“I don’t take any day I ride Pirate for granted, but it was a special moment,” Meghan O’Donoghue recalled about crossing the finish line of the Blenheim CCI*** [England] with a clean round aboard her Pirate.
With a big hug after her round, David O’Connor reminded her to soak in the moment.
"He said, ‘You’re going to miss this one day. I think you’re going to see it more and more now, but you’re going to miss this one day,’ " O'Donoghue recalled. "And I said, ‘I know.’ ”
O’Donoghue had traveled to Blenheim on Sept. 11-14 thanks to a Jacqueline B. Mars International Competition and Training Grant she earned after placing 12th at the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** in April, her and her horse's first four-star.
“I couldn’t have done this without Jackie Mars. The fact that the [U.S. Equestrian Federation] committee chose to spend that money that she put up for the future of the sport for me to go over and have that experience is amazing,” she said. It was her first trip abroad to compete.
Adding just 8.8 cross-country time penalties to her dressage score moved O’Donoghue up from 42nd after dressage into 11th, a place she kept to the end despite three rails on the last day. O’Connor “sort of held my hand the whole time,” she said.
“I knew I wanted to do Blenheim, and everyone told me I had the ability for the horse to do well. But I went over in the same mindset as when I went to Kentucky [of just getting around], and David said, ‘No, no, no, you’d better go for it! You’re here to do better than good.’ It felt amazing to know that he believed in me.”
O’Donoghue’s family, from Carbondale, Ill., also believed in her. Jill, her mother, was able to make the trip to Blenheim to cheer her on, although her father, Mark, had to stay home to manage the Dunnabeck Horse Trials, their family-run event at their Le Cheval de Boskydell farm.
“My sister took over coaching my mom’s huge group of students at our horse trials. So it’s pretty cool that the whole family makes it work, whether I’m at Europe or here [in Virginia] or wherever,” O’Donoghue said. Even though two of her biggest fans weren’t at Blenheim, she said, “I felt them there the whole time, riding along with me.”
Pirate’s Strong Suit
Blenheim is known for its challenging cross-country course, which is a valid test for riders preparing to move up to four-star events. Since she had already ridden around clean at Rolex Kentucky earlier this year, O’Donoghue knew “the horse could handle the size and technicality of the course. And he can run for days, so I wasn’t worried about his fitness,” she said.
“There’s some terrain [at Blenheim], and it just looked so big! I think the European-style jumps are different than what I see here. They make you just gallop on. There’s nothing you can hold back. I think the course rode the best being a bit attacking,” she said.
O’Donoghue ran cross-country late in the day, so she got to watch several rounds before her own. One thing that struck her about one of William Fox-Pitt’s rounds was how fast he was going. “I remember that and had that vision in my head of what [the course] was going to take to go well,” she said.
“Right before I went out, David said I had an advantage, that Pirate is a very fast horse and the course would feel easy to him. That gave me a lot of confidence and I knew he would be great,” she said.
Pirate is an off-the-track Thoroughbred O’Donoghue has brought along to the advanced level from the beginning. “He doesn’t find the flatwork very natural,” she said. “From the beginning, he was always a natural jumping horse.”
Trot work has comprised much of O’Donoghue’s training program on Pirate, and will continue to do so. “Literally, from the beginning, I’ve had to train him to trot all the time. The canter is a lot more natural for him, which is good, because with a good walk and a canter you can improve the trot. But that’s something I’m always working on,” she said.
O’Donoghue currently spends her days working under Will Coleman at his Tivoli Farm in Gordonsville, Va., where she rides Pirate, helps Coleman train his younger horses, and instructs his smaller lesson groups when Coleman is traveling for competition.
However, she plans to return to her family this fall. “It was incredible to have that kind of financial support at Blenheim,” she said, “but we have a few off-the-track young horses that I’d like to get my hands on, and I can do a lot of work at home.”
O’Donoghue will tentatively focus on making money at her home base and seeking specialized training in dressage and show jumping on Pirate. “I would really like to work on improving those two phases so I can go into Rolex Kentucky feeling really competitive [in 2014],” she said.
It’s the moments like the one she had at the Blenheim finish line that keep O’Donoghue going. “I have to stay focused on the moment and on being in the present,” she said. “I take it one day at a time and believe everything happens for a reason. Doors are opening, so I’m walking through them.”
Want to know more about Meghan O'Donoghue? There's a full profile of her in the April 22 Rolex Preview Issue of the Chronicle! In this week's Oct. 7 issue, there's full coverage of the Blenheim CCI***. Subscribe now and you can get access not only to future issues, but also to digital copies of past issues.