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Former Olympians share love of horses
At Smith River Equestrian Center
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David and Karen O’Connor are former Olympians in eventing, which is like an equestrian triathlon. This week, they are holding a camp at the Sandy River Equestrian Center near Axton for horse lovers interested in their sport. (Bulletin photo by Mickey Powell)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Two former Olympians are at an equestrian center near Axton this week, showing horse lovers from across the nation techniques of their sport.

David and Karen O’Connor won team silver medals at the 1996 Summer Olympics and team bronze medals at the 2000 Summer Olympics, where David also won an individual gold medal, in eventing. They were the first married couple to compete together on a U.S. Olympic equestrian team, according to online biographies.

Eventing includes three forms of competition: Dressage, in which horses and their riders perform predetermined movements; cross country, an endurance test involving speed and jumping ability; and show jumping.

Karen O’Connor said it basically is a triathlon for equestrians.

During a week-long camp at the Sandy River Equestrian Center owned by Suzanne Lacy, the couple is helping about a dozen participants develop their eventing skills. Some are already competitive at low levels; others want to become competitive.

One participant, Kim Bradley of Bristol, Tenn., has taken part in various camps held by the O’Con

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nors. Despite their extreme levels of skills, they are able to explain eventing techniques in a way that all equestrians — including beginners — can easily grasp, she said.

Their instruction is “some of the best” she has had, Bradley said, comparing it taking golf lessons from Tiger Woods.

Eventing, like other forms of equestrianism, requires horses and their riders to form deep bonds through trust, Karen O’Connor said.

Horses are resilient animals, she said, but they want a sense of comfort and security as well as leadership. In the wild, horses choose a leader from among themselves, but in captivity, they put their riders in that role, she added.

To be that leader, the person must have the horse’s trust, which requires a high level of communication between them, Karen O’Connor said.

That is a major focus of the camp, she said.

In developing the communication, Karen O’Connor said, she and her husband try to teach riders to understand why their horses behave in certain ways as well as how to respond to the behavior.

Not only are vocal instructions important in communicating with horses, but also factors such as where riders put their legs and weight, she said.

Horses “want to ... try to please” their riders, she continued.

Yet just like people, “horses have a myriad of personalities,” David O’Connor said.

Therefore, he said, it takes longer for bonds to form between some horses and riders than others. An example is when both are timid.

But with hard work and patience, horses and riders can form lifelong bonds of friendship, according to the O’Connors.

Camp participants had their horses under control Monday afternoon. Startling noises, such as dogs barking, did not seem to bother the horses.

“The horse that’s really communicating with its rider doesn’t hear anything else” but the rider’s messages, Karen O’Connor said.

Lacy, of the equestrian center, said she has been friends with the O’Connors for about 20 years and has taken part in their camps.

Karen O’Connor said the Sandy River camp is the first one she has done in about two years due to an injury.

Lacy said she wanted to help her friend get back in action, and she thought holding a camp at Sandy River would be helpful.

Karen O’Connor has visited the center before, but David O’Connor is making his first visit.

The center, which specializes in eventing, has indoor and outdoor arenas as well as fields, barns, trails and barriers for horses to jump, such as portable fences, according to its website.

“It’s a good training site,” David O’Connor said.

And, nestled in the rolling hills of southern Virginia, “it’s a beautiful facility,” said Karen O’Connor.


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