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Advice from an Olympian
Award-winning rider shares knowledge
Olympic rider Karen O’Connor (center) of Ocala, Fla., instructs riders at a weekend clinic at the Sandy River Equestrian Center in Axton on Saturday. The rider at right is Katherine Lester on Baly. The main thrust of Saturday’s clinic was “teaching them how to be safer themselves and also keep the horses safe,” O’Connor said. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
A five-time Olympic equestrian and former top-ranked female rider in the world shared her knowledge of and love for horses while leading a clinic in the area this weekend.
Karen O’Connor of Ocala, Fla., is conducting the clinic at the Sandy River Equestrian Center (SREC) in Axton.
O’Connor, on Mr. Medicott, finished ninth in the individual standings in the 2012 Olympics. She has been named U.S. Female Equestrian Athlete of the Year 10 times, and in 1993, O’Connor was the number one ranked female rider in the world.
O’Connor and her husband, David O’Connor, operate the O’Connor Event Team, which has locations in Ocala, The Plains, Va., and Kentucky. He also became an eventing chef d’equipe/technical adviser in December.
Two months earlier, his wife suffered a rotational fall from her horse Veronica while competing at the Morven Park Horse Trials in Leesburg, Va. Karen O’Connor was hit between the shoulder blades, and required surgery to stabilize a vertebra.
She has not competed in eventing since then, but plans to do so in the future, she said Saturday.
Eventing includes three disciplines or phases: dressage, cross country and show jump/stadium, according to Suzanne Lacy, who along with her husband, Rusty Lacy, own the equestrian center.
The main thrust of Saturday’s clinic was “teaching them how to be safer themselves and also keep the horses safe,” O’Connor said.
“Stop is THE most important safety aspect,” she told participants.
Safety is addressed from many angles, from a rider’s techniques to learning to communicate in a language that horses understand, O’Connor said. She added that the rider’s body language, which is used to communicate with horses must be both aggressive and loving.
As riders and horses moved around the ring, O’Connor told them to ignore onlookers and any other distractions and concentrate on sending the right messages to their horse. “The only thing that matters right now is what the horse is hearing from you,” she said.
Horses respond to a “pressure on/pressure off” training — which rewards good behavior with the release of pressure, O’Connor said. “Don’t teach your horse to ignore you and don’t nag your horse” repeatedly to do things that it should do, she told the riders.
While taking a break as the next group of riders entered the arena, O’Connor said she decided to lead the clinic in Axton to give back to others.
“I’ve had great opportunities all of my life to have good instructors” teach her the intricacies of riding, she said. As a result, O’Connor said she has had the opportunity to travel all over the world to participate in various events.
The second day of the clinic is today, with a cross country course to test riders’ skills and mounts’ endurance.
A self-described animal lover, O’Connor said that horses are especially remarkable because a rider becomes an acting partner, controlling the horse and maneuvering it. That is, “once you understand their language,” O’Connor said, adding that is a “lifelong quest.”
O’Connor and her husband’s relationship with the Lacys also was a factor in her decision to teach the clinic.
“I’ve known Suzanne and Rusty for a very long time. They are great pals” to O’Connor and her husband, O’Connor said. Suzanne Lacy “has done a remarkable job” with the facility and “in getting the local interested riders” participating in the clinic.
Lacy is a cancer survivor. She said shortly after her diagnosis, she and her husband had dinner with the O’Connors. Crying, Lacy said she asked David O’Connor if he would ride her horse and compete in an event that was to be held the following week. David O’Connor, she said, asked Lacy, “why can’t you ride?” Lacy said she replied, “because I have cancer.”
David O’Connor then asked Lacy if she would have ridden if she had received the diagnosis a week later. Lacy said because of that thought-provoking question, she competed in the event, and made a pact with herself to return to riding as quickly as possible after her surgery and treatment.
While helping students in the arena Saturday, Lacy said the clinic attracted riders from Chapel Hill to Martinsville.
Lacy also holds week-and day-long camps at the facility that includes three barns, 37 mostly quarter horses, thoroughbreds and warmbloods (some of which are boarded there), and lessons for riders aged 8 to 80.
When students show up for their lessons, the horse is not standing with a saddle, bridle and other tack on and ready to go, Lacy said. Rather, students must put on their own tack and learn to maintain and care for it just as they do the horse because “that’s how they learn it.”
Students in the clinic worked on aspects of the three disciplines of eventing, she said, which first were used by the military to prepare their mounts for various situations.
Dressage is designed to showcase a horse and rider’s discipline based on their ability to perform a series of preset movements, Lacy said. Cross-country exercises measure endurance, as horses and riders travel over natural terrain and jump a number of fixed obstacles along the way. Show jumping illustrates stamina, as horse and rider jump a series of colored stadium (easily knocked down) fences in an enclosed arena.
All are done on the same horse, Lacy said, and explained that the exercises employed by O’Connor on the first day of the clinic were to determine whether riders could control their horses, jump them and manage other maneuvers.
Horses also have been a life-long love of Lacy’s.
She was in her first horse show when she was 3. She recalled that she fell off her horse and tried to run. Her mother followed, found her and made her go back into the arena, she said.
“I got a special award ribbon” at that show, Lacy said.
She rode throughout high school and college, taking a break from riding while having her family, Lacy said. She then took up riding again, and has had her own facility for about 20 years.
She attributes her longevity to her love for horses and the challenges of eventing.
“I just love what horses do for you,” Lacy said. “I love this sport.”