Interview: Cian O’Connor, CSI 5* rider and new FEI Athlete Representative for show jumping

Cian O'Connor riding Good Luck at the 2018 Tryon FEI World Equestrian Games
Credit : Scoopdyga

Tuesday 06 November - 14h53 | Ian Clayton and Sébastien Roullier

Interview: Cian O’Connor, CSI 5* rider and new FEI Athlete Representative for show jumping

Within the Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI) – which oversees Olympic equestrian sports and other horse sports around the world – there are technical committees for each discipline. The committees are at the core of FEI decision-making on issues like competition rules. And for each discipline, there is one athlete representative in office for a four-year, non-renewable term who also sits on the general Athletes Committee. This year, Ireland’s Cian O’Connor was elected athlete representative for jumping. GRANDPRIX-replay caught up with the 39-year-old rider at last weekend’s Equita Longines show in Lyon, France, not long after the death of his mount Lady Cracotte in the south of the country. Today, in the first of a two-part interview, a look at the current state of O'Connors career. 

"I want to regroup and restructure"

I want to regroup and restructure - Interview: Cian O’Connor, CSI 5* rider and new FEI Athlete Representative for show jumping

Bronze medallist O'Connor with Harrie Smolders (silver) and Peder Fredricson (gold) at the 2017 European Championships in Sweden
Credit : Scoopdyga

GP: I wanted to start by asking you about Lady Cracotte, who died recently after an accident in the stable in Montpellier...
Yeah, it’s very unfortunate – very, very sad to lose such a wonderful horse. She had been so successful with Niels [Bruynseels] and I was lucky to get the mare. And for that to happen so early in the partnership, it’s really devastating. I think to lose any horse is always difficult, but when we were standing there all together and the horse panicked in the stable, there was nothing we could do. We were just hoping she would calm down but it was a freak accident and very upsetting. On a personal level, you have to keep going. I love the mare and love the sport, but I have two young kids as well and I always think about family and those kinds of things also. You can’t really put a positive slant on something so terrible, to be honest, but at the same time, to lie down and give up would not be an option for me. It’s not the first knock I’ve had in my life and it won’t be the last, and you have to try to be optimistic and rebuild and regroup. I was scheduled to jump in Šamorín next week and then Stockholm and Geneva, and I’ve cancelled those shows. Part of my business is riding, part is coaching and the other is buying and selling, and I try to juggle those balls evenly. I had planned to do my winter campaign with Lady Cracotte, and now with that changing I want to regroup and restructure, and organize myself financially as well. It was my own horse, I bought her myself, so I just need to restructure a little bit and get things back on track for 2019.

GP: You aren’t riding here in Lyon. Why did you come? 
No, I had never planned to ride here – I was always coming to coach. I have one client in the 2*, a German girl named Nicola Pohl who I’ve just started to work with; a very good girl who rides well, so I’m looking forward to helping her. And I am helping the Irish brothers Tom and Max Wachman on the ponies with the Pony World Cup here, which is very exciting. Max won a silver medal this year at the European Championships. So that’s why we’re here. 

GP: You seem to really enjoy coaching...
Yeah, it’s a huge part of the business. I suppose from spending some time in America over the last couple of years, I developed that part of my business, and you know, you’re only as good as the people around you. So currently we have three big operations – in Ireland, in Canada, and with Nicola Pohl in Germany. So I have three guys who are key to my operation and they oversee everything in those places. And then I do the coaching, advising and career planning for the riders. So it’s nice, and I think that that amount of people is nice because you can do it well. I don’t want it to become so busy that you have to dilute your efforts, and I think in this way with the people around me I can combine the three facets of my business very well – the coaching, the riding and the dealing. Continued below.

"When you go to war, you need your soldiers"

When you go to war, you need your soldiers - Interview: Cian O’Connor, CSI 5* rider and new FEI Athlete Representative for show jumping

Cian O'Connor with Canada's Tiffany Foster at the 2017 Longines FEI Nations Cup Final in Barcelona
Credit : Scoopdyga

GP: We heard a lot of criticism from Eric Lamaze, Rodrigo Pessoa and others about September’s Tryon World Equestrian Games in North Carolina. Looking back on the event a few weeks later, what is your view?
I suppose I was pleasantly surprised when I got to Tryon, because I had heard so much about it, and we were all concerned about the hurricane and everything else. I mean, the facilities weren’t bad – the stabling was good, the arenas were good; there were a lot of positives about it. I suppose the conditions and the heat [were difficult] – just in general, it was hard jumping in the middle of the day. I was last to go everyday on the Irish team, so it was always very hot when I was riding and that was hard for the horse. But looking at it in the bigger picture, and not just as a rider, the World Equestrian Games is something that is very hard for people to take on. To get someone to do it, and for it to make sense financially, it’s very difficult. So unfortunately maybe in the future you’ll see different championships held by the different disciplines themselves, rather than one country. I think that will happen. 

