In the world of showjumping, few names resonate with success and horsemanship quite like Cian O’Connor. With a profound passion for horses instilled in him from an early age, Cian’s journey to becoming a renowned professional rider and trainer has been nothing short of remarkable. For this Olympic showjumper, the love for horses began in his homeland, Ireland., My father used to ride as a hooby” he recalls. “For every young kid in Ireland, horses are very available, and there’s a natural affinity with Irish people. It’s in our blood.”
As he began competing, the technicality of the showjumping stood out for him, “I really liked the competitive side of showjumping and the technical aspect of it”, comments the now 3 time Olympic rider. “In other sports, you get a chance to return from a mistake while in showjumping, if a pole falls down, it’s gone. That’s what makes many days for you to lose and for you to learn to lose. But the good days make it all worthwhile because there’s so much technical work going on to try and produce that masterful performance that culminates in the clear.” For anyone who shares the passion to compete in horse riding, failures are nothing new. Even from a young age, riders learn how to face adversity. “It’s how you deal with them and turn them into positives, it’s what makes resilient people ”, assures the Irishman.
The Karlswood legacy
In 2020, Cian shaped one of his biggest dreams into what is, today, Karlswood. One of the most beautiful and equipped stables in the world and his home, which he shares with his wife Ruth and his two kids Ben and Cara. “It’s a culmination of many ideas and many thoughts and things that I’ve seen around the world, as well as 20 years of hard work. It’s amazing to be able to bring it all together and build something quite unique in Ireland”.
The stables are equipped with everything a horse and rider could dream of. Since its opening 3 years ago, Karlswood has become a renowned brand and a reflection of Cian’s values, most of which he affirms are what took him to choose Roelofsen when looking for the best way to transport his horses all round the world. “We both strive for the same thing: attention to detail and the need for excellence and perfection,” says the Irish showjumper about the Dutch horse truck manufacturer. But it doesn’t only come down to value but also to the quality and trust, “It’s pretty simple, they are always perfect”.
When looking at Cian’s main truck, there’s something that mainly differentiates it from the rest, as three big medals are displayed on the left of his long truck. These correspond to some of his most dear milestones of his career: his two European medals (Bronze individual and Gold team medal) and of course his Olympic medal. When talking about reminiscing about these moments, he goes back to the horses that made it happen: “I’ve been lucky as during my career I’ve come across some very special horses.” In 2012, O’Connor made any sportsperson’s dream come true as he became a bronze individual medalist at the London Olympic Games with the special gelding Blue Loyd. He was a small horse. That was a very special moment, a very special final. He was 0.02 seconds over the time allowed. There was only one double clear. So myself and Gerco Schroder jumped off for the medals.” But there is something different about this medal in comparison to all his other achievements, O’Connor affirms: “I think it touches a man on the street, the Olympics is somewhat different than any other class or championship and to have an Olympic medal really is its own currency”.
At the age of 22, a young Cian O’Connor won the Dublin RDS Horse Show’s Puissance with a small grey but powerful horse named Casper. Trotting back through his personal triumphs, this is one that will always resonate with him. “It is what brought me into the limelight, particularly in Ireland. The red brick wall was 2.25m tall and both riders before me had a brick out of the wall. Casper came down and sailed it over. That’s a memory that would really stick out in my mind.”
Being a professional rider
Nowadays, the name Cian O’Connor resonates behind some of the rising stars in the sport as one of the best trainers out there. “The Olympic Games in London was a bit of a game changer for me, it pushed me along as a trainer after that.” Today he guides riders like the Canadian Nikki Walker, with whom he has been working with for 10 years and has had some great success on the Canadian team in recent years. Additionally, Cian looks after the Wacham siblings: Max, Tom and their younger sister Alice who are stepping up to the highest level of the sport flawlessly. “I’ve been working with all three for six years already now. It’s great. I’ve seen them progress from ponies and pony Europeans Championships to Juniors, Young Riders, Senior team, five star competitions and so on. I’m lucky to work with good people and great horses”.
