Riding with the ‘O’Connor Cavalry’

Amateur eventing enthusiast Elliott Oppenheim, who is both an attorney and a physician, wrote this account of his week with Olympians Karen and David O’Connor.

| ? Kathy Moore/Intellitek.

It was the first day of husband-and-wife Olympian David and Karen O’Connor’s Eventing Camp. David looked us over–thirty-two raggle-taggle students, from Novice to Preliminary (nearing sixty, I was the oldest and the only male), gathered at Masterson Station State Park in Lexington, Kentucky–and said, “People often compete before they learn how to ride. This week, we will teach you how to ride.”

| ? Kathy Moore/Intellitek.

That sounded good to me. Competing back home in New Mexico, my nine-year-old Holsteiner gelding, Chubasco, had found so many holes in my riding that he’d developed a habit of dirty stops and nasty runouts. (I tended to tell people my horse had invented a new sport called “Elliott Tossing.”)

After a clinician told me that our problem boiled down to the fact that Chubasco was in charge, I decided not to compete again until I’d restored our horse/rider relationship to its proper order. Then I saw an ad for the O’Connors’ clinic. Yes, it was 1,400 miles away–but I could use my now-unnecessary competition budget to afford the ten-day round trip and the tuition.

David and Karen worked with all of us, every day–as did their well-trained assistants when we broke into groups to do specific exercises. They started building horse-and-rider unity with trainer Pat Parelli-style Horse-Man-Ship basics. In arena jumping sessions, Karen taught us to use our seats-not our hands–to lengthen and shorten our horses’ strides. And we learned the O’Connors’ three cross-country positions–galloping, preparing and jumping–and practiced them all day, every day.

By the fourth day, we were all doing the same jumping exercises. I was thrilled when Chubasco jumped unhesitatingly down a 4-foot bank, into water, over a hay bale, then out over a 3-foot vertical!

Back home in Santa Fe, I felt so confident and competent that I signed up at Beginner Novice for the Coconino Horse Trials in Flagstaff, Arizona. Our dressage was good, and we went clear cross-country and in stadium. Best of all, thanks to Karen and David, there wasn’t a single Elliott Toss.

I was now in charge!

For more on riding clinics and vacations, check out the February 2004 issue of Practical Horseman.