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
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!”
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