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Conor Swail: “Horses are like people”

Wednesday, 24 August 2022
Interview

Photo © MacKenzie Clark Conor Swail has left a tremendous year behind him; a winning streak that began in the summer of 2021 never ended. Since July 2021, Swail has recorded 43 international wins, finished on the podium no less than 95 times, and earned a total of 1,614,069 Euro in prize money. Photo © MacKenzie Clark.

 

Text © World of Showjumping

 


 

Within one year, Ireland’s Conor Swail has rocketed up the world ranking – going from rank no. 96 in July 2021 to currently be the 4th best jumping rider globally. Swail has left a tremendous year behind him; a winning streak that began in the summer of 2021 never ended. Since July 2021, Swail has recorded 43 international wins, finished on the podium no less than 95 times, earned a total of 1,614,069 Euro in prize money*, and last week he lifted the Aga Khan Trophy at the Dublin Horse Show after securing the Irish the victory in the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ of Ireland with Count Me In. No surprise then, that Swail feels pretty good at the moment. 

“I’ve been around a long time, so I don’t think anyone is surprised,” Swail says about his rise on the world ranking. “I am very confident in my ability to ride well. I have always had a good program, and I have had a lot of nice horses through the years, but I have never had the consistency I have now. Up to the last few years, I always said that I have had a good career, I have done well financially out of it, the only thing I would have liked to do better is to do the bigger things and be in the Top 10. This is now happening; and I feel like I should be here. I feel comfortable with it, and it does not face me – it’s not like I come to Aachen and I’m like ‘Oh my god, I’m so nervous,’” he laughs.

The right decision

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson/WoSJ Conor Swail with Lansdowne at the European Championship in 20213, the horse that kicked off his North American adventure. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson/WoSJ.

Swail – now, believe it or not, 50 – started his career in Ireland, but for the last decade he has been based in North America. “I came over to Ontario from Dublin, where I had worked together with Barry O’Connor for ten years – buying and selling young horses. It went very well, and at the end of 2011 we sold Lansdowne – my best horse back then – to Sue Grange of Lothlorien,” Swails tells. “Sue ended up giving Lansdowne back to me to ride, and he went well with me so she asked if I would come over and ride all her horses. I thought that would be a good opportunity, so I went and worked for Sue for 5-6 years. We would do Florida-Toronto-Calgary, then come over to Europe for a few months in the summer, then back for Spruce Meadows in the fall. I had some unbelievable years with Sue, and ended up being ranked no. 20 in the world, but then came a time where I felt that I needed to sort of go and do my own thing – I felt I was missing that next step."

I felt I was missing that next step

"I took a decision to go and do it myself, and of course it gets a bit harder when you don’t have a sponsor buying you horses," Swail continues. "However, I have been lucky to have support from the Mannix-family along the way. Vanessa Mannix has been training with me for the last fifteen years; I don’t think that happens to often actually – and we still work closely together.” 

Photo © MacKenzie Clark "His consistency level is incredible, and he is always there," Swail says of Count Me In, here at the 2022 Longines FEI Jumping World Cup Final where the two finished 8th. Photo © MacKenzie Clark.

“Meeting Conall Murray of Mannon Farm – who is a good friend of my brother Marcus – was a turning point for me though, and here we are. I am very proud of myself and where I am now; I stepped away from serious financial support, and some very good horses, to follow my own path – and thankfully it was not the wrong decision. I am very happy that my decision has been the right one for me,” Swail says. 

I am very happy that my decision has been the right one for me

“Conall is a huge part of why I have this success now. He was doing well financially in his business, and he felt that if I had a bit more back-up, I could be better and so far we have been super lucky with the horses we have acquired,” Swail says. “We got Count Me In first, then Vital Chance de La Roque and more recently Nadal Hero & DB. Then I also own half of my lovely little horse Theo with the Philippaerts-family, he is great winner at 1.50m level, and I also have horses like Errol and Gamble – and all together they make it possible for me to plan quite well. But the reason I am number four in the world right now is Count Me In and Vital Chance.”

“Count Me In was always a good horse, also with Beth Underhill who rode him for many years,” Swail says about the 15-year-old gelding that he partnered up with in May 2021, and that secured the prestigious Aga Khan Trophy for the Irish in this year's Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ of Ireland. “He is unbelievably careful, so you have to be quite deliberate about what you are doing – it’s not that he is spooky, but he can be a bit weary, so I have been very clear with him that ‘we’re doing this’ and I think that has given him a lot of confidence at the level he jumps now. His consistency level is incredible, and he is always there – so he gives me confidence too. What’s great with Count Me In, is that I can plan ahead with him: He’s able to go into these big shows, without much build up, so it’s possible for me to show him little and keep him fresh for the important occasions.” 

