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Cian O’Connor: The epitome of discipline

Wednesday, 12 July 2017
Interview

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.
Cian O'Connor with Good Luck: “Probably the best horse I ever had in my career,” Cian says. All photos (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.

There is a certain balancing act required to do what Cian O’Connor is doing. The Irish 37-year-old juggles a highly successful sports career with coaching some very talented young riders – such as USA’s Lillie Keenan – and running his own business, Karlswood Stables, which includes always looking out for the next possible super star. And all of this together with a family life as a husband to his wife Ruth and a father of two.

“It is funny how one thing leads to another — my business really took off following my bronze medal win at the London Olympics in 2012. It’s incredible how one special horse can make a big difference, and, in this case, Blue Loyd made a huge impact on my future. Eight months before the London Olympics, I put together a syndicate of a couple of close friends, headed up by Charlie O’Reilly Hyland, to purchase Loyd with the Games in mind. Following our success in London, Blue Loyd was sold to Mr. Stronach, an Austrian-Canadian business man. Mr. Stronach asked me to help his granddaughter Nicole Walker,” Cian tells. “I started to travel to Wellington for the winters, and my role developed from being a coach for Nikki to actually running the whole operation she has, including her staff as well as managing all her showjumpers. They have some horses for me to ride as well, Good Luck being one of them. That evolved, and from travelling there I started coaching more clients and that is how I met Lillie as well. So I tend to spend my winters in America coaching Nikki and Lillie.” 

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.
Cian and Lillie Keenan in Rotterdam: “The coaching is good, it is very rewarding to work with the likes of Lillie and Nikki," he says.

“Good Luck is probably the best horse I ever had in my career,” Cian says of the 11-year-old stallion that he recently won the five-star Grand Prix of Sopot on. “What makes him special is his energy, he is a real athlete. It took me a long time to develop him — I have had him for two years now. It has taken some time to get him to ride the way I want in between the fences – he always had an explosive jump, but he was a little bit wild. You could say he wasn’t that fast and the time allowed was initially a bit difficult for him. But bit by bit we developed a great partnership. It has come together nicely this year, he was jumping two major Grand Prix classes in the US and was third in the $1 Million Grand Prix in California as well as double clear and fourth in Wellington. I had an injury and I was out for six weeks and then his first show back was Wiesbaden and he was placed fourth and now he won the Grand Prix in Sopot. It could not be going better, and I am obviously happy with him and grateful to have an opportunity to ride him. I really think his best is yet to come.”

When it comes to horses, Cian is a firm believer in quality over quantity. “In total I don’t have that many show horses. I have around six horses to compete with, and Lillie is based here at our German-base with her five horses so we have eleven horses in total. I also have some horses in Ireland, I have some horses placed with other riders who develop them, and other horses that I part-own with other riders – so I have my fingers in a few pies,” Cian smiles.

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.
"I really think his best is yet to come,” Cian says about Good Luck.

Riding himself and coaching, how does Cian make it all happen we ask. “It is difficult; like balancing anything is. I have got to balance my own competing, coaching, trading horses and of course family life. I have many balls in the air that I try to juggle. I should give everything enough time, but I believe it is just a case of being organized and structured,” he says.

It takes a village though, and Cian’s Karlswood Stables is no exception – this is not a one-man-show. “We are very lucky at Karlswood, we have got a good team of people,” Cian says. “I have a few people that work very close to me, Michael Kelly – who is a very capable rider himself and assists me in the coaching, and Ross Mulholland – who is my competition rider and recently won a four star class in Hamburg. Those two are my partners in the business, we discuss and do everything together. Having good people around you makes the job a lot easier,” Cian continues.

Cian enjoys the coaching, and it is something he wants to further develop. “The coaching is good, it is very rewarding to work with the likes of Lillie and Nikki. It is nice to see them break through and see the horses’ progress and the results getting better,” Cian says. “It is hard to be a rider all your life, and then say ‘Ok, I am 50 so I am going to be a coach now’. It is something you need to develop and become good at – you need to examine yourself, and see how you can handle things better, how you can give better advice. Just because you are a good rider, it does not make you a good coach. I want to develop that side of my business so that I have another option when I get older, and it is something I have worked very hard at. At Karslwood we do a good job, we can cater to our clients’ needs very well to the highest standard,” Cian explains.

And how would Cian describe himself as a coach? “Like in everything I do, I am organized – I don’t like to leave anything to chance. I like to have plans long in advance. I am not really a good supporter of galloping horses week in and week out  – I like the horses to have goals, and aiming a certain horse for a certain show. And then, try to build up for the target and try to teach the students: horses are not machines and you have to give them time to develop. As a trainer I am probably demanding — I want people to put in as much work as I do. It is not a holiday camp here!” Cian smiles.

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.
Cian with Cybel II, a mare he purchased at the beginning of the summer. “I am very brave to buy a horse if I like the story,” he says.

