Cian O’Con­nor

The dou­ble Euro­pean medal­list tells Penny Richard­son why miss­ing Rio is now in the past, and why Ire­land is hun­grier than ever for vic­tory on the world stage

Horse & Hound - - Letters - H&H

CIAN O’CON­NOR is a man with a plan. He may still be on a high af­ter his clear round un­der pres­sure se­cured Euro­pean team gold for Ire­land’s showjumpers, but for the man from Tara in Co. Meath, both this and his in­di­vid­ual bronze medal were steps on the road to the 2020 Olympics.

“Gothen­burg was fan­tas­tic, but the Olympic Games are where it’s at,” he says. “We still have to qual­ify, but un­like the past three Olympics where we didn’t even have a team, other na­tions now fear us. The ethos has changed com­pletely and in­stead of go­ing to the World Eques­trian Games [WEG] next year look­ing for Olympic qual­i­fi­ca­tion, we’re now say­ing: ‘Let’s win it’.”

UN­LIKE many of to­day’s top riders, Cian hasn’t come from an eques­trian back­ground and much of his suc­cess is down to sheer hard work. He was born in Dublin and started rid­ing aged 14 with his busi­ness­man fa­ther.

“My first com­pe­ti­tion ex­pe­ri­ence was in hunter tri­als,” he ex­plains. “I en­joyed rid­ing from the start and it was be­cause of the love of horses that I car­ried on. Then you win a bit and get that hunger for more.”

Cian pos­si­bly in­her­ited “that hunger”

‘I don’t want to take cheap shots at pre­vi­ous regimes, but Ro­drigo has fos­tered in­cred­i­ble team spirit’

from his ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, Karl Mullen, a great rugby union player who cap­tained his na­tional team and the Bri­tish Lions.

“I didn’t get any of his sport­ing tal­ent though. I played rugby at school, but I wasn’t very good,” laughs Cian.

When Cian started his first yard aged just 18, he had the best of “back­room boys” in his trainer, Gerry Mullins, a dou­ble showjump­ing Olympian and for­mer com­mand­ing of­fi­cer of the Ir­ish Army Equi­tation School.

Gerry is now chair­man of Ire­land’s high per­for­mance showjump­ing com­mit­tee, which also com­prises their chef d’equipe, Brazil­ian for­mer Olympic cham­pion Ro­drigo Pessoa, riders’ rep­re­sen­ta­tive Michael Blake and two mem­bers from the gov­ern­ing body, Horse Sport Ire­land.

“They’re all real horse­men and know our sport inside out. We couldn’t have a bet­ter man­ager than Ro­drigo, but be­cause he doesn’t live in Ire­land he needed peo­ple who know what’s hap­pen­ing and what’s good for the riders. We couldn’t do it with­out a team who know about showjump­ing be­hind us.”

Ro­drigo Pessoa is signed up un­til af­ter WEG in 2018.

“I’m re­ally hop­ing he can be per­suaded to stay on. We need to main­tain the sta­tus quo and keep the im­pe­tus go­ing,” ex­plains Cian. “I don’t want to take cheap shots at pre­vi­ous regimes, but Ro­drigo has fos­tered in­cred­i­ble team spirit. Showjump­ing is such an in­di­vid­ual sport that it’s easy to get side­tracked by mul­ti­ple goals. Ro­drigo made it clear that our aim this year was a team medal at the Euro­pean cham­pi­onships. We’ve worked to­gether and it’s kept us hun­gry.”

IN the 11-year-old stal­lion Good Luck, with whom he won both his medals at the Euro­peans, Cian also seems to have found his horse of a life­time.

“He’s the best horse I’ve had by a mile,” he says fondly. “He’s ex­tra­or­di­nary.”

When Cian spot­ted the son of Can­turo in 2014 with Bel­gian rider Fabrice Gal­dini, he knew this was the horse for him. The only prob­lem was pay­ing for him. Then Cian’s pupil, Cana­dian rider Ni­cole Walker, stepped in.

“Ni­cole had al­ready let me ride her horse Blue Loyd at the Olympics in Lon­don. I told her that I’d found an­other one whose abil­ity was freaky and her fam­ily busi­ness in Amer­ica, Adena Springs, bought him for me,” says Cian.

Good Luck, now owned jointly by Adena Springs and Cian’s Ron­noco Jump Ltd, proved an in­spired buy.

“Miss­ing in­di­vid­ual se­lec­tion for Rio is in the past now, but Good Luck has jus­ti­fied what I’ve said all along,” says Cian. “Now the world knows how good he is. To start with, he lacked con­trol and ride­abil­ity, but the tal­ent was al­ways there.”

A rare pole down in Gothen­burg turned po­ten­tial in­di­vid­ual gold into bronze, but

Cian is philo­soph­i­cal: “I could tor­ture my­self by won­der­ing whether I should have had one stride more here or one less there, but I have to be happy. Only two horses left there with two medals: one was Peder Fredric­son’s H&M All In and the other was Good Luck.”

Af­ter an­other cou­ple of out­ings, Good Luck will have four months away from the ring.

“It’s not good for their head or legs to keep ask­ing horses ques­tions and he’s done 11 big shows since Jan­uary,” ex­plains Cian. “Good Luck has a huge stride and in­door jump­ing doesn’t suit him, so he’ll have a nice break and come back in Florida in the spring.”

Cian also has a base in Frankfurt, Ger­many, where his top horses and those of his Amer­i­can pupil Lil­lie Keenan live dur­ing the com­pe­ti­tion sea­son.

“It makes sense, as it’s easy to get ev­ery­where from there,” he says. “But all that trav­el­ling sounds more glam­orous than it is and you have to make huge sac­ri­fices. Luck­ily, my wife Ruth un­der­stands the sport, as she used to com­pete on the na­tional cir­cuit, but it is tough on her and our two young chil­dren, Ben and Cara. I do think about slow­ing down and do­ing ev­ery­thing from home, but at the moment the only way to make my busi­ness work is to keep an aw­ful lot of balls in the air.”

So what ad­vice does 37-year-old Cian have for a young rider hop­ing to make it in showjump­ing?

“Luck doesn’t play any part. It’s all down to hard work and plan­ning,” he says. “If you keep ev­ery box ticked, se­cur­ing horses to ride be­comes much eas­ier. And keep be­liev­ing in your own abil­ity.”

And when he was win­ning those hunter tri­als, did the young Cian O’Con­nor ever think of fol­low­ing the event­ing path?

“Never. I love the tech­ni­cal­ity of showjump­ing. Even­ters will hate me for say­ing this but my sport is much harder!”

NEXT WEEK

2017 Burgh­ley run­ner-up Piggy French

‘The ethos has changed com­pletely’: Cian cel­e­brates Ire­land’s team gold in Gothen­burg, while al­ready look­ing ahead to the 2020 Olympics

Cian with his wife Ruth, who also used to com­pete in showjump­ing so ‘she un­der­stands the sport’

‘Now the world knows how good he is’: Cian and Good Luck on their way to team gold and in­di­vid­ual bronze in Gothen­burg

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