For Fallon O’Connell, the road to the ASPCA Maclay Finals has been paved with hours of horse hair, elbow grease and old fashioned hard work.
This Notre Dame Prep senior, from Scottsdale, Ariz., will ride in her first—and only—ASPCA Maclay Finals at the CP National Horse Show on Nov. 4-5 and has thrown her all into just having the opportunity to qualify for and compete at the prestigious equitation competition. For O’Connell, overcoming the challenges that stood between her, and this objective has taught her the value of grit, determination and the importance of a supportive community.
O’Connell was already a sophomore in high school when she set a “crazy goal” to qualify for and compete at both the Dover Saddlery/U.S. Hunter Seat Medal and the ASCPA Maclay Finals. Where many future Medal/Maclay riders start showing in open shows in the pony divisions as young children, O’Connell didn’t start competing until the sixth grade when her mother, Lori Pillittiere, discovered the Interscholastic Equestrian Association, still just in its infancy in the state.
As a child living in a single-parent household, the amount of funding available to support O’Connell’s quest was limited, and IEA gave the horseless O’Connell an opportunity to gain show ring miles.
In fact, she didn’t participate in open shows at all until she was in high school, after joining an IEA team in eighth grade coached by trainer Kathy Johnson of Willoway Farm in Phoenix, Ariz. Johnson has a long history of bringing riders to the big eq finals, and O’Connell connected with her right away.
“Kathy takes on anymore who is willing to work hard,” said O’Connell.
Johnson helped O’Connell find a half-lease on an older experienced equitation horse named Mr. Knightly, who O’Connell describes as “the best equitation horse that Arizona had ever seen.” On “Toby,” O’Connell gained valuable mileage at the 3′ level, showing in equitation divisions at both schooling and rated shows.
“I couldn’t believe I had the ride on him,” said O’Connell, who still sounds in awe of her good fortune in meeting Toby. “I learned a ton on him. He had been to the finals. I think he was always so confused when he was tied to a trailer at a schooling show.”
While leasing Toby, O’Connell learned many of the skills necessary to do her own grooming at shows. It was an experience which both enhanced her horsemanship and helped to keep costs down. One of the most valuable skills which O’Connell gained was the ability to body clip. She got so good at it that she began clipping horses for other riders during show season, making money that she then used to pursue her own competitive and training goals. O’Connell also worked at the barn, and Johnson helped reduce her expenses whenever she could.
When the lease ended, O’Connell found herself at a crossroads. “We were kind of stuck,” said O’Connell. “We are not a big show barn, and there were not a lot of extra horses to ride. There was nothing at the barn that could move to 3’6″, and we had no money to spend.”
Undeterred, Johnson began reaching out to a network of colleagues that spanned across the country, searching for a competitive 3’6″ equitation horse for her talented and determined protégé. Most people told her she was crazy to expect to find a horse with that kind of resume in O’Connell’s price range.
A member of the Board of Directors for the IEA, Johnson sent a mass email to all the IEA coaches last year. A colleague in Georgia responded. Brass Verdict, a 15-year-old liver chestnut Hanoverian gelding by Perpignon, had mileage in the junior hunters and equitation classes with several riders. But he was blind in his left eye, and too slow for the jumper ring, so equitation was his only remaining niche, and he was affordable.
Johnson went with O’Connell to try “James;” they connected immediately, so she and her mother signed a lease to purchase agreement, and James moved west. He is the first horse she has ever owned.
With only two junior years left, O’Connell immediately set to work getting to know her new horse, who she describes as sometimes not wanting to be on her team. “We schooled him and tuned up his lateral work,” said O’Connell. “He can be really slow.”
O’Connell credits her extensive experience as an IEA rider with being able to figure out James so quickly. IEA shows are structured using a “catch-riding” format, where competitors ride an unfamiliar horse with only limited warm-up before a class. O’Connell has been thrilled to see the organization grow in popularity since she first joined; her team now has more than 20 riders and there are regularly 200 rides at a show. She has competed at the IEA National Championships several times, served on the national IEA Youth Board and is her team’s captain.
“I am good at riding different horses because of IEA,” said O’Connell. “I haven’t had easy horses. I want to give horses their best ride.”
O’Connell says that her IEA experience has also taught her valuable life lessons, such as the importance of teamwork. The day before she left to compete at the Medal Final, O’Connell was at an IEA show; she felt guilty about needing to leave early, before her teammates rode in the cross-rail classes, so she could make it to Harrisburg, Pa., for the Medal Final. “You root for each other, take care of the horses together and get to know all of the horse’s quirks,” said O’Connell. “It gives kids without a ton of money a chance to show and ride.”