Photo © Quinn Saunders/www.quinnsaunders.ca "The reason I am number four in the world right now is Count Me In and Vital Chance,” Swail tells about his two top horses. Photo © Quinn Saunders/www.quinnsaunders.ca.

“Vital Chance has been more of a challenge than Count Me In,” Swail smiles. “When Covid broke out, everything obviously shut down and my horses moved back to Canada. Meanwhile, I went back to Ireland to stay there for a few months. Then, when things got a bit closer to normality, I decided to go to Vejer de la Frontera for their fall tour, so I sent my horses over from Calgary to start showing again. It was great actually, the venue was fantastic, and we went from there to Vilamoura, and then back again to Spain. At this stage, Adeline Hecart approached me and asked if I would be interested in doing something with Vital Chance. I ended up buying half from her, and took over the ride. It took me a little while with him though; he is a bit tricky. He is very hot; and although he is calm and relaxed on the flat, he gets a bit wild as soon as you try to jump. Because he is quite difficult, it took me a while to manage him – but eventually we figured each other out. These days, I never really jump him at home, unless it is a small cavaletti – in the ring, he’s always amazing. In the end, after a great year, we bought Adeleine out and I now own Vital Chance with Mannon Farm. Vital Chance has been unbelievable this year – he has jumped clear in eight out of eleven Grand Prix classes, won two of them, and been placed in another five. At the moment, if Vital Chance is in a class, he is the favourite, and when you are the favourite, you want to win – so if you don’t, it’s disappointing. It’s nice to be in this position though, and it’s never happened to me in my life to have this group of horses.”

Photo © MacKenzie Clark At only 9 years of age, Nadal Hero D&B has already won classes in Aachen, Dinard, Spruce Meadows and Thunderbird. Photo © MacKenzie Clark.

Last year, the talented stallion Nadal Hero D&B joined Swail’s string of horses – and the 9-year-old has already become a great addition to the team – impressing with victories at CHIO Aachen, Dinard, Spruce Meadows and Thunderbird. “We bought Nadal back in December. I liked his quality and he had done some nice things at two-star level as an 8-year-old,” Swail tells. “We seem to get on quite well, and I think he will improve a lot as well when his rideability gets better. He is a horse that loves to run and jump, and everything I have asked him to do so far, he has done. He just seems to keep improving all the time – he is very competitive and does everything very easily.”

Down to detail

Photo © MacKenzie Clark "I know some riders think it’s better to ride off their eye, but I think it’s good to know the numbers and have a plan," Swail about being one of the fastest riders in the world. Photo © MacKenzie Clark.

As to his ability to be fast and win on all kind of horses, Swail believes much comes down to how he plans his rounds down to detail. “I think it goes back to the fact that I have ridden all types of horses, and I know how to ride a big slower one, or a hotter quicker one. It’s also about planning your round. I know some riders think it’s better to ride off their eye, but I think it’s good to know the numbers and have a plan. It gives you an idea of how your round is going, especially on the bigger, slower ones, you cannot miss out on anything; if it’s nine strides in a jump-off, you have got to be thinking to do seven – or if it’s ten, do eight. You have to create something that no other horse in the class is going to do, whereas if you have a super-fast horse, you don’t have to do things like that."

 I think more information is a good thing

"In a speed class in Aachen, I knew the numbers the whole way around, I did 1-2-3 and I missed one distance a bit forward and then I missed another one, but then I know this, so I am aware on my way around that I am not quick enough and it gives me the opportunity to make up for it, or perhaps I realize I can’t," he continues. "It’s something I learned from Gerry Mullins, who was our Chef d’Equipe when I was younger, and I really took to it. I really feel it helps, also if you are a little nervous ahead of a big Grand Prix or a Nations Cup. I know there are riders who don’t count past six or seven, but if you are going fourteen where it’s a twelve, you need to get going, if you are doing ten on a line of twelve, you need to calm down. It does not matter which amount of strides you do, but it gives you information: If you run up and do eleven in a twelve, you can be like ‘all right, you are going nicely, stay calm, keep it smooth’, but if you do fourteen you need to be like ‘I need to get going’, if you do ten, you are overriding. However, you also have riders like Ashlee Bond – who is one of the fastest in the world, and she just rides off her eye and talent. That works for her, but for me, I think more information is a good thing.”

Know your horse

Photo © MacKenzie Clark "I always tried to figure the horses out to understand how to make them happy," Swail says. Photo © MacKenzie Clark.

