My Life

Practical Horseman - - Special Dressage Issue - By Nancy Jaf­fer

US Equestrian’s Di­rec­tor of Sport Will Con­nell has had a di­verse ca­reer path—in­lud­ing once com­mand­ing the King’s Troop Royal Horse Ar­tillery in Great Bri­tain.

One thinks the Army’s about shout­ing at peo­ple—it’s not. It’s about get­ting to un­der­stand peo­ple, and more im­por­tantly, un­der­stand­ing your­self and what your lim­its are.”

As the U.S. Equestrian Fed­er­a­tion’s Di­rec­tor of Sport Will Con­nell per­forms a com­plex com­puter search at his desk in Gladstone, New Jersey, it’s hard to imag­ine that this ge­nial fel­low in an open-necked shirt was once com­man­der of the King’s Troop Royal Horse Ar­tillery in Great Bri­tain, kit­ted out with gold braid, plumed busby (a mil­i­tary head­dress) and sword. From 1998–2001, Will over­saw the 165 sol­diers and 130-plus horses tak­ing part in Bri­tish cer­e­monies of state for Queen El­iz­a­beth’s House­hold Troops.

The ob­vi­ous ques­tion: How did Will go from that po­si­tion to work­ing as the USEF’s di­rec­tor of sport?

It all started with horses, of course. Grow­ing up in Eng­land, he fol­lowed the hounds on a lit­tle gray pony named Sugar. He went on to join Pony Club and par­tic­i­pated in show jump­ing, dres­sage, event­ing, hunter tri­als and team chas­ing.

“I was pretty ter­ri­ble at most of it, but I en­joyed it,” he re­calls.

Early on, Will was in­ter­ested in go­ing to sea, but then an old fam­ily friend and for­mer King’s Troop of­fi­cer who worked for Prince Charles came to din­ner.

“I hear there’s some non­sense about you join­ing the Navy,” the friend told 14-year-old Will. “You’re join­ing the Army. You’re go­ing to want to com­mand the King’s Troop.” He took Will to visit the Troop at its head­quar­ters in Lon­don and some­thing clicked. “I fell in love with the King’s Troop,” says Will.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from sec­ondary school, Will went to the Royal Mil­i­tary Academy at Sandhurst. “One thinks the Army’s about shout­ing at peo­ple—it’s not. It’s about get­ting to un­der­stand peo­ple, and more im­por­tantly, un­der­stand­ing your­self and what your lim­its are,” muses Will, who was sta­tioned in North­ern Ire­land dur­ing “the Trou­bles,” the con­flict in­volv­ing the re­gion’s con­sti­tu­tional sta­tus.

The King’s Troop was quite a change from that sort of ac­tive duty. As Com­mand­ing Of­fi­cer, Will dealt with “var­i­ous groups of peo­ple pas­sion­ate about what they did, whether it was the peo­ple who looked af­ter the har­ness, the sad­dlers, the far­ri­ers, the peo­ple who rode in the gun teams and the peo­ple who looked af­ter the guns, which saw ac­tion in the First World War, so they were very old. My priv­i­leged po­si­tion as the Com­mand­ing Of­fi­cer was to try and cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment where they all came to­gether to pro­duce ex­cel­lence on pa­rade. I think that very much re­lates to what you’re try­ing to achieve in a sport­ing pro­gram.”

Though “it was a huge honor to be in­volved in that cer­e­mo­nial scene in Lon­don,” af­ter he fin­ished his term, Will left the Army. About a year later, he learned the Bri­tish Equestrian Fed­er­a­tion’s per­for­mance di­rec­tor had de­parted.

“I thought, ‘Maybe that’s some­thing I can do,’” Will re­calls. He had some team ex­pe­ri­ence, hav­ing been chef d’équipe for the coun­try’s Young Rider event­ing squad, and he was an event­ing stew­ard as well.

He got the job in 2003, run­ning the world-class pro­gram for event­ing, dres­sage, show jump­ing and para-dres­sage, where the mis­sion was, “iden­tify tal­ent, max­i­mize po­ten­tial, de­liver suc­cess.” Will was in­volved in the run-up to the 2012 Lon­don Olympics and Par­a­lympics, where the Bri­tish team earned 11 medals—five gold, five sil­ver and one bronze. That year, he was awarded the Most Ex­cel­lent Or­der of the Bri­tish Em­pire in recog­ni­tion of his ser­vice to equestrian sport. Princess Anne made the pre­sen­ta­tion at Buck­ing­ham Palace.

But by 2014, when he had been per­for­mance di­rec­tor for 11 years, Will felt it was time to try some­thing else. “There was a huge op­por­tu­nity for the sport in this coun­try,” he said, ex­plain­ing his pro­fes­sional rea­son for the move across the ocean to the U.S. There also was a per­sonal rea­son. His then-part­ner and now wife, Lizzy Ches­son, was in the U.S. She is the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of show jump­ing for the USEF.

This month, Will is go­ing to be busy at the FEI World Equestrian Games™ in Tryon, North Carolina, where he will over­see all eight dis­ci­plines for the U.S.

“One of the things you no­tice here is the huge sup­port for the team. The pas­sion and pride in the teams run deeper than in a lot of coun­tries,” he said of the U.S. The WEG can play into that. Will hopes it “will be a plat­form to spread the mes­sage about the USEF, the af­fil­i­ates and the joy of horse sports.”

Will Con­nell as com­mand­ing of­fi­cer of the King’s Troop

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