GP: Team Ireland finished seventh at the WEG and missed an opportunity to qualify for the Olympics there… 
That was disappointing. I mean, you plan all year to go to the World Equestrian Games and try to do well. But we were short a couple of key people, and you know, when you’ve got the likes of Denis Lynch and Darragh Kenny at home, that’s half your team. And we lost a couple of key people during the year and that certainly showed. A championship is something different – you see here [in Lyon] that there are riders who do well week-in and week-out, but a championship is another story. And when you go to war, you need your soldiers. It’s not to be discourteous to anyone, but at a championship it’s hard to be trying new things. You need to get stuck in, like at the European Championships the year before when we were one man down with Bertram [Allen], and then the other three guys had to jump clear to win a gold medal, and all were able to do that – I suppose because of experience. If you have a five-man team you can maybe carry one of them, but if you’re carrying more than that you’re in the lap of the gods really. It’s not down to bad luck. 

GP: For yourself, I’m sure you also expected a better Individual result at the WEG than 13th place. Your horse Good Luck jumped very well as usual, but maybe not as impressively as he had last year in Gothenburg at the European Championships...
Yeah, I thought he was good. I’ve had a couple issues with him soundness-wise for the last year, and I’ve been trying to mind him and get him to peak [form]. He jumped well; he was good in that first round – there were 120 starters and only five clears and he jumped clear. Next day he had one down in the second round…. I think he tired a little bit and maybe by trying to have him in good shape, he was a little bit short of match practice possibly. But as I said, the conditions were hard – the heat, everything was difficult for him and by the end of the week he felt empty. It’s hard because championships take their toll and I don’t know how many championships are left in him. He will jump in Grand Prix and stuff, but for the week-long tests, it’s hard. 

GP: It will be the same issue in Tokyo at the 2020 Olympics, with the summer heat and humidity in Japan… 
Yeah, it’s very difficult… I suppose the only difference in Tokyo is that the Individuals will be on the first day, which is a major difference if you're going there. Continued below.

Objective: ride until 2024

Objective: ride until 2024 - Interview: Cian O’Connor, CSI 5* rider and new FEI Athlete Representative for show jumping

With Lillie Keenan at the 2017 Spruce Meadows Masters
Credit : Sportfot

GP: What do you envision now for your upcoming winter season? 
I will refocus; I’ll go to the United Arab Emirates with the horses and jump there in January… And I also have Nicole Walker in Florida – I’ll go and visit her sometimes. And then I’ll go on the Sunshine Tour with both Nicola and the Wachman boys and my own horses and riders – probably 30 horses in total. So we’ll focus on the business, regroup, maybe look for some new horses, and then hopefully by La Baule or something like that, I’ll be back up at the top level and can have a program towards the European Championships in Rottterdam. 

GP: You’re not always taking part in 5* shows – it seems like that’s not always your thing…
No, I suppose it's ‘horses for courses’ – there are 52 weeks a year and when you have a young family, you want to spend time at home. You know, I don’t have a major sponsor that sponsors me to go to shows, so I’m here this week. We’ve watched national classes, I’m always looking for horses and next week I’ll go try out horses. So it's always a question of balancing all the parts of it, and I would like to get to the stage where I have four top horses and can do maybe two shows every five weeks and do well. And sometimes I think you have a better strike rate doing that than doing five shows every five weeks. Your ranking fluctuates, it goes up and down, but thankfully I’ve been in the job long enough that most of the show organizers are very accommodating and I can get into the shows. Also, with the Nations Cups if you’re going well enough, you can get selected…. So it’s question of keeping all the balls in the air – keeping the business running, being able to pay the staff… I’ve had a good career over the last 20 years but I’d like to do two more Olympic Games. I've kind of had it in my head that I’d ride until 2024. I’ll be 45 then and that’ll be a nice time to go. I respect the guys who ride in their fifties and sixties but I don’t think that’s for me…. So my plan now is to rebuild my team of horses, focus on coaching my clients, continue to develop and strengthen my business, and when it’s all over, I’ll have medals and classes that I’ve won, but I also want to be comfortable for myself and for my family. It’s not interesting for me to live in a rented apartment and have a room full of trophies and no financial sustenance. So I look at it totally as a business and sport combined, and as you get older you have to ensure that you have enough to provide for everybody. Next: part 2 of Grand Prix's interview with the new FEI Athlete Representative for show jumping, Cian O'Connor.

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