Friday, May. 24, 2024

Karen O’Connor Grapples With Tragedy But Finds Hope On Her Road To The Olympics

In this series, the Chronicle follows six riders as they seek to fulfill their Olympic dreams in Hong Kong in 2008. Click here to read Karen's first installment, or here to view her second.


In this series, the Chronicle follows six riders as they seek to fulfill their Olympic dreams in Hong Kong in 2008. Click here to read Karen’s first installment, or here to view her second.

Since my last installment of The Road To The Olympics, to say my life has turned upside down would be an understatement [O’Connor’s famed pony, Theodore O’Connor, was euthanized on May 28 after an accident at the O’Connor’s farm (June 6, p. 112).].

It’s been a very difficult time for anyone connected to Teddy and the O’Connor Event Team, including all my other owners, who are saddened by Teddy’s accident. Thousands and thousands of people have responded to try to help us through such a tough time, and also just to voice their own sadness.

It’s just very, very tragic. Some of the stuff that has come out–the amazing outpouring of condolences and care–it’s really touched everybody that’s in the [Theodore O’Connor] Syndicate, including myself and [Teddy’s breeder] Wynn Norman, and also [his groom] Max Corcoran. It’s really helped us get through a really tough time. I’ve never known a horse to have this kind of an impact on an industry. It’s a tribute to him and how many lives he touched—none more than mine.

I’m not through this. It’s going to be a while before I’m completely through it. I’ve gotten tremendous support and help from everyone around me, and I just can’t thank everybody enough for that.

Because Teddy was so close to me, this time is important to me. I wanted to go through the grieving process in my own way, and I wanted to do it immediately. I think initially I was in shock, and it does feel surreal still to me. But I wanted to go through the grieving process and not hide behind some hard shell, because I’m a softy inside.

I had a four-day clinic down in Louisiana [the weekend after the accident], and I canceled that. I didn’t feel like I could get that done. But David decided to carry on and go down and do the clinic, and it was amazing that he was able to go and do that.


It was important to me that I could take Teddy’s passing internally. You can’t take it back. It’s something that you’d love to change, but it’s impossible.
I think it was probably about a week ago when I woke up and said, “Mandiba’s an amazing horse.” Of course I always knew that, but I woke up ready to start to move on in spite of the fact that Teddy will never be replaced–ever. I now feel ready to move on, and if ever there’s a horse to move on with, it’s Mandiba.

Foresight Rewarded

Mandiba was bred by a good friend of mine in Ireland, William Micklem, who also sold us Biko, Custom Made, Mr. Maxwell and Giltedge. Because of my faith in William, we bought Mandiba sight unseen. True to form, the horse was fantastic right from the get-go.

He’s by Master Imp out of High Dolly, who was by Chair Lift, so he’s beautifully bred on both sides to be a top class event horse. And a tribute to that breeding is that Zara Phillips bought his full brother, High Kingdom. She has him as a novice horse right now, and he’s also quite special.
Joan Goswell is Mandiba’s owner, and she also owned Worth The Trust, who won the 1997 Rolex Kentucky CCI***. It’s been really fun for the Micklem family and Joan to follow him.

It’s also hugely rewarding and special to David and I because this is both of our work. David did a lot of the on-line work with him initially. He was quite “bucky” as a young horse, and it took a long time to break him properly. We took our time, and we never put him under pressure in the beginning.
On-line he jumped all of the cross-country jumps that we have on our property–all of them–before I ever jumped a jump with him on horseback. It’s a remarkable feeling to go down to your first ditch when you’re riding a horse and he’s already got it all figured out. He’s not at all impressed or worried.
We broke him as a 5-year-old, so he didn’t start competing until his 6-year-old year. His first event was beginner novice at The Fork (N.C.) three years ago, which he won, and it’s been all go from there.
He’s had some time off after the Jersey Fresh CCI*** (N.J.) [where he placed seventh in May]. He had a great holiday and did great when I took him to Seneca [Md.] for a little outing at preliminary level last weekend.
He and Max are leaving to go to England this week [of June 20] with Amy [Tryon’s] two horses. [Tryon has been based with the O’Connors in Florida and Virginia for the past several months and has two potential mounts for the Olympics, Poggio II and Leyland. Short-listed riders were given the choice of participating in one of two final mandatory outings, at either a private, closed session at The Fork Stables or at the Barbury Castle CIC*** in England. Both O’Connor and Tryon have opted to participate in the latter].
We’ll base ourselves at [Chef d’Equipe] Mark Phillips’ property, Aston Farm. I’m going to go to some meetings and sessions here, and Amy’s also doing a bunch of different travels in the United States. We’ll meet up at the airport in England and share the rental car and head out to Mark’s.
[Having Amy based with us] has been great. She’s an incredible horsewoman, and she’s been a
wonderful person to bounce ideas off of for both David and I. All three of us have great discussions about horsemanship and training and conditioning. She’s also a grounded athlete and competitor, and it’s great to have that kind of day-to-day influence.

Choosing The Right Path

Above all, this particular time and trip, the biggest hurdle to overcome is the cost. The dollar is so weak and fuel is so expensive over in Europe right now. Diesel fuel is about $12 a gallon. It’s hard to get your head wrapped around that. You have to really believe that this is the best lead-up to the Olympic Games for these horses and for us as athletes, because you have to justify the incredible expense that this is now.
The best thing about a young horse that’s in Mandiba’s situation is that he doesn’t know what he can’t do. As far as he knows it’s all good. He has a wonderful temperament as a competitor, and he can compete with the most incredible amount of atmosphere. He can go into that dressage arena with the crowds and the flags flapping and everything and be completely relaxed and settled, and I think that’s a huge asset for him.
But I still wanted to go to England and Barbury Castle in that atmosphere so we can get that kind of practice, coupled with the fact that at Barbury you’re going to have all of the top riders from probably eight or 10 foreign countries competing in their final trials before the Olympic Games.
One of the things that David and I enjoyed so much when we lived over in England for five years was that, weekend in and weekend out, we were able to compete with those competitors at that level.
At Barbury, we’ll know where my game is. It really puts you into the mix with those very people that are vying for the individual medals when you get over there to Hong Kong—if we’re given the chance.
The Fork is a fantastic facility, and Jim Cogdell is really generous to offer his property, but this is just right for me. Although it will be a fantastic competition for those that compete in it, there will be little to no atmosphere, so I’m just happier having the opportunity to get to England. Then I’ll know he’s really ready for the atmosphere.
I’m so going to miss not having Teddy. There’s no getting around that. There’s no way that I could ever, ever replace him, so I’m not going to try to. Mandiba is an individual in his own right, and our partnership will be based on his individual assets and not by trying to make him into something that he never will be. He’s equally talented but very different.
It’s still really hard, but I’m ready to take on the next task with the respect that Teddy deserves. 

Karen O’Connor, as told to Kat Netzler




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