David O’Connor says that just about everything he thinks about people, he learned from horses. And that’s not surprising. The current chef d’equipe of the U.S. eventing team has been riding all of his life. The son of dressage rider and judge Sally O’Connor, David made his eventing debut at the age of 8. Only a few years later, Sally led David and his brother on a three-month trek on horseback from Maryland to Oregon (“A Cross-Country Ride Like No Other,” EQUUS 355).
Soon thereafter, O’Connor embarked on the career that would make him famous. He won the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in Lexington three times, once when it was a four-star event. In addition, he is a five-time winner of the Fair Hill International CCI*** in Fair Hill, Maryland. In 1997, O’Connor became the second American in history to win the Badminton Horse Trials CCI**** in England.
O’Connor’s first Olympic experience came in 1988 when he was named the U.S. eventing team’s alternate for the Games in South Korea. Five years later, he married fellow eventer Karen Lende, and at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta they became the first couple to compete together on the same U.S. Olympic equestrian team. O’Connor won a team silver medal in three-day-eventing that year, and a team bronze and an individual gold medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
After retiring from competition in 2004, O’Connor became president of the U.S. Equestrian Federation and continued in that post until 2012. He has also served as a coach for the U.S. and Canadian national eventing teams. He and his wife now operate training facilities in Virginia and Florida.
You retired from competitive riding in 2004 and then spent almost a decade focusing more on other aspects of the horse world. What made you decide to go back to the saddle?
Well, after I decided to retire independently in 2004, I didn’t ride as much as I had before—I was doing all these other things. But eventually I decided that I couldn’t do that anymore because I really wanted to ride. I wanted to be a part of what I liked best about the horse world.
What makes you want to teach others to ride?
I think it’s a responsibility. Horsemanship has been our heritage for hundreds of years. It has always been about passing on what other people have taught you. I enjoy that, and I always get a real kick out of it. People have shared their knowledge with me, and I don’t see how you couldn’t pass that on.
What has had the biggest influence on your training style and philosophy?
The one thing is empathy. You have to have empathy for the horses and understand that they don’t know what your end goal is. When you are teaching a horse something, you have to make it understandable. You need to think about the skills you’re going to need and incorporate them into a sort of game that you will play with your horse. The idea is to make it fun for him so that he will want to play. In the eventing world, you cannot make the horse jump these fences through intimation. The horse has to choose to do it.
So, they need to enjoy their training.
Yes. They don’t know why they’re being made to do a certain task. They don’t know why they need to build muscle to carry me at a different weight. So it has to become a little bit of a game.
If you could teach a rider just three fundamental skills, what would they be?
Learn the language of horses. The first part of that is looking into their eye and starting to understand what they are thinking.
The second aspect is to learn to control your own body language. Horses learn by body language and touch. So your ability to convey your wishes with your own body, whether you’re on the ground or on the horse, is very important.
Finally, learn to be a leader. There will be a leader in all aspects of your work with your horse, and it is either going to be you or the horse. So I think it’s important to take note of your own personality type. Then you have to pro-ject leadership clearly, without punishing, and communicate very simply the things that you want to have happen.
In your opinion, what is the most challenging aspect of horse training?
I think it’s the long-range patience it requires. You have to realize that working in little increments is going to pay off. That is especially challenging for different people: There’s some goal that they have in mind that day, but it’s their goal, not the horse’s goal. And the short-term skipping of steps in order to make that goal happen is a very common mistake that people make.
What do you find to be the most enjoyable about training?
When the horse gets it—when he understands what you’re asking. When the horse finds the right answer and you reward him, it builds trust between the two of you. It strengthens the feeling that you’re in it together. That’s when the horse’s personality starts to come out. He ends up feeling more confident and more outgoing.
How do you approach behavioral problems in the horses you work with?
That’s the horsemanship side of it, and it boils down to realizing why. Is it a physical thing? Are they challenging your leadership? Are you being unclear? You spend your lifetime trying to understand their language, what they’re actually telling you. You have to learn to tell the difference between disobedience, a physical problem or your own miscommunication.
What have horses taught you?
I have learned a lot about leadership, a lot about being very clear and also very compassionate about helping them understand things. And being very clear doesn’t mean using punishment. You can’t ever punish a horse because he doesn’t understand. It’s about clear aids and communicating your intent. I had to have a lot of patience to find that road, but it leads to the best-trained horses. They certainly love that process, they love the intensity and they love the intellectual engagement.
What natural qualities do you look for in an equine athlete, or any horse you plan to ride?
In our sport the gallop is really important, the way they cover the ground. In that case you’re looking for a Thoroughbred type of mold. I think that’s a major thing.
And the other thing is for a horse to be naturally inquisitive. They can’t look at something and immediately want to run away scared. It can take a long time to get through that. It’s a good sign when a horse will actually stop and stare at something and try to figure it out, instead of just running away. That’s an important quality, especially for an event horse.
On the other hand, horses that are emotionally crippled or that come from an emotionally troubled background—you can always make them better. I think you can always make the world more comfortable for them. They may not be cut out to be top-level eventers, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good horses.
How have you changed as a trainer and a coach over the years?
Now that I’m more of a coach, I’m trying to establish a structure where people can reach their goals. Obviously when you’re young, your goals are a little impetuous, because your patience isn’t as great. I think there’s no question I’m so much more patient now, particularly with horses, for a longer term.
As a horseperson so immersed in eventing, how do you relate to the rest of the equestrian world?
I think that all horse sports truly are the same. The horse basically speaks one language. We all speak lots of languages ourselves, all around the world. The horses don’t. They speak one language. So it really doesn’t matter what the game is.
Obviously, horses that are bred for a particular sport will have an easier time meeting its physical and mental demands. A long, leggy, race-bred Thoroughbred is not likely to excel in top-level cutting competition, and you won’t see a 14-hand Quarter Horse bred for cutting in the highest levels of dressage competition. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t do those sports and improve with training.
So I think the games are very similar. When it comes to what we’re doing with our horses, I think the similarities are more important than the differences.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #444.