But he doesn’t believe all these achievements come lightly, ‘success is reward for effort’ a sentence that has become Cian’s motto for everything he aspires to. “It’s a saying that my grandfather, the late Dr. Karl Mullen, used to say to me, and that simple phrase is a sum up of what we do. We put in the effort, we put in the work. Whether that’s searching for the horses, or the work that goes into the horses.”
When talking about what it takes to be a professional rider, the showjumper sums it up: “It’s a balancing act trying to keep all the balls in the air”. For some professionals of the sport it comes down to riding horses, maybe producing them and competing every weekend. For the Irishman the situation is a bit different. As he balances competing at the highest level, mentoring his students and managing Karlswood. Discussing the challenges of maintaining that professional level, Cian explains to us his approach: “In my opinion, the most important thing is to stay current. You can’t live off past glories and you have to spend time finding the right horses. I spend a lot of my time looking around, looking at videos, studying results and trying to find the next upcoming superstar.”
Looking for the perfect horse
Looking for the next great talent is not an easy task. “A good horse is one that has a good mind, is trainable, with good techniques that’s careful and ultimately, for bigger fences, a horse with a lot of power, a lot of scope.” But at the same time, the Irish showjumper admits there’s no such thing as the perfect horse. “Sometimes you’d reach six out of seven qualities from the checklist. Some of these qualities might develop through time or with training, but you will never find that perfect 10 out of 10.”
Reflecting on the evolving nature of the sport, O’Connor emphasises the need to consider changes not only within the horse business but also in the broader world. He attributes the rapid growth of the horse world to initiatives like the Global Champions Tour: “It has brought the sport to a more global stage, and it has augmented participation by increasing the number of five star shows throughout the year. It has increased the prize money and ultimately it’s marked up the price of horses. And as a result of doing that, I suppose it’s somehow become a very different dynamic than it used to be”. While acknowledging the positive aspects of this transformation, he also emphasises the importance of striving for improvement. “Currently, there are many riders who participate at a show every week and sometimes you wonder who’s riding those horses in between.”
Recognising the significance of horsemanship, Cian underlines the necessity of consistent care and management throughout the day. Working closely with his team, the rider emphasises the need for attention to detail, including proper lunging techniques, horse handling, and overall horse management. “The hour that I’m on each horse in a day is the moment where I have full control of how the horse is doing, but it’s what they do the other 23 hours that we need to make sure it’s consistent in terms of how they’re being handled and taken care of.”
Upcoming steps and goals
When discussing upcoming steps and goals, Cian reflects on his aspirations and the potential new additions to his truck’s medal collection. “We’re actively hopeful about the Paris Olympics” but for that, horsepower is needed. “That’s something that we’re working on now, trying to have enough horses and come up with the options and be riding well enough to put ourselves in a position where we can be considered for selection.” The proximity of Paris to Ireland adds to the excitement. “I think that’s something to look forward and work towards to”. But then again, there’s not only the Paris Olympics. “We will have the European Championship, World Championships and other Europeans and then the Olympic Games in LA in 2028. They are all targets and milestones that one would like to achieve. Not only for me but also for the students that I’m working with.”Looking at the short term, O’Connor shares his goals for the second half of the year. “I have a couple of very nice nine year olds to compete on, but they’re a little bit young for a championship, so I probably won’t be on the championship team this year.” With this, Cian emphasises the importance of having the right horsepower, highlighting the need to strategize and plan for the future rather than solely focusing on competing week after week without considering the next year. “I don’t need to be at a show 50 weeks a year; that doesn’t interest me. I’m more focused on strategically having the horsepower so that I can be equipped, whether it’s going to Florida in the new year after Christmas, and then having options that we can aim at the major shows next summer, ultimately with the Olympic Games as a target.”