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Judy Van Put's 'Horse Talk'

By Judy Van Put
April 4, 2000 -- David O’Connor, 38-year-old Olympian, was the keynote speaker at the United States Pony Club annual meeting in Baltimore this year. Cherie Keating, assistant DC of the Thornapple Pony Club in Jeffersonville, has generously supplied us with information from this interview, adding that “David is well-spoken, polite, and totally approachable!”
A graduate B pony clubber from Redland Hunt Pony Club in Virginia, David is the son of Sally O’Connor, the well-respected author, judge, course designer, and trainer. In 1973, Sally took her sons David (then 11 years old) and Brian (then 13 years old) on a 2,800 mile trek from Maryland to Oregon on horseback. David commented on his mother’s idea of a cross-country ride, “You haven’t lived until you have actually fallen asleep in the saddle and then fallen off your horse, and had your 13-year-old brother remind you of it for two days, until he falls asleep on his horse and falls off!”
David has come up ‘through the ranks’ – Pony Club and trainers. His philosophy is the “Pursuit of Excellence.” “It’s not just about the competition. It is also your Quality of Presentation.” In his eyes, you need to compare yourself with the best in your sport to see where you really stand. David is firm in reminding people that you don’t get there alone. With the price of upper-level event horses beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest, you have to have backers or owners – people who believe in you. As a result, he believes this is a people business, not a horse business. He addressed the young equestrians in the audience by reminding them that “when you are kids, your parents are your first owners!”
“It’s difficult when you make a mistake in a competition and you have to go back to an owner and say ‘Yes, I made a mistake.’ It is also difficult when you ride for a team – you have a lot more pressure on you. That’s why it is important to remember that it took a lot of people to put you there. Everyone expects you to do well.”
David commented on what he looks for in an Olympic-level horse. “I like overall balance and high withers. I look at length of leg and hock. A horse that loves to play, but is willing to solve a puzzle. Most importantly you need to look in the horse’s eyes and like what you see. There are a lot of great jumpers out there, but they have to be sane!
“Jumping a course is like a puzzle,” he continued, “If you can figure out the pieces of the puzzle you can put it all together. You need to teach the horse to want to do it. You could never make a horse do that.”
It takes roughly four years to bring along a 4-star horse. They start at the preliminary level for 18 months, and spend about nine months at intermediate level. David considers the 3-star still an educational level. He believes that dressage is the best possible exercise for the horse. It does more for all the muscles than anything else – and is similar to an athlete doing calisthenics.
David and his wife, Karen Lende O’Connor, also a graduate pony clubber, refer to themselves as the O’Connor Event Team. Sixteen people comprise the rest of the O’Connor Event Team, including a veterinarian and a farrier. Their grooms are experienced in equine massage.
In the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, David and his wife Karen O’Connor, along with Bruce Davidson and Jill Hennenberg won the Team Silver. This was the first time husband and wife teammates won together for the same sport.
David’s career includes such highlights as the USET Whitney Stone Cup for achieving a distinguished record in international competition and serving as a fine ambassador for USET and equestrian sports; the Team Gold and Individual Silver at the Pan Am games, and winning the Male Athlete of the Month for North America by the U.S. Olympic Committee, which was the first time an equestrian athlete received this honor.
“One thing about the Olympics,” David says, “It’s the one thing that the world believes in. We all want to believe in the Olympics.”
Stay tuned for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia this September!


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