Theodore O'Connor Thinks Big

Aug 13, 2006 - 10:00 PM

You’re 5’2″ tall, trying to outrun someone who is 6′. Oh, and you’re doing this over hurdles that may be only 2 inches shorter than you. And, while we’re at it, let’s have them be hurdles that don’t fall down if you hit them. Fortunately for us humans, such a race would most likely only be in a strange dream. But for Theodore O’Connor, an 11-year-old large pony, that’s just his daily job.

Most recently, Theodore O’Connor, nicknamed “Teddy,” finished ninth at the Jersey Fresh CCI*** (N.J.) in May, his biggest accomplishment to date.

“He does not know he’s a pony,” said rider Karen O’Connor. “He’s an amazing character, just in a pony body.”

Groom Max Corcoran agreed: “He has no idea he is 14.1 [hands]. No clue.”

Teddy’s breeder, P. Wynn Norman of Sportponies Unlimited, Clayton, N.C., was looking to breed a small, athletic horse. “My goal was to produce competitive [sport] horses with a certain elegance and lightness,” said Norman.

So, she began crossing her pony mares with Thoroughbred stallions 15 years ago. Teddy, for instance, is by Norman’s 16.2-hand Thoroughbred stallion Witty Boy, a.k.a. Theodore (deceased), and out of 13.1-hand Chelsea’s Melody.

That Thoroughbred ancestry is evident in Teddy’s athleticism and personality. And, although Norman doesn’t entirely believe that ancestors three or more generations back have too much influence, she admitted that Teddy has “a rather distinct love of life that seems associated with some of those names.”

For those breeders who do believe more in genetics, Teddy’s pedigree is interesting reading. In the Thoroughbred portion, Count Fleet and Bold Ruler are present on both sides of his family. Nearco turns up once more, in addition to the two times through Bold Ruler, and Swaps also makes an appearance. Counterbalancing so much rich blood is Teddy’s grand-dam, Esker Electra, an 11.3-hand, Arabian-Shetland cross.

A Strong Personality
Teddy’s personality is fitting for a character with his breeding: energetic, individualistic and competitive. In fact, that’s how he got his name. The “Theodore” part is his father’s namesake, but the second half of his name came about not long after he was born at the State University of New York at Cobleskill.

“Lorraine Stevens, the barn manager, told me that he was so feisty that he managed to kick just about everyone who entered [his] stall within the first week of his life,” Norman said. “So, that trait, combined with his reddish coat, reminded me of the tennis player, Jimmy Connor. I had to come up with a way to connect the Theodore with the Connor, and it was an ‘O’ that did it. I know, I know–and now he’s ridden by an O’Connor. That’s just the weirdest of coincidences.”

Teddy is also competitive. Corcoran reported that he can always tell when they’re preparing for an event: “He just sticks his head out of his stall, as if to say, ‘Put my halter on; put my boots on–let’s go!’ “

Even Teddy’s appearance makes a statement. “He has this unruly mane that I have no prayer of doing anything with,” Corcoran said. “It’s a consistent mohawk.”

On course, Teddy stands out as a crowd pleaser. “When I came through the water at Jersey Fresh, the place went crazy,” O’Connor said proudly. “I never heard so much cheering at a three-star.”

Teddy has also taken up with one of O’Connor’s international mounts, Upstage, as the two often train together. Corcoran reported that the two are good pals, and Teddy ignores his smaller size and plays just as hard as his larger buddy when turned out. He further puts aside his lack of stature to take the alpha position around the barn.

“He’s a leader, in a quiet, unassuming way,” Corcoran said. “The strong, quiet type. He’s one of the favorites of everyone who works in the barn because he’s also such a ham.”

Taking On The Giants
Teddy holds his own in competition against the big guys. In addition to his top-10 finish at Jersey Fresh, he completed the CIC*** at The Fork (N.C.), finishing seventh, in April. O’Connor said he rides like a horse and jumps like a horse.

“What’s so amazing about Teddy is that he has no trouble making the distances. It’s very easy to balance him in front of the jumps [on cross-country],” O’Connor added. “I can easily get him balanced without taking away much time or speed.”