In his training, Cian believes in simplicity and structure. “Basically, they are all individuals – horses and people. We really stick to the basics – it is not rocket science,” he explains. “So, if I get a new horse first of all I look at its feet. Then I look at its diet, assessing how healthy the horse is and make sure everything is in order. Then we start with good, classical flat work. That is how we want to teach the kids too, so that they are able to work the horses correctly. Then we move on to the canter poles, varying the distances between the poles. If you have a horse that is healthy, sound and happy, and a rider that is able to put the horse through the gears, go forward and back easily, then you can move on to train gymnastics, small fences and small courses and so on. I believe it is basically a foundation of A, B, C. And as soon as you run into difficulty, it is great to have that base to fall back on, because you can go and build back up again,” Cian explains.

Sticking to his system is essential to Cian. “While we might move left or right with a certain horse, we have a good basic structure – a system that myself and the riders, both those who ride for me and my students, will try to follow. I think it is good, because if you don’t have the basics, if you don’t have any structure to fall back on, you are only just making it up as you go along. Perhaps you will have certain success, but you won’t be able to be consistently successful with multiple horses and riders.”

Talking about his motivation and what drives him, Cian mentions the love for the sport and the horses. “I enjoy doing well and I like horses, so I am happy to be around them every day. The lucky part of the way I do things, is that I get to see every aspect of it: I can jump in the car, drive to Belgium to look at horses and buy two if I want. Then I can bring them back and train them. Me going to the big shows is also important, to keep my profile and to meet possible clients. It is all a bit of a jig-saw; sometimes the biggest pleasure is going well in the ring myself, sometimes it is seeing a horse progress. I try to keep everything going and it can be tough at times – but it is never boring. Every day something happens,” he smiles.

Spending the winters in the States and the summers in Europe, Cian knows both of the systems inside-out. “The American system works good in the way that it gives a good base to the riders – for example, it teaches them to sit very well. Take the equitation as another example, it gets them to ride in a good rhythm. The down side to it perhaps might be that it is built around keeping an amateur an amateur, whereas in Europe I think we tend to try and teach the amateur to become a professional.”

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.
"As a trainer I am probably demanding — I want people to put in as much work as I do," Cian says.

Cian is not only riding and coaching, he also has a successful dealing business. “I am very brave to buy a horse if I like the story,” he says. “But, if a wrong person rings me about a horse – well, they could have a Big Star and I would not buy it!” Cian tells about his philosophy. “I think it is so important to be able to trust the person you are buying from. I work with a handful of people, who keep an eye out for horses on our behalf. Myself and Michael do all the researching through videos and results, Michael is very good at that. We look maybe at about a 1000 horses a year on video, then maybe 250 of those we try and out of those ones we purchase around 25. So it is quite a big reach,” Cian says.

Cian always looks for a horse with a good history. “The story needs to add up, for me that is important. Why is the horse for sale, what was he doing last year, and the year before? Where did he come from? What are the good things, what are the bad things? Is the price really at the value of what he is able to do? And then myself, when I get on the horse, I want the horse to be balanced, I want the horse to be careful and have a big jump. I don’t mind if they are a little difficult to ride, because the most expensive horses are the ones that are simple to ride. So, if it is not totally simple to ride, that rules out a great deal of the high-end market. If a horse needs a little bit of work, I am not too fussy on that as long as it is not a lunatic or a tear-away. The most rewarding thing is to find a horse, where the story adds up and the horse is careful and that the horse is sound. It is important they are sound, because the work and the high level of competition are demanding,” Cian explains.

When it comes to goals, Cian has his set high – both for himself and for his students. “I think I am very lucky, that the two years of work that I have put into Good Luck seem to be paying off. He is really settling into his job and I’d like to think that I can win a couple of big Grand Prix classes with him. I would love to go well in Aachen. I would love go well at the European Championships,” Cian tells.

“From the coaching point of view, I am building Lillie towards being part of an American squad at a Nations Cup show later this year. They have a very good system in the States, that they select their teams early. This way the riders are able to plan and to develop. I have built a good relationship with Lillie’s team manager Robert Ridland, and he is in regular communication with me and Lillie about the plan and what he would like to see her do,” Cian says. “I have my own goals, but my goals for Lillie are very strong as well."

"Nikki has had a fantastic circuit in Spruce Meadows," Cian tells about his other student. "I have had two full-time Karlswood staff with her there also, and after Rotterdam I flew out to help her for the week. In the final week she was second in a 1.50m ranking class with her star-horse Falco van Spieveld as well as winning the 1.40m Championship with Excellent B."

"Having two students that I manage full time along with my own career and horse dealing business it's full steam ahead for us at Karlswood stables," Cian smiles. "As in the small amount of horses we train I now just focus on these two students, and I want them to excel and achieve their dreams and goals too. It's all about quality, not quantity."

"I'm lucky as I love what I do, and I look forward to new challenges and opportunities that come my way," Cian concludes.

 


Text and pictures © World of Showjumping by Nanna Nieminen and Jenny Abrahamsson

(No reproduction without permission)

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