As to his current success, Swail also believes it comes down to the depth of knowledge he has built up over his many years in the sport. “I’m mature enough, and I have been around long enough,” Swail says. “I have ridden so many different horses; good ones and bad ones – slow ones, quick ones, hot ones, I have been through them all, so I think I can ride almost anything that comes along. I’m also able to understand how to make the best horse possible out of them. I think I was always like that; I always tried to figure the horses out to understand how to make them happy.”

I always try think a bit like the captain of a football team

“While some horses need to be calmer, some need to be geed up a bit. For me, horses are like people, and I always try think a bit like the captain of a football team,” he smiles. “Sometimes you need to give the other players a boost to make them better; but you need to know what to say and do to each of them. One you might have to hold more in the hand, and say: ‘It’s ok, you are doing your best, but we need to try to do better’, while others can take a bit more of a push and you can be like ‘Come on, you are being lazy, you know you can be better than this’. I think the big thing is that the horses are all a bit different, so you need to know when to give them a pat instead and I think the best riders are good at that.”

Photo © MacKenzie Clark “I think getting Jess aboard has made a big difference as well, she does an unbelievable job,” Swail says about his groom Jessica Stanek. Photo © MacKenzie Clark.

“I also try to let my horses be horses. You have to keep the horses happy otherwise they will never perform at their best,” Swail says. “We try to have our horses out a lot in the paddock, as much as we can – just get them out of the box as much as possible. Then not too much jumping at home; I don’t overtrain them. When I came to Aachen from Calgary, the horses were out in the paddocks and a bit on the lunge, I landed on Sunday and hacked them out for 30 minutes, then they came there on the Monday. It’s not like I’m ‘Oh, I’m going to Aachen, I need to do something special and train’ – they are all great, so hopefully they are going to be great in a venue like that as well. You have to trust them and trust in their ability. Of course, you can try to improve the weak points, and make them better, but it is important that you let them be horses and make sure they are happy.”

You have to keep the horses happy otherwise they will never perform at their best

“I think getting Jess aboard has made a big difference as well, she does an unbelievable job,” Swail says about his groom Jessica Stanek. “She takes care and looks after absolutely everything, and makes sure the horses are healthy – which can be hard in this sport. Jess is great at focusing on all the details, so I can focus on my job – which is riding. Together, we have made a good plan and not over-jumped them.”

“It’s very difficult these days to get good staff, it’s getting a bit to the point where the horse care is not even good enough – it’s hard to get genuine people who love the horses, who want the horses to go well, and who give them proper care. It feels like it gets more and more about money,” Swail says. “I’m very lucky to have Jess.”

Almost over-achieving 

Photo © Kaitlyn Karssen/Boss Mare Media. "I certainly don’t expect more," Swail says about being ranked no. four in the world. Photo © Kaitlyn Karssen/Boss Mare Media.

Although he’s now up among the five best riders in the world, Swail is clear that his own ambitions will not be to the detriment of his horses. “I think it’s hard to get past those guys, their horsepower is just incredible, so I think four is a good place,” Swail smiles when asked if he now aims to climb further up on the Longines Ranking. “I think with my resources and the money I have been spending, it’s almost over-achieving – I certainly don’t expect more. With Mannon Farm committed to us getting better, I hopefully can find a few more horses to keep going at this level.”

Me being no. four right now is not of me wanting to be there, it’s just a by-product of consistency

Despite more than a decade of a gipsy-like life, going from Florida to Kentucky, to Calgary, and then Europe, before travelling back to Spruce Meadows, Swail has no plans of slowing down. “I’m loving this; I have never had this much success in my life. That’s what you do; you move around from one show to the next. But it’s hard as far as having a relationship and a family is concerned. I try to fly to Ireland and see my daughter Lauren and my parents in between, but it’s normally never more than a night and then I fly out again,” he says. 

Photo © Kaitlyn Karssen/Boss Mare Media "I’m loving this; I have never had this much success in my life," Swail says – here after securing the Aga Khan Trophy with the Irish team at Dublin Horse Show last week. Photo © Kaitlyn Karssen/Boss Mare Media.

As to the future, Swail stays realistic and puts his horses first. “I would have loved to have done the World Championship, but it was not the right plan for Count Me In – I want him to be around for a couple of years and I don’t want to over jump him,” Swail says. “I try to mind him as much as I can. There are so many big shows, so we have enough – and hopefully if I’m in the Top 10, I can do Geneva in December. I want to do the championships, but I’m not going to overdo any of my horses. I do what is good for my horses. Me being no. four right now is not of me wanting to be there, it’s just a by-product of consistency and that’s how I prefer to keep on approaching it. Wherever that gets me, I’m happy with it.”

 

*Data from JUMPR 

 

No reproduction without written permission, copyright © World of Showjumping.com



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