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Cian O’Connor: “The sport will still be here post-Covid-19”

Monday, 26 October 2020
Interview

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping Cian O'Connor. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

 

Text © World of Showjumping

 


 

As predicted by many, the Covid-19 pandemic has hit Europe with a second wave. With measures and restrictions being tightened in most countries as cases are surging, indoor show after indoor show is being cancelled. Traditionally the highlight during the winter season, the Longines FEI World Cup Western European League has been cut down dramatically over the last months – with only five legs currently remaining in the calendar for 2020/2021. World-wide there are three CSI5* events scheduled from October to December, compared to twelve last year – two of them are indoors. The number of CSI4* shows in the same period is seven – three of which are indoors – compared to thirteen last year. 

What do the riders make of a winter season with so much uncertainty and so few indoor events? World of Showjumping asked a few top riders about their thoughts on the months ahead. First out answering our questions is Ireland’s Cian O’Connor, who believes the more experienced and older horses only will benefit from a break. 

“There are always different periods in our lives, and we have to do what suits us at every particular stage. Even without Covid, running to shows week in and week out – although it’s fun and everything – is not necessarily for me the best move,” O’Connor points out. 

“Over the last two-three years, I have tended to try to put the selling of the horses first. We have sold a lot, and that is what we have been doing this year as well. By doing that, we have been able to build our own base in Ireland and have our final home here at Karlswood. The pandemic has given me the time to be at home to make decisions and to be able to get the place finished. Ultimately, I have ended up with something very beautiful and a whole lifetime of work has come together – a result of a lot of effort on my part and my wife Ruth’s part,” O’Connor says. “The flip side is that if I want to stay in the sport, I need to have horses too. I was very lucky to put together a group to keep PSG Final for me for the Olympic Games. Over the last couple of months, I have also managed to put together a nice group of young horses to be at a high-level next year. I now have two very good 8-year-old horses that I just bought, as well as a 10-year-old, along with Careca LS Elite and PSG Final. Probably, I have five horses that will be able to jump 1.50m and above next year – which you really need if you want to be at the top.”

“As to a potential quiet indoor season ahead here in Europe, we have to remember that in times gone by the horses sometimes had a whole winter off. Some would argue they lasted longer just because of this,” O’Connor continues.  

It’s become the norm by many of us to run to shows week in and week out, but I often wonder if that is the best thing for the horses? 

"At the highest level, you could argue that 12-15 five-star shows a year is plenty for one horse. In fact, that was also something I pushed for when I was in the FEI Jumping Committee – in my view there should be a limit for the amount of shows you can jump with one horse," O’Connor tells. 

“Having a more quiet winter than what we are used to might seem like the end of the world, but we as riders can use that time to reflect on our routines – perhaps hack the horses in the forest, do some hill work to build muscle, do gymnastics to work on technique, or train on canter poles for rideability between the fences,” O’Connor says. “I think at times we fall in a trap by going to all these shows, letting ourselves being dictated by the busy FEI calendar – as opposed to the old days," O'Connor says.

All the greats over the years – whether it was Nick Skelton, Harvey Smith or John Whitaker – had months in the winter without shows and they all had horses that were still jumping at top level when they were 20. 

"I don’t think the horses need as much jumping as we think they do. I think doing less is better. Look at when Philippe Le Jeune won the World Championships with Vigo d’Arsouilles in 2010 – he only did a few shows that year.”

“Of course, the young horses need experience and mileage, but they can go to the tours to get that,” O’Connor says. “I’ll be betting that the horses which normally would be shuttling around from Helsinki in October to Mechelen in December, and that now get a break for a few months instead, will actually perform better when the season kicks off next year and arguably last longer.”

O’Connor has had a quiet outdoor season due to Covid-restrictions and remained in Ireland during summer, competing nationally. The Irish rider only started up internationally in September in Fontainebleau, then doing a few weeks of the Autumn Tour in Vejer de la Frontera with his new and younger horses before competing in Valencia for the next weeks with his latest recruits. “For the 2021-season, we plan to start up in Florida,” O’Connor says. “Obviously, it takes a bit of an effort to go there now and it is logistically difficult but for me it’s really worth it as it allows me to be together with my family in one place for a longer period of time. Furthermore, when I go to Florida this winter it will be with a commercial perspective. I go there to promote our coaching and trading business as well as Karlswood as a centre of excellence to visit in Europe. Ultimately the level of jumping is very high in Wellington and it allows me to compete against some of the world’s best riders early in the season outdoors – which should stand to me for Olympic preparation, as it did back in 2012. Should I for some reason not be able to go there, we have the Sunshine Tour here which has marvellous facilities. It’s also a very safe environment, I just came from there – they have 18 arenas, it’s very spread out so you can easily social distance, their Covid-19 protocols are working and respected.”

“I plan to come back to Europe in April, go to Ireland and give the horses a bit of an easy time,” O’Connor continues. “I will then be aiming for the Global Tours and some Nations Cups, and hopefully the Olympic Games as well as the European Championships. If all that happens it would be fantastic, and if not, we have to play with the cards that we are dealt – make the best of the situation as it occurs.”

“It’s a difficult time, for everyone,” O’Connor says. “We all have to hustle, we all have to work harder to get sales, people who have horses to ride for owners probably question themselves if they will keep them to train with fewer competitions running – everyone is taking the hit across the board. Whether you are doing national competitions, the biggest Grand Prix classes or trading in horses, everyone is minus 25-30% – nobody is exempt from this pandemic. However, it must be said that these commercial and sporting difficulties pale into insignificance compared to those who have been directly affected by the illness and we must remember them.”

 

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