Sometimes his lack of stature does catch up with him, though. For one thing, O’Connor needed to find a lot of new equipment to fit him. “I had to get new reins so they wouldn’t get caught on my foot,” she said with a laugh. “I also have to ride with my stirrups shorter so my feet don’t hit the jumps!”

O’Connor said dressage is Teddy’s weakest phase because he doesn’t have the big, floating trot a larger horse would have. She concentrates on lateral work and exercises that encourage hind-end engagement, such as downward transitions, to free his shoulder and strengthen his haunches.

“It just takes time [to build up that strength],” she said.

She also concentrates on improving Teddy’s fitness level. After all, the distance of a cross-country course is proportionately longer for him than for a horse. At Jersey Fresh, for instance, “although the rain had stopped, the footing was very holding and tiring,” O’Connor said. “He just ran out of energy at the top of the last hill.”

O’Connor is thankful that Teddy can do what he does and that she gets to ride him. Formerly campaigned at the lower levels by Gillian Clissold, Nicole Villers and Christan Trainor, O’Connor got the ride a year ago when Teddy was put up for sale and Norman asked O’Connor to compete him.

“I jumped on it,” O’Connor said. “I adored him from the first time I saw him.”

From her experience with other smallish horses, though, O’Connor has found that these animals often make up for size with more heart. “He [Teddy] tries so hard; he feels big when you’re on him. He doesn’t see himself as small, so I don’t ride him like he’s small,” she said.

And his contacts have great faith in him. “It’s really fun for me to ride this pony,” O’Connor said. “I would be a fool not to think about him doing Badminton [England] or Burghley [England], but I also feel responsible to make sure I don’t over-face him.”

On cross-country, she said the jumps don’t look bigger because he has so much scope. “But I’m sometimes looking up at the jumps, so I have to stand up in my stance a little more coming into them,” she said.

Although Norman doesn’t like to watch Teddy’s cross-country rounds, she has a ritual of leading him back to the barn when he’s
finished.

Teddy’s team is going to let him tell them what he wants to do. O’Connor plans to take him as far as he can go–wherever that may be. “There would be no point in starting next spring without thinking of Rolex,” she said.

Norman is also keeping an eye on Teddy’s half-brother, VSF Otis, an endurance horse owned by Pan American Championships gold medalist Connie Walker. Otis, 9, has completed three 100-mile rides, finishing 11th in the Vermont 100 in July of 2005, fifth in the Carolina 100 in November of 2005, and sixth in the Old Dominion 100 (Va.) last month.

“There is that creepy-cool fact that Otis and Walker could make it [to the Pan American team],” Norman said. “Maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance that two [offspring of Witty Boy] could represent this country in the next Pan Am Games.”

If so, then, considering the 1968 Olympic show jumping silver medalist, the 14.2-hand Stroller, the two will be in good company.

Ponies For Sport
P. Wynn Norman’s breeding farm, Sportponies Unlimited, is located in Clayton, N.C., although she plans to move it to Ocala, Fla., this summer. Her Arabian-Quarter Horse Pony Club mount, War Prince, was skilled in dressage and also willing to teach smaller riders, and he was the impetus for her breeding operation, which started in 1991.

“I wanted to produce athletic horses, whose physique and temperament suited competitive women,” said Norman.

Norman and a group of friends bought her foundation stallion, Witty Boy (Anticipating–Very Witty), who was for sale due to a racetrack injury, in 1988. She became his sole owner in 1993, trusting in the philosophy of C.W. Anderson, “If you treat a horse like a champion, he might just act like one.”

Norman purchased her foundation mare, Esker Electra (JR Lyraff–Arbor Acres Electra), in the mid-1980s, and Theodore O’Connor’s mother, Chelsea’s Melody, is out of this cornerstone mare.

Today, Norman has four broodmares, including Chelsea’s Melody and her half-sister, Chelsea’s Christian.

Norman’s goal is to produce ponies that are willing to do more than average. In Theodore O’Connor, she may well have succeeded in producing one that will eagerly go beyond the call of duty.

Category: Eventing
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