
At the beginning of each season, McConnon said he determines his major goals and then works backward, analyzing and optimizing his training schedule. He works closely with Natalia Knowles, who’s managed his horses and groomed for him for three years.
“We all know that a groom’s job is managing the rider, as well,” McConnon said with a chuckle. “She’s very good at knowing what the horses need—and also what I need. I’m very fortunate to have her.”
Knowles said that consistency is key with respect to training, feeding and resting, particularly as the McConnon team heads to, and settles in at, the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.
“Eddy is going to live his life exactly the same way that he’s been living it,” said Knowles, 22, herself an event rider. “We’ll try to keep it mundane and like it’s just another event. There’ll be lots of really amazing, really talented riders out there, so just ending up in the middle of the pack would be phenomenal. When you get to that level, just finishing is great, and going home with a sound, happy horse and rider.”
McConnon said he’ll be happy with a steady, productive weekend at his first five-star event. He’s not nervous, just eager to compete and succeed.
“It’s less nerves and more of just wanting to make the right decisions for a safe outcome and to do right by the team that’s supporting me,” McConnon said. “I’m well aware of the risks and the difficulties, but at the same time, I know I’ve worked hard to get where I’m at, and so has Eddy, so we’re going to go and give it our best shot and try to be competitive. I just want a good, confident go for the horse.”
The Chronicle of the Horse will be on-site all week for the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event bringing you reports from each round of competition, beautiful photos and stories from the competitors. Follow along with all of our coverage here, and be sure to read our May 22 Kentucky Results issue for more in-depth coverage and analysis of the event.