In her first season showing James, O’Connell did just one show at the 3’3″ level before moving up to the 3’6″ equitation. “We qualified for the Medal Final that year but couldn’t afford to go and not be competitive,” said O’Connell.
That meant that the 2017 season—her last as a junior—had to be “all in” for O’Connell if she wanted to make her dream of competing at the equitation finals a reality. They showed at venues O’Connell had never been to, including the Colorado Horse Park, Tucson (Ariz.) and HITS Thermal (Calif.), with O’Connell typically doing all of her own care and helping others in order to cut costs. They also tried to be strategic in how they competed. “The plan was to try to get Medal points,” said O’Connell. “We would ship in, do the class, and then go home. We didn’t have the money to do all of the shows.”
When she and James traveled to the Colorado Horse Park for three weeks of showing at the Summer in the Rockies series, she started out with only a handful of qualifying points. “I basically had three weeks to qualify,” she said. “My trainer doesn’t usually put a lot of pressure on me, but she made it clear that we were there for a reason.”
The extra push worked. O’Connell put in some of her best performances to date, making the top four in all weeks. “The last week we had to make it to the top four in order to qualify,” said O’Connell. “We actually won. So half of my dream had come true…we knew we were going to the Medal Final.”
But getting qualified for the Maclay was another story, since qualifying is based on a rider’s placing in a regional final. “We may be a small region, but it is extremely competitive,” said O’Connell. The pair had a minor crash in a warm-up class the week before regionals. “It was the best thing that could have happened, because I had gotten a little relaxed,” said O’Connell. The mishap helped O’Connell to sharpen her focus at a critical moment. Regionals were held at the Colorado Horse Park on Sept. 17; going into the competition, only the top seven were guaranteed to advance. O’Connell finished the day in eighth place.
A short time after getting home, O’Connell got the letter in the mail that invited her to compete at the ASPCA Maclay Final. Despite her excitement, she knew the trip east would cost thousands of dollars. O’Connell applied for and received the Leo Conroy Maclay Grant, awarded to qualified riders demonstrating financial need.
The grant, which covers her entry fees and stall as well as a $1,000 stipend toward additional show-related expenses, has gone a long way towards helping cover the costs of participating at the finals. In addition, O’Connell says that the greater equestrian community has all pitched in to help; some, like the horse hauler, are only charging her cost. Friends in Colorado are hosting James in the weeks between the finals.
O’Connell and James competed in the Dover Saddlery/U.S. Medal finals in Harrisburg, Pa., on Oct. 15, and she learned a lot from the experience. “I had never been to a back east finals, never mind the Pennsylvania National,” said O’Connell. “James isn’t spooky, but he is the laziest horse I’ve ever ridden. Our game plan for him is usually to do minimal classes, few jumps, and keep him moving with light hacking.”
In Harrisburg, O’Connell said that the warm-up for her medal round was one of her best ever, and it seemed like her preparation was working. “I was so exciting sitting at the in-gate,” said O’Connell. “He was so smooth off my leg.” But her round didn’t go as planned. “I got in there, and I think he got so nervous,” she recalled. “His stride shrunk, and he didn’t want to do anything. I give him a lot of credit though, because he still jumped around for me.”
O’Connell thinks that the atmosphere at the Kentucky Horse Park will be better for James, and she has a new strategy. “I am going to get him out on the cross-country field and show him in some different rings,” said O’Connell. “I just want to make sure that mentally, he is in a different place. I want to make sure he is happy. If he is in a good place, then I will know that we will do our best.”
In the future, O’Connell hopes to tackle another of her “crazy dreams”—to be a professional trainer. She has taken great inspiration from the women around her, especially Johnson, with whom she sits to observe her teaching and understand what she is thinking for each rider. O’Connell is also grateful for the support of her mother. “I don’t know of another parent who has put themselves aside like she has so their child can follow their dreams,” said O’Connell.
And when these finals are over, O’Connell will bring that knowledge and experience back to her home barn, to her IEA team, and will be willing to share. “Equitation is the foundation for everything,” she said. “Look at McLain Ward and Hunter Holloway over the top of a jump. Form follows function. What I have learned over the past four years is that I don’t know anything. I want to learn more.”
Wondering how O’Connell does on Nov. 4-5? Make sure to follow along with the Chronicle. We’ll have a round-by-round blog of the ASPCA Maclay Final Round 1 starting at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 4, complete with a description of the course, and more round-by-round action for the flat phase and Round 2 on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 5, followed by comprehensive coverage. Don’t miss a moment on www.coth.com!